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 Hatfields were led by William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield (1839""1921). The McCoys were led by Randolph "Ran'l" McCoy (1825""1914). Both family leaders outlived the feud.
The origins of the feud are unknown, but the first recorded instance of violence occurred after a dispute about some razorback hogs. The matter was taken to court, and the McCoys lost. Soon after, an altercation erupted, and within days, Staton Hatfield shot at two McCoy brothers, Sam and Paris. They fired back and killed Staton. However, none of the preexisting bad blood (which compelled the judge to stock the jury with equal numbers of Hatfields and McCoys) was spilled.
Against this background of bubbling resentment, nothing could seem more foolhardy than a love affair between a daughter of Ole Ran'l and a son of Devil Anse. But Roseanna McCoy was not wise. By the best measure, the spring election of 1880 proved her downfall. To mountain folk, elections were great social events. Men came to swap goods and stories, to drink and laugh and doze in the sun. The women grabbed the chance to visit, gossip and show off their gingerbread, a token bribe to influence votes of their choice. All in all, elections were not to be missed. Johnse Hatfield understood that. Though only 18 and a West Virginia resident, he descended on Jerry Hatfield's Kentucky grounds that day dressed in his finest yellow shoes and new mail-order suit. A notorious lady's man whose looks set hearts aflutter, he had romance in mind.
Then he spied Roseanna. Though her age varies from source to source, as does the spelling of her name, she was at least a year older than Johnse, by then a well-established bootlegger with stacks of ignored violations against him in Kentucky. The attraction was instant and magical. Soon Roseanna, considered one of Pike County's most beautiful girls, sauntered away into the nearby bushes with Johnse. The two returned hours later, when the sun was beginning to set and Roseanna realized her brother, Tolbert, had left for home without her.
Panic-stricken and with fear in her eyes, she turned to her new lover. Johnse rose to the occasion, suggesting that she come home with him to the Hatfield cabin. It seemed the only thing to do. But though Roseanna had, quite unexpectedly joined his household, Devil Anse was far from pleased at the idea of the couple's marriage.
Some say he thought Johnse too young. Others swear he simply refused to have his own blood mixed with that of Randall McCoy. Whatever his reason, he turned deaf ears to Roseanna's pleading and when, months later, her mother sent her sisters to beg for her return, Roseanna went, in part, according to some historians, because of Johnse's wandering eye. But her stay with her own family, punctuated by Ole Ran'l's nagging and reproaches, was short-lived.
In desperation, Roseanna fled to her aunt, Betty McCoy, at Stringtown, Ky., a spot closer to her lover and where the two could meet again with no prying brothers' eyes to disturb them. But Roseanna had underestimated the male McCoys. One night, as the lovers rekindled the magic of their attraction, her kinsmen surrounded them, took Johnse prisoner and set out for the Pikeville jail. The alleged destination didn't fool Roseanna, who understood Johnse would be killed at the first convenient spot. In an act of sheer devotion and family disloyalty, Roseanna borrowed a neighbor's horse and rode, hatless, coatless and saddleless, to Devil Anse. Quickly gathering sons and neighbors, he led his forces over a shortcut, cut off the McCoys and reclaimed his son without a scratch.
For her bravery, Roseanna received a cruel reward. From that day, Johnse never again risked returning to her side. Hopeless and pregnant, she went back to the father who considered her ride an unforgivable sin. There, amid hostility and shame, she contracted measles and miscarried her child. To add to her heartbreak, Johnse married Roseanna's 16-year-old cousin, Nancy McCoy, only months later, on May 14, 1881.
In little more than a year, the Hatfield-McCoy feud would burst into flames, perhaps not coincidentally at Jerry Hatfield's home during the 1882 election. There in the shadow of Roseanna's first blush of love, her brothers, Tolbert, Pharmer and Bud, would, without seeming provocation, stab Devil Anse's brother Ellison 26 times and finish him with a shot in the back. After his death three days later, the trio paid with their own lives, tied to paw paw bushes and riddled with bullets, despite their mother's cries for mercy, "Devil Anse," avenged his brother near what is now Matewan, West Virginia. Soon after, when the Hatfields decided someone was leaking their plans, they turned on Nancy McCoy Hatfield's sister, Mary Elliott, bursting into her home and switching her and her daughter with a cow's tail. When her brother Jeff McCoy tried to seek revenge, he was arrested, escaped and quickly shot at the banks of the Tug.
This blood feud would embroil Kentucky and West Virginia for another decade. Between 1878 and 1891, the feud claimed more than a dozen members of these families, including Ellison Hatfield, brother of "Devil Anse" Hatfield. Violence escalated and became headline news. The governors of both Kentucky and West Virginia called up the National Guard to restore order.
Eight Hatfields were kidnapped and brought to Kentucky to stand trial for the murder of a female member of the McCoy clan, Alifair. She had been shot after exiting a burning building that had been set aflame by a group of Hatfields. Because of issues of due process and illegal extradition, even the US Supreme Court was involved. Eventually, the eight men were tried in Kentucky, and all eight were found guilty. Seven received life imprisonment, and the eighth was given a public hanging execution (even though it was prohibited by law), probably as a warning to end the violence. (Thousands of spectators attended.) The families finally agreed to disagree in 1891.
