This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people.
And to find and search for the Our American Stories Podcast, go to the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts. Today we have the story of Esther Reed, a woman whom, during the Revolutionary War, went to great lengths to support the Continental Army. Professor Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina will be sharing with us her story.
Here's Professor Holton. One of my favorite discoveries researching a book on the Revolution was Esther Reed, the woman who stood up to George Washington and, after she died, was plagiarized by Thomas Jefferson, but in a good way. She was born in Britain in 1746, and when she was in her early twenties, she met a young man who was in Britain for a legal education. His name was Joseph Reed, and he was from America.
The two fell in love. The two of them married and they moved back to America together in 1770. One of the amazing things about Esther Reed is just four years after moving to America, we have the first Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, and a bunch of the delegates had dinner with Esther and Joseph Reed.
One of them pronounced her a daughter of liberty — that is, she had already become a solid, enthusiastic patriot for the American cause, even though she'd only lived in America for four years. Her husband Joseph was also a great patriot. He became a secretary to George Washington and then adjutant general in the Continental Army. But that's also what got Joseph in trouble, because in 1776, George Washington, as commander-in-chief, made a mistake. He should have evacuated a fort called Fort Washington on the Hudson River in what's now New York City. And Washington didn't, and the fort was captured with 6,000 men in it. Reed wrote a letter criticizing his commander-in-chief, George Washington, and to his great chagrin, George Washington accidentally, on purpose, opened this letter and saw that his protégé, Joseph Reed, was criticizing him.
And it really put a real pall in their relationship. They continued to work together, Washington and Joseph Reed. In 1779, Joseph Reed became the president of Pennsylvania. That was the highest office in this new state of Pennsylvania during the American Revolution. But I want to take you to the spring of 1780, which was the real low point of the Revolutionary War. Near where I live, down in Charleston, South Carolina, the British captured not only the town of Charleston, but a 6,000-man Continental Army. And there were problems internal to it, too. The soldiers hadn't been paid, and they weren't getting their required amount of food or proper uniforms. And so, as George Washington put it, there was a mutiny and dissension throughout the army. One of the most amazing incidents of desertion was a bunch of Continental soldiers.
Here they are fighting for liberty, but they've just had enough. And so they mass deserted and were going to, this was in upstate New York, and they were going to go to a British fort up near Canada and desert to the other side. And their commanding officer had to resort to sending Oneida Indians, they're one of the six nations of the Iroquois, to go capture these Americans who had tried to desert to the British. And the Oneidas did catch up with them and killed 13 of them.
Some escaped, some were brought back to face justice. It was dark days, and in one sense, it was literally dark days because there was a weird thing that happened in the heavens in May of 1780. In the middle of the day, the sky went dark. And people knew from their almanacs when there was going to be an eclipse, and this was not an eclipse. It just suddenly went dark, and the whippoorwills sounded, and the cocks crowed, and all that. And many people believed, oh my God, we're having darkness in the middle of the day. This is the end of the world. And it sort of made sense given how bad things were going for the patriot side.
It eventually went away, and historians think that what really had happened was forest fires up in Maine had put so much smoke into the air that it blackened the sky farther south. It really sort of symbolizes that these were dark days for the Americans. And this is where Esther Reed becomes part of the story. She wanted to do something to improve the morale of the soldiers that were already enlisted. And so she came up with this idea of getting the women of Philadelphia to go door to door, and raise money, and then divide it up among the troops as a special gift among the soldiers. And it just is a way of telling them that they had not been forgotten. That was her great fear was that, you know, and this happens a lot in our country and as well as other countries.
People who are not having to go fight the war forget about the troops. And she really wanted them to know that they were remembered. But she had a problem in organizing this effort. And that was that women in those days, or at least ladies in those days, weren't supposed to go out knocking on strangers' doors. They really weren't supposed to be in the street alone. And you've been listening to Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina share with us the story of Esther Reed.
And he's setting the table. And people who think we're facing hard times today just don't understand what hard times were, and how what our troops were going through. Well, we could have lost it. They could have just left. And efforts like this from Esther Reed changed the game, changed the calculus, the morale of the troops.
