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Pawnee Bill Ranch

Lillian Smith

2014-02-11

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Anna: Thank you for downloading the Pawnee Bill Ranch podcast, brought to you by the staff of the Pawnee Bill Ranch.

Erin: Welcome to the Pawnee Bill Ranch podcast. I'm Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch curator

Anna: And I'm Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch historical interpreter. Now, Erin, it's no surprise that we, and probably our audience, love a good cowgirl!

Erin: Yes, and we also love a good character and today's podcast combines the two because we are going to bring our listeners the fantastic story of Lillian Smith, cowgirl entertainer extraordinaire.

Anna: I love Lillian Smith.

Erin: Me too!

Anna: Lillian Smith is one of those women who seemed extremely comfortable in her role as a cowgirl. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she had no qualms about hanging out with rough and tumble cowboys or cavorting with men. One of the reasons that we love the stories of historic cowgirls is because they were mostly indomitable spirits! They were wildly independent and acted outside the bounds of what was considered lady-like or what was considered appropriate for a woman at the time.

Erin: Yes, cowgirls are fun to read about and learn about because they were trailblazers and they were courageous because it took a great deal of bravery and self-determination to make a way for yourself in a male-dominated field in a male-dominated world. Lillian Smith is definitely one of those unforgettable and fascinating Wild West Show characters that really typify that Wild West cowgirl spirit.

Anna: So take your Victorian conventions and throw them out the window!

Erin: Definitely!

Anna: I think one of the things that people will find when we talk about Lillian, and really any performer in the Wild West Show, is that they loved the attention that they received and they had talent to back up their strong personalities and boasting claims. Lillian was one of the best shots in the world. It wasn't just something that she talked about, she really was. And I think her life shows that sometimes talent alone is not enough to make a happy life.

Erin: Lillian Francis Smith was born on February 3, 1871 in Coleville, Mono County, California. Lillian was what can only be described as a tomboy growing up and playing with dolls absolutely did not interest her. At the age of seven, she asked her father for a "little rifle" to play with.

Anna: A little rifle.

Erin: I want a little rifle, daddy. By the age of 10, she started performing. Her father, Levi, started entering her in turkey shoots where she shot so many turkeys that the organizers had to tell her to stop to give the boys a chance. Her father actually offered $5000 to anyone that could beat her. An offer was even extended to Doc Carver, one of the best marksmen of the time, to meet up with Lillian in St. Louis for a contest. He never showed and the legend of Lillian Smith was born.

Anna: Now we're not quite certain how Buffalo Bill found her. He is quoted as saying that he discovered her in a San Francisco shooting gallery in 1886 and from there he recruited her to join his Wild West Show. At this time she was about 15 years old. She became known as the California Girl or the California Girl Shot of the West. The original plan was to have her stay on while they were at Staten Island during the summer of 1886, but her personality and flash seemed tailor made for the Wild West Show. She was an instant hit and this led to a career devoted to shooting and show business. Lillian was a flashy dresser. She liked white dresses with yellow sashes and huge feathered hats and she was very boastful in her personality. But it was all backed up with an incredible talent. Buffalo Bill really thought that she was going to be the star that carried his show into the future and that caused a lot of problems with one of his other stars.

Erin: Yes, I think that as with most situations where you have two women who are famous and talented and working together, people just sort of kind of assume that there is tension. Now, in all cases that's not necessarily true, but it was extremely true in the case of Lillian Smith and Annie Oakley. Their feud was legendary. While the newspapers reported that they got along like best friends, they disliked each other immensely right from the beginning. Oakley was already working for Buffalo Bill when he hired Lillian Smith. Before Lillian, Annie had never had a female rival. She had made a name for herself by competing and winning against men. Lillian Smith was a completely different animal. Annie Oakley favored the shotgun, Lillian Smith, the rifle. Annie Oakley was a ground shot, Lillian Smith was an especially great horseback shot. The rivalry was not a friendly one, and most resources say Lillian Smith's rough around the edges personality was really the reason.