In the popular imagination, the Hatfield-McCoy feud became a curiosity, proverb, and even joke. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain's description of a feud between the Grangerford and Shepherdson families fits this pattern, as does the Harkness-Folwell vendetta (set in the Cumberland Mountains) from O Henry's Squaring The Circle. Many cartoon characters, from Bugs Bunny to Ren and Stimpy, have exploited the apocryphal feud. On June 16, 2003, descendants of the Hatfield and McCoy families signed a truce in Pikeville, Kentucky. This was more of a publicity event than anything else as, in reality, the feud had ended more than a century earlier.
Kentucky Has Had Its Share Of Feuds
Breathitt Co Feud: The Little and Strong families were involved in this feud and it caused Gov Preston H Leslie to send sixty members of the state militia to Jackson on 16 Sept 1874. But, by the time the soldiers were withdrawn in December of the same year, their numbers had grown to five separate companies. A local election controversy in Nov 1878 rekindled the hostilities and Gov James B McCreary had to order the troops back in. They stayed until Feb of 1878. Another feud here involving the Hargis and Marcum families caused this county to be known as the "Bloody Breathitt County"!.
Hargis-Cockrill Feud: This feud took place between 1901 and 1912 between James F Hargis (county judge), Edward Callahan (sheriff), James B Marcum (mayor of Jackson and a University of KY trustee), Gov J C W Beckham, Judge B F French and B D Cox, Jr. There were killings between members of these families which included the killing of Marcum's uncle, Bill Strong, in 1899 earlier. There were conflicts between the Hargises and the Cockrills in earlier years, but the main cause of the feud came from an election in 1910. During the taking of depositions, a breach of the peace occurred. Warrants were issued against Hargis and Marcum and there were many counter-charges. Town marshall Jim Cockrill tried to execute a warrant against Hargis who resisted arrest. Tom Cockrill drew his gun; Hargis saw this as a threat. Several weeks late the feud broke forth and Ben Hargis's brother was killed. B D Cox ws killed 13 Apr 1802; Jim Cockrill on 21 July 1902; Marcum on 4 May 1903. It was impossible to convict Hargis and Callahan of aiding and abetting. Callahan died from shots fired 4 May 1912. More than thirty men and women lost their lives over this fuel. Hargis was unsuccessful in a run for re-election as county judge in 1905 and his son, Beauchamp (Beech) killed him 8 Feb 1908.
Howard-Turner Feud: This feud took place in Harlan Co, KY, beginnning 7 Mar 1882 when Bob Turner, son of the Democratic county chairman George B Turner, was killed by Wix Howard after a disputed over a card game. Howard was acquitted, Turner's brother, Will Turner, made an attempt on his life. Will Turner was forced to leave the state, returned in 1885 and surrendered, but was immediately murdered. Will Jennings tried to ambush the Turner's twice and Alexander and John Bailey, innocent on- lookers, were killed. Howard and Jennings returned to the county and became involved in the whiskey business. They went to Missouri, were tracked back to KY. Howard killed George B Turner Jr in August 1889. Lewis raided the camp of Howard and two more lives were taken. Gov S B Buckner had to send troops to guard the circuit court when this was brought to trial. John Cawood (Lewis's brother-in-law) and Cawood's hired hand were then killed. Lewis killed another man at the mouth of Poor Fork. Jennings was arrested in Missouri, rreturned for trial, given a life sentence. Howard was put in prison in California for robbing a stage coach, extradited to Missouri and in 1894 was hanged for killing a deaf-mute.
Rowan County War: A shooting during the 1884 election began this feud which ended in a gun battle in front of the Gault House. This was also known as the Martin-Tolliver feud. After three years of feuding the battle above spoken of occurred 22 June 1887.
Underwood-Holbrock Feud: Occurred in western Carter Co during 1877- 78. Over 6 lives were claimed - involved the followers of Squire V Holbrook and George Stamper who were determined to exterminate Gen George Underwood's family. The Underwoods were known as the "James- Younger Gang of Kentucky" by many. John P Martin, involved in the Martin-Tolliver feud joined with the Underwoods. James C "Clabe" Jones, a Knott Co feudist of the 1880's, became involved. Governor Jams M Creary sent the militia to the area. Elverton Underwood was murdered 22 May 1879. Squire Holbrook was shot from ambush 5 Sept 1879. William and Jesse Underwood were murdered.
White-Garrard Family Feud: This took place in Manchester, the county seat of Clay County. The town, located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, was opened up because of a salt spring purchased for development after the Revolutionary War by James and Daugherty White of Abingdon, VA. After James Garrard became the second Governor of KY, he received a land grant in 1798, his son opened a salt works in competition with that of the White family. These two families continued fighting and feuding from the 1850's to 1904.
Wright-Jones Feud: Began in Knott County in 1886, carried over into Letcher Co and continued until both clans called a lasting truce about 1895. The feud broke out again in 1897 between the Wrights and the Reynolds families, but eased off in 1900.
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