Think about it. They weren't paid. And indeed, they were deserting in mass. When we come back, more of this remarkable story of Esther Reed, the story of the founding of our country and our first war, and our first civil war, here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture, and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life, and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.
Go to hillsdale.edu to learn more. And we continue with Our American Stories. We've been listening to Professor Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina share with us the story of Esther Reed. Esther was born British, but moved to America after marrying her patriot husband, Joseph Reed, who would, by the way, become the president of Pennsylvania. The patriots had experienced some devastating losses in the war, and Esther had begun to worry about the morale of our troops. So she decided to raise money for them, and was encouraging other women to do the same back again as women back when women did not knock on doors.
Let's return to Woody. She had to sell them on the idea of doing this. So she published this extraordinary thing in the newspaper called Sentiments of an American Lady, where she made the case that American women, just like American men, were born for liberty. And she also cited examples of role models, you could say, of women in history who had stepped out and made serious changes. And she mentioned, for instance, Elizabeth, who was one of the most powerful monarchs that England had ever had.
The example of Catherine the Great of Russia, another powerful woman. And she used an interesting expression in her essay Esther Reed did to describe what Catherine the Great and what Elizabeth I had done. And that was, she said they had extended the empire of liberty. She, Esther Reed, was the first person ever to use that phrase, empire of liberty, for an earthly matter.
That is, people had used empire of liberty as a euphemism, an expression for heaven. So she published this essay and got a lot of other women involved. They had a committee of 39, that is three, representing each of the 13 states, and they raised a ton of money. Everything's going pretty well with the fundraising until Esther Reed wrote Commander in Chief George Washington saying, okay, we've raised all this money.
We need to figure out the practical matter. The doctor involved Martha Washington in distributing the money to the troops. And George Washington wrote back saying, hold on. I know my men.
These are mostly guys in their 20s, some younger than that. And if you give them cash money, they're going to go out and blow it on liquor. And so not only will they not have anything of value for that, but I'll have a drunken army to confront the British with. And so I don't want direct gifts of cash to the soldiers.
Here's what I want you to do instead. I want you to go out and buy a bunch of cloth, linen cloth, and you women use that cloth to sew shirts for the soldiers. And Esther Reed wrote back saying, well, we don't want to do it that way because we don't want to give the soldiers something they need. We want to give them something they want. That is the army owes uniforms, including shirts, to its soldiers. And so it's your job, George Washington, she was saying as tactfully as she could.
He was a very intimidating guy even then. It's your job to provide the clothing for the soldiers. So we don't want to give them something they're supposed to be getting anyway.
We want to give them something nice. Well, George Washington wrote back saying, shirts, it should really be shirts. So she did give in and said, okay, we'll make the shirts.
One of the things I discovered was, yes, she gave in on the shirts, but she didn't give in on another matter. And that involves knowing that Pennsylvania politics was very divided. It wasn't Republicans and Democrats then, it was Republicans and constitutionalists and a very different Republican party from the one we have today. Those were her husband's enemy.
He was a member of the constitutionalist party. Anyway, Washington had said, hey, I want you to buy cloth with this money, but I want you to put the money in this new bank, a private bank started by a bunch of these Republican politicians in Pennsylvania. And she wrote back basically saying, but this thing was started by my husband's enemies and if I put the money in there, they're going to give me bank notes and returns of IOUs and that money will be worth less than the money that I put in and that's going to hurt my cause. And so she stood up to George Washington.
She said, no, that makes her a very rare person. She was only 33 years old standing up to George Washington and ladies were not supposed to do that, but they collect all this money, they spend it on cloth and then did comply with what Washington desired about the shirts and the women ended up making 2000 shirts to give to continental soldiers. And one of the fun little flourishes is that each woman showed her name into the back of the shirt.
So the soldier would know if there was one particular woman who had done this for him. And again, her whole point was to show that they were remembered. The saddest part of this story comes on September 18th, 1780 when they're right in the middle of sewing these shirts and when she suddenly came down with a tack of dysentery and died on September 18th of 1780 at the age of only 33.