Anna: Yeah, cause Annie was very feminine and was kind of offended by things that went against the Victorian norms of what women should do. And Lillian Smith was also a braggart and she was quoted as saying many times, "Now that I'm in the Wild West, Annie Oakley is done for." She was not refined like Annie Oakley. Annie really helped to create the stereotype of the prairie beauty and Wild West Show promotional material kind of downplayed any masculine associations with her actions. Annie Oakley still managed to maintain the standards of what was deemed lady-like, but Lillian Smith cussed and wore flashy clothes and she liked men. She was felt at home with the cowboys and the Native Americans with the show and this really flew in the face of Oakley's conservative behavior. Lillian had this air of uncultivated gruffness about her. When a newspaper ran a story where Lillian had supposedly given this very eloquent and polished interview, another newspaper was quoted as saying that Lillian sounded more like this. And I'm not making this up. This is an actual quote…"Swing de apple dere, young fellers, an let me bust his skins."

Erin: Oh my goodness, there is just something so endearing about Lillian Smith and I think it is that she was just unabashedly herself. She was out there. She was who she was and if you didn't like it, you could just get out of her way. You just can't help but love a woman who defied convention and lived life on her own terms. Even more damning to Smith was that she was a shameless flirt. She liked men and wasn't ashamed to admit it or show it. You know, Anna, gossip is not a modern invention and in the Wild West Show circuit, gossip was a favorite past time.

Anna: I think it still is today, actually.

Erin: Yeah. Word quickly spread that Lillian Smith was a bit promiscuous and had a pretty impressive and lengthy list of lovers.

Anna: She had at least four husbands in her lifetime. She had a string of relationships that didn't work out. Her first husband was a man named Jim Willoughby, a performer with the Wild West Show. He was a cowboy who performed under the name Jim Kidd. He was one of her biggest promoters and it seemed that he really loved Lillian. When the rivalry heated up between her and Annie Oakley, Jim Kidd got some friends from California to write some not so flattering things about Annie Oakley in the press, while giving high praise to Lillian. Lillian, however, thanked her husband in 1889 by running off with a cowboy named Bill Cook, one of his very good friends.

Erin: Oh, Lillian. One thing that Lillian Smith did have in her favor was her age. Lillian was 15 when she joined the Wild West Show, and Annie Oakley was 26. Still pretty young. Oakley might have felt insecure about competing against a younger woman who was obviously popular with the male contingent. This age difference was apparently so much of a thorn in Oakley's side that she changed her birthday. Annie Oakley became six years younger overnight! She also had new show clothes made to draw try to draw attention her way.

Anna: I love her show clothes. It was literally a skirt that said Oakley on the side of it.

Erin: We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but Lillian Smith was not what you would call a traditional beauty. She was also not petite like Oakley. She had a tendency to gain weight. She liked to drink and those were problems that would plague her for much of her life. Oakley would make comments, like public comments about her figure and kind of ridicule her for it. She would state that Lillian's coarseness and ample figure would never give her long lasting fame. This really shows the pressure Oakley felt having to work alongside and compete with Lillian Smith.

Anna: Smith never received the status that Annie Oakley did and her reported "difficult" personality might have been part of the blame. But even though she never reached Oakley's level of fame, Lillian shooting feats and her professional achievements deserve recognition. She was unbelievably skilled. Like I said earlier, she could boast and she could back it up. She could break ten glass balls on strings swinging from a pole and then shoot the strings without missing. She broke 72,800 swinging balls in six days without a miss.

Erin: That's incredible!

Anna: The more incredible one was that she shot 300 swinging balls in 14 minutes and 33 seconds using a single load .22 rifle. She was truly amazing!

Erin: Truly. Now the trouble between Lillian and Annie came to a head when the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show traveled to London in 1887. Both women were given equal billing in the programs and advertisements, and that really upset Annie Oakley.

Anna: That was a big no-no.

Erin: Yeah. They were presented to royalty from all around the world. Annie Oakley got some public criticized for shaking the hand of the Princess of Wales, which is a no-no; while Lillian got praise for taking time to show her rifle off to Queen Victoria.

Anna: According to Lillian she and Queen Victoria were the best of friends after that.

Erin: The press was just merciless and it didn't help that friends of Lillian were placing less than favorable articles about Annie in the press. Buffalo Bill refused to intervene. He refused to comment on the newspaper articles and he left it completely up to Frank Butler, Annie's husband, and Nate Salisbury, Cody's business manager, to try to control the situation. Cody's silence reportedly wounded Annie very deeply.

Anna: Now, if Buffalo Bill was one thing, it was a showman and he had to have known that the controversy was only creating more interest in the shooters and that's probably one of the reasons that he remained silent. We don't know why he didn't comment, but that definitely might have been the point. Annie Oakley would get her chance at revenge, though, when she and Lillian were invited to shoot at Wimbledon in London. Now Wimbledon was a very prestigious shooting event and it was normally only for men so to have Lillian and Annie show up was a very big deal. Lillian Smith arrived first with her rifle and she had the worst showing of her career. It was an embarrassment for this woman who had been so boastful and had such talent. In fact, her showing was so bad that rumors started to emerge among the Wild West show circuit that she was cheating in her act in the show. Now there's no evidence that she was cheating, but I guess her performance there was horrible.

