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The Hatfield-McCoy Feud

Men learn to quarrel with one another in the same way they learn to sit a horse or talk to a woman; that is, from their dads.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud (1860-1891) is a legend of Americana that has become a metaphor for bitterly feuding rival parties, something like an Appalachian Capulet-Montague rivalry, involving two warring families of the West Virginia-Kentucky backcountry along the Tug Fork River, off the Big Sandy River. The Hatfields lived on the West Virginia side of Tug Fork, and the McCoys lived on the Kentucky side.

Both families were part of the first wave of pioneers to settle the Tug Valley. Both were involved in manufacturing and selling illegal whiskey. The world was fascinated with the story of the two clans. The McCoys were led by Randolph "Ran'l" McCoy (1825-1914) (known as "Old Randall") and The Hatfields were led by William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield (1839-1921) (called "Devil Anse," though exactly why isn't known). Both family leaders outlived the feud. There's never been a family feud quite like the one between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Though the tale has grown to almost mythical status ... it has its origin in fact. "Devil Anse" was a tough guy, and he was a leader of men. What I sort of say is that Devil Anse was a man who took life by the horns, and Randall seems to be a guy that life took him by the horns."

A true story of lust and  love, murder and revenge, money and greed.  A series of events that led to Americas most famous feud and the re-kenneling of the Civil War. The romancing of the “Juliette of the Mountains”, the thief of a pig, the killing of a witness, the murder of a brother and three bodies tied to a pawpaw bush ignited the most well know family feud on earth.

The feud history itself is still something that is hotly contested. While there remains no hostility between the families. Along with those who study the Hatfields and McCoys history there are some things still to feud over.

It is believed that at a young age, Cline was robbed of 5,000 acres of land by Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield in a court ruling. Some claim that Cline flamed the anger of the McCoys against the Hatfields for revenge. Cline is often demonized by those who support this view, with some writers blaming him for the feud altogether. Supporters of Cline often paint a more desirable image of him, believing that he was simply helping the McCoys in their struggle for justice. Cline was responsible for the establishment of the first school for African Americans in Pike County, and there are a few streets in Pikeville City that bear his name, or that of his wife Martha. Cline was a successful politician as well, attaining the position of Kentucky State Representative. While these facts do not prove or disprove claims that he was solely, or at least in some way responsible for the feud, they do serve as a reminder that human history can be a complex thing to study.

The image of “Crazy” Jim Vance being a loose cannon is seared into many of our minds after watching the heinous things his character did on the miniseries. He is often portrayed as an outlaw who did not value human life outside of the Hatfield clan, and is portrayed by many as being the leader of the New Years night massacre of the McCoys. Dotson claims that the historical Vance may have not been known as “crazy”, but by the more loving name “uncle.” His support for Vance’s historical portrayal includes many interesting facts, such as Vance being appointed constable in 1870. This does bring up a unique historical conundrum, as Vance is believed to have been an outlaw according to Pike County law, with Kentucky’s own Special Deputy “Bad” Frank Philips being the one who took his life during a skirmish. Even then, Vance’s reputation may have been a case of “it depends on who you ask.”

As with many other feud related personalities, “Bad” Frank Philips is a complicated character to understand. Feud lore portrays Philips as a gunslinger anti-hero (or villain in some cases) with a variety of wild stories involving women, alcohol and excessive force. There are some historians who believe that Philips was not “bad” at all, but rather took the necessary measures needed to wrangle up one of the Tug Valley’s most dangerous gangs, the (bad) Hatfields. After all, this was post Civil War era in the battle line state of Kentucky. Law was being reintroduced to the area, and as with the Wild West, the Appalachian region struggled to recover from the chaos of war. Philips was commissioned by Kentucky State Government to track down and arrest Hatfields. When extradition laws got in the way of Philips accomplishing his mission, the United States Supreme Court sided with Kentucky. Philips served as Deputy Sheriff, and last week, was recognized in the unveiling of the Pike County Courthouse’s Fallen Police Officers Memorial alongside other officers who fell in the line of duty. The Phillips family has since been known to serve in law enforcement and education with much success. This may not be a testament to his character, but it does make one wonder about the “bad” label.

Probably the most complex character in feud history, Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield’s reputation includes a variety of traits that make for an interesting personality. I have been told that he was “six feet of devil and 180 pounds of hell”, who staved off a Yankee attack by himself at the battle of Devil’s Backbone. He kept bears as pets, was politically connected and used fear and intimidation to influence Pike County politics. He is considered the feared leader of the Hatfield clan. He has also been described as a peaceful family man who only reacted to Randolph McCoy and sought to extinguish the feud before it grew out of control. Devil Anse supporters claim his hand was forced due to the murder of his brother, Ellison Hatfield. A portion of feud enthusiasts question Devil Anse’s authority, and claim that he was nowhere near as instrumental in the feud as Wall Hatfield, his older brother, or his uncle Jim Vance. In fact, some claim his preferred weapon of choice was the courtroom, as he was involved in various disputes over land and logging rights. Despite being relatively easy to locate, Devil Anse was never brought to trial for anything involving the murders of McCoys or any other feud activities. Does this mean he was not directly involved? This is where the debate ensues.