The campaign continued without her. One of the things to say about Esther Reed's death is that generally when women died in those days, if they were famous like her, she's the wife of the highest official in the state, they'll put an obituary, but they're always very general and really interchangeable. Oh, she was wonderful wife, wonderful mother, but nothing specific about them. But when she died, they did do the generic obituary, but then they also specifically talk about this amazing effort that she had done on behalf of the soldiers. And in fact, the newspaper speculated that one reason for her death was imposing on herself too great a part of the task, like 7,000 soldiers who died of British bullets and another 20,000 soldiers who died of disease during the war in a sense she had given her life for the cause. As I said, the effort continued and it's a good thing it did too because on January 1st, 1781, just a couple months after she died, there was a mutiny among the Pennsylvania soldiers of the Continental Army over all these issues like not getting their pay and not getting proper clothing and food that had been promised to them. And they actually marched towards Philadelphia. The most interesting thing they did to appease the soldiers was they gave each of them a shirt. And so many of these mutinying soldiers was brought back to being a loyal soldier again by being given one of these shirts that Esther Reed and these other women had produced.
So that's one thing that happened after her death. Another thing is that Thomas Jefferson wrote one of his most famous letters. He, of course, is most famous for writing the Declaration of Independence, but he's also coined some of the best known phrases that we use when we talk about the American Revolution today.
And one of those was Empire of Liberty. He was the first person to describe the United States as an empire of liberty. And it's an interesting expression because we don't always associate liberty with empire, but he was hoping that the United States could become an empire of liberty. But you might remember that when I was talking about the essay that Esther Reed wrote in June of 1780 called Sentiments of an American Woman, in that essay, she became the first person to use the phrase empire of liberty for anything other than as a phrase for heaven. And she sent that essay to Martha Jefferson, the wife of Thomas Jefferson, the governor of Virginia. So I can't prove this, but I'm pretty sure that Thomas Jefferson got that phrase, empire of liberty, not out of his amazingly creative brain, but he borrowed that idea from the late Esther Reed. And a terrific job on the production by Faith Buchanan and a special thanks to Professor Woody Holton, professor at the University of South Carolina, and his book, Liberty is Sweet the Hidden History of the American Revolution. And by the way, the role women played, we talk a lot about that here on the show and will continue to do so. American women were born for liberty, Esther Reed said. Those words would make it to Jefferson's pen and change the world. The story of Esther Reed here on Our American Stories.
Should we continue with Our American Stories? Annie Oakley was a shooting star, a magician whose magic wand was a gun. Right-handed, left-handed on a horse through a mirror. She couldn't miss. At a time when women were only expected to fire up the oven, Annie Oakley fired her way to fame as the world's greatest sharpshooter. In her personal life, she was a sharpshooter as well.
She was devoted to her marriage and to her faith. Here to tell the story is Ashley Lubinsky. Ashley is the former cohost of Discovery Channel's Master of Arms, the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearms Museum, and president of the Gun Code LLC.
Here's Ashley. One of the most famous women in American history has become the subject of legend and speculation and adoration. Annie Oakley, who is a famed markswoman that lived in the late 19th through the 20th century, is known for a lot of different colorful history. And she actually comes from really humble beginnings.
She was born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860 in Dart County, Ohio, and pretty much tragedy followed a lot of her younger life. Her father passed away around the time she was eight, and as a means to support her mother and her siblings, she started hunting. And she would be so successful with the hunting that at some point she would pay off her mother's mortgage. So she definitely had a lot of skill even for a very young woman. But as she's doing this, there are a lot of other things that go on in her life that aren't talked about. And one of them is that she suffered from pretty extreme abuse. When she was a little bit older, in 1870, she and her sister were actually sent off to go to a school, and she was kind of, it's almost like indentured servitude without being indentured servitude. She was basically put into this family so that she could work and make money and that they would educate her.
It would have been great had those people not been incredibly abusive and not really held up their end of the bargain for the educational component. So fortunately, she was reunited with her family years later, and she continued to support the family through the means that she knew how through hunting. And it's that sporting part of her life that would ultimately make her famous. And the story goes that in the 1870s, although there are some people that claim it could have been 1881, when she was 15 years old, a famed marksman came into her town and was basically challenging people all over the country, peacocking, if you will, to try to see if people could beat him. You know, he was well known, everybody knew Frank Butler. And it's kind of ironic that people knew Frank Butler then and now we don't really remember Frank Butler, we only know Annie, and partly because she won.
As a teenager, she did accept the challenge. And she beat Frank Butler. And while you might think a lot of men would be a little bit upset about that, he found it very attractive. And he ultimately courted her and they got married about a year later. And they started traveling together and he already had a partner that he was doing kind of shooting exhibitions with.
And so she started kind of traveling along there. And she got her start shooting with Frank. But she quickly got involved with a man named William F. Cody that people tend to know better as Buffalo Bill. And Butler too was a part of all of this, you know, kind of world for Buffalo Bill's Wild West. And he did serve as kind of her manager of sorts, in addition to continue being a world record setting shooter. And so they decide that they're going to join the fanfare and the real movement that becomes Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Now, if you're not familiar with that, it is what we would call a Wild West show, although it's important to note that Buffalo Bill did not call his Wild West ever a show, because he argued that it was a specific reenactment of how the West truly was.
And now they did do stagecoach scenes, they did do different recreated different military battles, but obviously, it was a little bit more glamorized than it really was. But he also employed a huge number of people that he traveled around the world with. So Annie gets to basically see the entire world by the time she's in her early 20s. And she makes a name for herself doing a lot of different things. She does shoot shotgun, which she's super well known for, but she was a pistol shooter. And she was also a rifle shooter.
And so the versatility of what she did is really pretty impressive. One of the things that she would do is she would ride a bicycle. So she did do mounted shooting on a horse, but she would actually ride a bicycle, she was really well known for riding her bike everywhere, it was kind of synonymous with her image. And so she would ride a bicycle and use a shotgun or a smooth bore lever action rifle, a smooth bore lever action rifle is kind of an oxymoron, because it basically is a quote unquote rifle that's been converted to not have any rifling so you can fire a shotgun shot out of it.
It's a little bit safer than using an actual projectile when you are in an arena full of people. So one of the things that she would do, she would do it on horseback, she'd also do it on the bike is that they would launch glass balls into the air and she would shoot them out of the sky. And this type of firearm was actually really important because there's this great, potentially apocryphal story that the reason they switched from solid bullets to shot with these iconic Western firearms was that during a performance in an arena, they actually the bullet went beyond the arena and broke a greenhouse window.
Now, we don't know if that's true, but it's not without the one, you know, outside the realm of possibility. She also carried several revolvers with her and did a lot of tricks with that. But really some of the most impressive things she did was with a 22 caliber so it's a really small caliber lever action rifle.
So it's something that's specifically geared towards target shooting. And one example that I'll give you is on March 10 1893, Annie put on a very memorable display where she fired 25 shots in 27 seconds from this 22 caliber lever action rifle, punching one ragged hole in the middle of an ace of hearts. So pretty accurate and also awesome. And this kind of became synonymous with getting into their performances, that people would basically have these playing cards.
And it was the ace of hearts and it was almost like your free ticket to the theater. So she was able to do speed she was able to do accuracy. And even though you might not be familiar with all of the different firearms and weapons that she utilized, you know, a lot of people know and have seen the images of her holding a rifle backwards looking through a mirror and splitting up playing card in half at distance. She also snuffed out candles and did a whole host of other things. But she wasn't without some difficulties. Now, you would think everybody loved Annie and they did for the most part. And nowadays, she's basically you know, her demure attitude or femininity. That's something that is, you know, totally iconic to so many people.
But what people don't know is that even though she was all these things wholesome, pure, talented, there was a lot of speculation about whether she was as good as she was. And there's a meme that goes around a lot of times. It's a photo of Annie Oakley. And it says when a man hits a target, they call him a marksman. When I hit a target, they call it a trick. I never really liked that very much.
So this is shared everywhere by pretty much everyone. It's a great, you know, statement on the talent of women maybe being subverted by a male dominated culture. However, we don't think she actually ever said that, even though, you know, don't believe everything you read on memes. But there's no evidence that she ever said that direct quote, although we do know from an interview she did with the Rod and Gun and Country House Chronicle, that the interviewer said, you know, do people ever insinuate that there is some trickery about your shooting? Insinuate, she cried. On one occasion, the audience became so persuaded that the targets contain some explosive which broke them as I fired that they appointed a committee to investigate the matter. So she might not have said that really kind of beautifully rounded up quote, but she did know that people sometimes doubted her abilities.
And so much so that I haven't found the evidence of the committee, but I believe her that there was one. And we're listening to Ashley Lebinski tell the remarkable story of Annie Oakley. And when we come back more of Annie's life story here on Our American Stories.
And we continue with Our American Stories and the story of Annie Oakley. Let's pick up with Ashley Lebinski. Ashley is the former co-host of Discovery Channel's Master of Arms, the former curator in charge of the Cody Firearms Museum, and president of the Gun Code LLC.
Here's Ashley. The other thing that she entered a lot of conflict was was there was another very talented shooter in the Buffalo Bills circuit and her name was Lillian Smith. She went by the California Huntress as Annie Oakley went by Annie Oakley and Little Shore shot. And Lillian could not have been more different than Annie Oakley. She was brash, she swore, she wore quote unquote provocative clothing for the time. And she was younger than Annie.
And there's a lot of speculation around the rivalry that they had. But there is a belief that Annie did change her age because she was 11 years Lillian Smith senior when Lillian Smith came on to the stage with Buffalo Bill. And believe it or not, Buffalo Bill really favored Lillian Smith and the media did too. And that's not to say they didn't like Annie, but they really were fascinated by this different type of woman that was also very skilled. And a good example of that actually goes to a performance that Annie Oakley and Lillian Smith did in England. Basically, there was a lot of double standards that were put on to Annie and Lillian. And Annie really felt like the press was kind of cruel to her when she saw Lillian Smith as someone that was boastful, prideful, kind of too out there.
And one example that's really interesting was on a tour of England. Oakley was actually vilified for shaking the hand of Prince Edward's first wife. The funny thing about that was the press kind of they were all over it.
How dare you that's so you know, disrespectful. Lillian Smith also shook her hand. And she received no press on the subject matter. And the feud kept getting worse and worse. And what some people may not know is that Annie actually left Buffalo Bill's Wild West for a period of time while Lillian Smith kind of continued on. She was tired of the favoritism with Buffalo Bill. And she just she had had enough for the time being and she was talented.
She didn't really need them to some extent. But she did have some great times during that initial run. And one of the things was she actually well this is according to the story.
It sounds mildly mortifying, but I believe she could have done it. But she performed for Queen Victoria, King Umberto of Italy, and then the president of France. And the story goes that she allegedly shot the ashes off of a cigarette held by the newly crowned Kaiser Wilhelm II, which in some dark humor, you feel like maybe she could have missed and it would have gotten better for history, but she was too good for that. And so if the story is true, she definitely showed off her abilities for everyone. Annie Oakley does ultimately go back to Buffalo Bill's Wild West.
And she's a part of the performance until 1902. For so many different reasons, Annie Oakley was really ahead of her time. And throughout her life, she would actually be a fierce advocate for women's right to self defense. And there's a lot of images and stories depicting Annie Oakley training women in shotguns and target shooting and self defense. And it's believed that she actually taught over 15,000 women during her lifetime. There's images of her at different firearms clubs with, you know, lines of women learning how to shoot shotgun.
Because according to Annie, she said, quote, I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns as naturally as they know how to handle babies. Now, that might be controversial today, but it was certainly something that she was trying to advocate for safety. And that's something we should always remember that even though it might not be something other people agree with in the culture of the time, this was something that she believed in and worked really hard to teach women to basically take care of themselves in a time when that was a very progressive concept.
And I would say it's fascinating, too, because the firearms market really kind of got behind her on that and were marketing to women for self defense, they were marketing to women to be target shooters in their own culture of the time way. But she really believed that women should be strong, they should be able to protect themselves. And she did so to the point where she wanted women on the battlefield.