Erin: And what we probably think is that she just had a bad day. You know, she just had a very bad day because to have cheated her whole life prior to that would have really been impossible and no one to have noticed. I think she was truly a talent and just had a terrible day.

Anna: In fact, Lillian was so embarrassed and so frustrated with herself that she just stormed off the field at Wimbledon and left in this huge huff. So, when Annie Oakley arrived two days later, people were expecting her to shoot the same way. Annie showed up using a rifle instead of her shotgun.

Erin: Ooh…just like Lillian.

Anna: Just like Lillian. And she shot so well Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales, stepped forward to congratulate her and she was the toast of London after her performance.

Erin: Relations between Lillian Smith and Annie Oakley deteriorated so much that Oakley refused to travel with Buffalo Bill's Show. She left London and joined Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show for a season. This was thrilling for Lillian and it gave her the chance to gloat that she had driven the great Annie Oakley away. It didn't last.

Anna: No…

Erin: Eventually, Cody realized that Smith would never be the draw for him that Oakley was and so the two women basically traded places. Smith joined Pawnee Bill's Show and Oakley joined back up with Buffalo Bill. It was during her time after leaving Buffalo Bill's show that Lillian underwent a transformation, figuratively and literally. When she appeared on the Pawnee Bill show circuit, Lillian began billing herself as Princess Wenona, an Indian princess/rifle prodigy. She had either tanned her skin a deep brown and she probably wore brown face like a dark makeup to make herself appear darker, she dyed her hair black, she wore it in braids and she traveled for years with Pawnee Bill's show and with the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch, mostly as Princess Wenona.

Anna: When she styled herself as Wenona, the "Sioux princess" she claimed to be the daughter of a great chief named "Crazy Snake," and this has definitely raised some eyebrows from people in later generations about whether or not she was Native American. What we can say for sure about Lillian Smith is that in the 1880 census, by race, she was listed with an I – which was the symbol for Indian.

Erin: And she would have only been nine at the time.

Anna: Yeah, so her parents were the ones telling the census takers what race they were.

Erin: And this was before she was a performer so there was no reason publicly to declare her an Indian.

Anna: Yeah and we've also seen it recorded that she was a student on the roster of Carlisle Indian School, but we've never actually seen physical evidence of that. We do know that in her will, she requested to be buried in her Indian clothing. The area of California that she was born and raised in was known for having a band of Northern Paiute that had settled there, but there is so little on Lillian's history that it's really hard to say that she was a member of that band.

Erin: Right, it's really hard for us to say whether Lillian Smith really had American Indian ancestry, but she certainly attracted audiences both with her brash personality, her amazing talents, and her portrayal of an Indian princess. Audiences were drawn to Lillian Smith AKA Princess Wenona because she represented something that was really exciting and a little foreign. She was a woman, she was outspoken, she was talented, and when she was Princess Wenona, she was a little exotic and intriguing. It wasn't hard to see why the public would have wanted to see her. I don't think it was just a happy accident that she adopted the name "Princess Wenona." By calling herself a princess, she set herself apart. She made herself special and tried to become more unique than the other native woman in the show. She saw the advantages to being a princess and she ran with it. I mean the Wild West Show has never been accused of being completely honest in any way.

Anna: No, definitely.

Erin: She even toured with Pawnee Bill's show with her last husband, Frank Smith and had an act called "Wenona and Frank – the World's Champion Rifle Shots." And…as part of it, get ready for this…she shot the ashes off of his cigar while he was smoking it – I love it! I think we should possibly revive that one for our modern reenactment. Kidding!!