I would gamble to say that the romanticized Roseanna/Johnse forbidden love story or the hog trial tends to be the most widely believed origin. However there are a variety of solid reasons for what brought about America’s most famous feud. Those who believe the McCoys were victims tend to claim that the murder of Asa Harmon McCoy, although more than a decade before the hog trial, is the starting point of the feud. The Civil War dynamic of the murder (Harmon was a Union Soldier, “Feuding Hatfields” were confederate sympathizers) certainly makes sense, and I am told history shows no instances of feuds in Appalachia before the Civil War. As mentioned above, the land dispute between Perry Cline and Devil Anse is sometimes cited as the feud’s true purpose, with Randolph McCoy being a pawn of Cline’s to get revenge on Devil Anse. It has been suggested that economic factors played a significant role in the feud, with the lesser well-to-do McCoys being jealous of the Hatfield’s logging enterprise. Those who believe the Hatfield’s were victims say that the murder of Ellsion Hatfield, Devil Anse’s brother, marked the beginning of the feud. Historian Altina Waller suggests there was no feud at all, but that the “trouble” that occurred was sensationalized by the media of the day, bringing the feud label. All in all, let us be glad that the “feuding” of today is limited to learning and establishing historical truth, with education being the driving force.

The Hatfield-McCoy Feud, a prolonged vendetta between neighboring families in the Tug Valley, was fought largely in the 1880s. The Hatfields lived mostly in Logan County (including present Mingo) in West Virginia, and the McCoys lived mostly across the Tug Fork in adjacent Pike County, Kentucky. Both families were deeply rooted in the region and extensively intermarried with other families and with each other; several surnames were represented in the struggle, and Hatfields and McCoys were involved on both sides. The affair was the most notorious of several feuds taking place in eastern Kentucky and neighboring areas at the time.

The earliest known violence between the families was the January 1865 murder in Pike County of Harmon McCoy, a Union army veteran and brother of Randolph McCoy. Harmon was believed to have been killed by the Logan Wildcats, a band of Confederate guerrillas usually led by Devil Anse Hatfield. While contributing to hard feelings which later found outlet in the feud, McCoy’s murder was typical of bushwhacker violence throughout the border states during and after the Civil War.

Then in the late 1870’s, Devil Anse Hatfield got into a land dispute with Perry Cline, Randle McCoy’s cousin. Devil Anse won the land dispute and took 5,000 acres from Cline. In 1878, Randolph McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing a hog. Both were Pike Countians, and the resulting trial was held at the home of their neighbor, Anderson ‘‘Preacher Anse’’ Hatfield, who was a Baptist minister and justice of the peace. Floyd Hatfield prevailed when Bill Staton, though Randolph McCoy’s nephew, testified in favor of Hatfield, and juror Selkirk McCoy, Randolph’s cousin, provided the decisive vote for acquittal. Staton was harassed following the trial, then killed by brothers Sam and Paris McCoy, also nephews of Randolph.

Tensions increased at the spring 1880 elections at Blackberry Creek in Pike County, two years after the Hog Trial. Devil Anse’s son, Johnse Hatfield, visiting from Logan County, slipped away from the election grounds with Randolph McCoy’s daughter, Rose Anna. Their off-and-on relationship, which may have produced an illegitimate child, galled both families for years to come. Two youngster in “heat’ ignited a firestorm.  At a community celebration Devil Anse’s son Johnse Hatfield met Randle McCoy’s daughter Roseanna.  Pretty as a flower and softer than fresh snow on a hillside, Roseanna McCoy’s mystical beauty could not be resisted.  After one night together, the couple decided they wanted to get married.  Roseanna came home with Johnse to his fathers mountain home.  Devil Anse allow them to live together at the house but would not let Johnse marry Roseanna.  Roseanna soon became pregnant with Johnse’s baby.  Eventually she realized Johnse wasn’t going to marry her and she left the Hatfield home.  However, her father refused to take her back in and she went to live with her Aunt Betty.  Shortly after moving in, Roseanna gave birth to her baby but it died of the measles at age eight months.  Then six months after the death of the baby, Johnse married Roseanna’s cousin, Nancy McCoy.   Randle McCoy swore revenge for the dishonor.  Roseanna McCoy to this day is known as the “Juliette of the Mountains”.

Much worse trouble ensued at the Blackberry Creek election in 1882. Devil Anse’s brother, Ellison Hatfield, was mortally wounded in a drunken brawl by three McCoy brothers, apparently in an argument over a small debt owed on a fiddle. Tolbert, Pharmer, and Randolph McCoy Jr., sons of Randolph, were captured by the Hatfields. Once Ellison died of his wounds, the three boys were tied to pawpaw bushes on the Kentucky side of the Tug and shot dead. Anse and a posse intercepted the McCoys brothers as they were being taken to a Kentucky jail and escorted them back to West Virginia.  Ellison was still alive and, according to Anse, the three McCoys would live only if Ellison survived.  The following day Ellison died.  Anse and his followers then transported the McCoy brothers across the tug River to Kentucky, tied them up to several pawpaw trees and shot them.    Indictments were issued for Anse and several others, but for five years no legal action was taken.  Several armed confrontations followed throughout the years with family members and followers being ambushed and their lives taken in  revenge.

Following the killings of 1882, the feud simmered as McCoys attempted unsuccessfully to have Hatfields arrested and tried in the courts. Perry Cline, a Pikeville lawyer who had previously disputed with Devil Anse over valuable timberlands, persuaded the governor of Kentucky to request extradition from Governor E. W. Wilson of West Virginia. Wilson refused, then and later, and at times it appeared that there might be armed conflict between the two states.

Then in 1887 he McCoy family gains influence with Kentucky’s new governor.  They tried to extradite Devil anse and posted a reward for his capture. The McCoys suffered another great loss on the night of January 1, 1888, when Hatfields led by Devil Anse’s uncle, Jim Vance, set fire to the family’s Pike County cabin. Calvin and Alifair, Randolph McCoy’s grown children, were killed, and their mother, Sarah, severely bludgeoned. This atrocity brought matters to a head, putting the Hatfields on the defensive for the duration of the conflict, hunted in their own West Virginia neighborhoods. Vance was soon killed by a posse of Kentuckians led by McCoy partisan Frank Phillips, and the two sides fought a fever pitched battle at Grapevine Creek, near present Matewan, on January 19.

Eventually four Hatfield sons and others were indicted for the cabin raid, and their cousin, Ellis "Cottontop" Mounts, was hanged in Pikeville, February 18, 1890. Ultimately, after court cases that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, eight of the Hatfield gang got life in jail. "There needed to be blood for blood, and he was the sacrifice," said Richardson.

Did that finally end the feud? It had gotten to the point where they were tired of it, and they decided 'no more,'. There were a few skirmishes after this, but basically that is the end of the feud. Both Randall McCoy and Devil Anse Hatfield lived until their 80s, their feud becoming the stuff of American legend.

Even today, their descendants marvel at all in the interest in the Hatfields and the McCoys. And 150 years later, we're still talking about it. "You've got these amazing characters doing these unbelievable things on this Shakespearean scale," said Richardson. "You've got love stores, murders, the Civil War. It just keeps on giving.

The most infamous feud in American folklore, the long-running battle between the Hatfields and McCoys, may be partly explained by a rare, inherited disease that can lead to hair-trigger rage and violent outbursts. Dozens of McCoy descendants apparently have the disease, which causes high blood pressure, racing hearts, severe headaches and too much adrenaline and other “fight or flight” stress hormones. No one blames the whole feud on this, but doctors say it could help explain some of the clan’s notorious behavior.

The Hatfield-McCoy Feud was exacerbated, especially in its later stages, by enterprising detectives, imperfectly deputized posses, sensationalizing newspaper men, and meddling lawyers. Historians, novelists, playwrights, and script writers have scarcely let it rest in the years since. Various explanations have been offered, including differences originating in the Civil War and strains caused by the rapid industrialization of the region. None adequately explains the depth of bitterness and the amount of blood shed between neighbors on the Tug Fork.

They lived on either side of the Tug Fork River.   ”Devil Anse” Hatfield of West Virginia and Randolph “Ranel” McCoy of Kentucky. Located in the rough and rugged Appalachian mountains,  the two families of spirited stock and mountain pride were locked  together in a deadly battle of murder, revenge and honor.   Friends and family chose sides and prepared to die as each clan perpetuated the “blood” feud.

West Virginia and Kentucky were preparing to go to battle as the Myths and Legends of the bloody “ Hatfield and McCoy Feud “ were born. Stories are told by people over the years, but none are as real as the story of the Hatfields and McCoys. Truly one of the longest standing family feuds in recorded history. Full of heartbreak, love and loss.

Legends say that the blood was shed and  lives were taken because of a “girl” and a “pig”.  This tragedy of love only represented part of the story.  The Confederate and Union conflict added salt to the wound.  Greed, politics and murder capped it off.  Like dynamite in a dark, damp coal mine, it was ready to explode.

In the backcountry of the Appalachian Mountains, family pride and honor mattered more than life itself.  Love, lust and romance crossed all boundaries of hate  and “blood” became the common enemy.  Moonshine, coal mining, timber, hard work  and poverty were the stables of life;  family pride  was the honor of both families. In all, around a dozen people died during the feud. Born from the Code of the Hills, a body of unwritten rules about vengeance, vigilantes, and hillbilly conduct holding that, for instance, if you knock up my sister, I'll burn your house down.
Ken Sullivan. The Hatfield-McCoy Feud. The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 04 October 2013.

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