And she believed that that's that they could do it. And she supported it, even if the government wasn't ready for that. She also tried to get women more involved in the military. And the first time she did that was she wrote to President McKinley, and 1898. And she offered the government the services of 50 lady sharpshooters who would provide their own arms and ammunition, which is pretty impressive, should the US go to war with Spain.
So we do know that the US did go to war with Spain, the Spanish American War, but the name that we associate with that war is Theodore Roosevelt, and his Rough Riders, although Theodore Roosevelt was also a fan of Andy Oakley. So her initial attempt to get women on the battlefield was denied by the president. And unfortunately, that would come into play during World War One, where she would make a similar offer to have women come and, you know, be a part of the military. And that was denied once again, there's this kind of, if you look at World War One, World War Two history with the involvement of women, a lot of times women would work the communication lines during World War One. And even by World War Two, when women were actually a part of marksmanship units, that was really downplayed.
And other parts of their roles were, you know, what the government wanted to focus on. So she was ahead of her time in that, but she made the offers, even though they were rejected. And she kind of continues to set world records for the rest of her life. But she is very much impacted by a train accident in 1901, where she is greatly injured. There are a few other things that kind of happened around this time period that weakened her ability to continue on as a performer. She was actually locked in a public bathhouse and almost died.
And then the other one was that people argued that perhaps, you know, being around so much ammunition from that time period might have caused a lot of lead poisoning. And so she was wearing wigs towards the end. But one of the things that I really like about the Annie Oakley story is that she and Frank Butler truly loved each other till the very end. You know, you've got a strong, successful man and a strong, successful woman who supported each other throughout their whole lives.
And they end up dying really close together, which is kind of romantic when you think about it. But since her passing, there have been so many popular culture renderings of Annie Oakley, Annie Get Your Gun, which is, I haven't seen it in a long time, but it definitely obfuscates a little bit of Annie's importance in terms of the shooting competition where she does let a man win. But that, you know, kind of took off still popular today. There was a television series that was called Annie Oakley. And nowadays, it's kind of interesting because while, you know, our culture is very divided about a lot of firearms things, Annie Oakley is probably a name that everybody knows, regardless of their involvement with firearms or target shooting. And so she really did bridge that gap between a male dominated community in the late 19th century, and then being someone that people did respect, and that she was a fierce advocate, and that that didn't hurt her reputation when she decided to fight for women's rights. You know, she just was this wonderful character in history, that while there's a lot of legends about who she was, and what she did, and there's a lot of a mythology surrounding the image that Annie portrayed in the time period and how we kind of see her today. She was truly a force to be reckoned with. And we haven't really found other than a rivalry with Lillian Smith, we haven't really felt a lot bad about her. I think the only thing you could possibly say is there's this crazy story about basically she got accused by 55 newspapers of having a cocaine habit, where she was seen in Chicago, trying to steal someone's pants, I think to sell for cocaine. But nobody is going to do that to Annie Oakley.
And it was actually some woman who was using her name with a different spelling and she sued all of those newspapers in 154 out of 51 of those trials. So perhaps it was her fierce ability to stand up for her reputation and who she was, why that's who we remember, and not any gossip that could have happened during the time period in the papers. And a terrific job on the production by Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Ashley Lebinski.
And she is the co-host of the former co-host of the Discovery Channel's Master of Arms. And what a classic American story of rising above your circumstance. Born Phoebe Ann Moses in rural Ohio, her dad dies at the age of eight, and she uses her shooting skills to feed the family. And of course, that leads to that epic challenge where gunslinger Frank Butler comes to town, and Annie beats him. And interestingly, Frank finds that attractive. And still to this day, that's a quality that's sort of rare.
But back in the day, almost impossible. Butler became her manager. There was time at Buffalo Bill's Wild West. What Annie became known for was not only her skill sets with a gun, but her fierce advocacy for women's right to self-defense. She taught 15,000 women over her lifetime. As Lebinski said, she wanted women to handle guns as confidently as they handle babies. A true women's empowerment story, Annie Oakley's story, here on Our American Stories. Thanks for watching.
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