Anna: Now, we don't know why she chose the name Princess Wenona, but we do know that there was a book published shortly before her birth that had a character in it named Princess Wenona who was a Native American princess. So, whether or not that influenced her, we really don't know. And for some reason, the marriage with Frank ended in divorce, as had all of her others. Frank, it almost seemed, had been the man that Lillian really loved and respected. They had a great time together, they had a lot of common interests, and it was her longest lasting marriage. She never truly got over their split. Before Frank she had married a performer from the 101 Ranch named Eagle Shirt who was a Sioux of mixed heritage. There was at least one other husband before Eagle Shirt named Wayne Beasley, who was another cowboy from the 101 Ranch. So, she liked her cowboys. When the shows had ended, Lillian settled in Ponca City, living much of her later life in a cabin on the property of the 101 Ranch. By 1911, she was kind of forgotten by the public and she was kind of in this really lonely existence. But it was also at that time that she met one of her most interesting partners…a man named Emil Lenders. Emil Lenders was a well-respected wildlife artist. London born, German raised and he was the man who painted several of the bison pieces in the mansion that we currently have today.

Erin: Emil was quoted as saying that he had found sunlight in Oklahoma. What started out as a friendship turned into love and Lillian and Emil started a romantic relationship. The only problem…Emil was married. His wife, Eva Day, and their young daughter refused to give up their home in Philadelphia and they never moved to Oklahoma. In 1922, the Miller brothers deeded a portion of the land south of Bliss, OK to Lenders and he and Lillian created The Thunderbird Ranch. She even tried to develop her own show with Lenders as her manager. It was called "Princess Wenona's Western Show," but it apparently was not successful. By 1926, Emil had left Lillian and moved his artist studio into Ponca City, leaving Lillian alone. Lillian seemed to be one of those people that loved love but we can also see that she would be incredibly hard to live with on a daily basis. She loved the excitement of being in a relationship but her moods changed quickly. She was not the most stable person.

Anna: We're not really sure why her relationship with Emil ended. Lillian didn't really have any friends outside of the cowboys that she knew on the 101. She had one really good female friend, Jane Woodend, who was another cowgirl who was living out her days in obscurity on the 101. Bill Pickett, the famous cowboy, would drop by to see her from time to time, making sure that she was alright, give her the things that she needed and make sure really that he was giving her the respect that a woman with her talents deserved. And sometimes a few of the Millers would stop to see her and talk about the old show days, but that was really about it. It was really sad. Even her faithful pony, Rabbit, who had been by her side for 25 years died in 1928.

Erin: The end of her life was really tragic. Lillian lived simply surrounded by her chickens and dogs in a cabin on the 101 Ranch. She was sort of viewed as an eccentric – kind of an outsider in the oil-rich Ponca community.

Anna: I read that when she went into town, she would be followed by a group of chickens and dogs wherever she went.

Erin: Yeah, and people just sort of crossed the street the other way when she came by. The winter of 1930 was the one of the coldest winters on record for Oklahoma. There were several consecutive days of below-zero temperatures and it was too much for a broken-spirited and probably broken down bodied Lillian Smith. Lillian Smith, the California Girl, died on February 3, 1930, her 59th birthday.

Anna: That's really said.

Erin: Yeah, she was too young. Too young to die like that. She died alone and broke. So, it was a really tragic end to a really interesting life. The Millers were out of town when she died and a Miller cousin was put in charge of the funeral. He felt it was important that she have a Christian service and a proper burial so he enlisted a local minister to conduct her funeral. Very few attended and the pallbearers were cowboys from the 101.

Anna: Now we all know that Annie Oakley's name lives on in the halls of famous female performers and she is really credited with helping to pave the way for women in show business. But Lillian Smith has not enjoyed such a triumphant page in the history books. She really kind of settled into obscurity not only in her life, but also after she died. She was buried in an unmarked grave and didn't even have a headstone until the 101 Ranch Association raised money for a headstone in 1999. I have to say that her headstone is absolutely gorgeous. The woman that had so many different names made it known as a final request that she be buried under her maiden name, Lillian Smith. The tombstone honors this and it also has all the shows that she ever performed for, all the names she ever performed under and all of her unbeaten records. It's a flashy headstone for a flashy woman and we think that she probably would have absolutely loved it.

Erin: Yeah, no doubt that Lillian Smith who was performing in the heyday of her career would have absolutely adored that big huge headstone. And it's really great that the 101 Ranch Association pulled together to get that for her. She deserved it.

Anna: Definitely.

Erin: So that concludes our interpretation, kind of the condensed version of Lillian Smith AKA Princess Wenona's life. She deserved to have her story told because she was a trailblazer in her own right.

Anna: Well, we thank you for listening. We are cooking up a really good episode for next time. As always, I'm Anna Davis.

Erin: And I'm Erin Brown. Thank you. Until next time.

Anna: The Pawnee Bill Ranch is owned and operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. For more information, go to www.pawneebillranch.com or find us on Facebook under Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum.