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What Fueled the Famous Feud Between the Hatfields and McCoys?

Hatfield and McCoys
Randolph "Randall" McCoy (left) and William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield (right) were the patriarchs of the two families who feuded for decades. Library of Congress/HowStuffWorks

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For somewhere around 150 years, the Hatfields and the McCoys have been synonymous with bad neighbors. Theirs is the quintessential American feud, in all its glorious pettiness and startling violence.

The very true story of the Hatfields and McCoys, though, goes well beyond simple fighting and killing. The feud literally reached across borders, reflecting a tumultuous time in American history that bridged the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution. It was a period in which the country itself — and, certainly, much of misunderstood and still largely misrepresented Appalachia, the setting of the Hatfield-McCoy feud — was torn between past and future.

Plus, the feud featured a love story. Romeo and Juliet had nothing on young star-crossed lovers Johnson "Johnse" Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy.

"I'm a native West Virginian. I grew up around the history. My specialization is Appalachian history," says Charles "Chuck" Keeney III, a history professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College in Mount Gay, West Virginia. "So the Hatfield-McCoy feud is something that I've grown up with, and the Hatfield-McCoy feud has played such a huge role in shaping people's perception of my home."

Who Were the Hatfields and McCoys?

The Hatfield-McCoy feud is, as the best feuds are, populated with a cast of colorful characters doing sometimes dastardly deeds. It begins with two principals:

  • William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield, born in 1839 near what is now Logan, West Virginia; father of 13; fought for the Confederacy; farmer, early timber entrepreneur
  • Randolph "Randall" McCoy, born in 1825 on the Kentucky side of the Tug River valley that separates Kentucky from the southwest part of West Virginia; father of 17; fought alongside Devil Anse for the South in the Civil War; farmer

"Devil Anse Hatfield was a bigger-than-life character," says Bill Richardson, West Virginia University Extension professor and the curator of a short-lived Hatfield-McCoy museum in Williamson, West Virginia. "There were 3,000 people at his funeral. He was sort of a man's man. He was one of the first entrepreneurs in this area. A lot of people used him for their employment. He was very influential in politics. He was a very outgoing and gregarious individual. He was a man that people gravitated to.

"Randall, on the other hand," Richardson adds, "was this subsistence farmer. His parents divorced after 50 years of marriage, which was unheard of at the time. And Randall was sort of a beaten-down man. He was 15 years older than Devil Anse. He had a very hard life. Anse was the person who prospered, and Randall didn't. So there's some hard feelings from that.

The Hatfields and McCoys were not neighbors in a strict geographical sense. Traveling by horseback or buggy, going up and down mountains and across the Tug River, the patriarchs of these two families lived some six hours apart.

But Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy were longtime acquaintances. They fought in the same regiment during the Civil War. Hatfield deserted to form a kind of guerilla band fighting for the Confederacy. McCoy was captured and spent around two years in a Union prisoner of war camp.

How the bad blood started between them is still up to debate. Some point to the split during the Civil War. Other historians have different ideas.

Hatfield clan
William Anderson Hatfield (second from right in front), known as "Devil Anse," his wife Levisa "Levicy" Hatfield (third from right), and several of their children pose with weapons in 1897.
Library of Congress

How the Feud Began

"One of the biggest questions I get asked most often is what started the Hatfield-McCoy feud. There's three possibilities," says Richardson. "One is the Civil War, and all of the books written before 1940 attribute it to the Civil War. Another one is the land deal that sort of went wrong that included Devil Anse Hatfield and a guy named Perry Cline. And then the third is the 'hog trial' [see sidebar below]. I know of three first-person accounts of people who were in the feud, and all three of those accounts, they start with the hog trial.

"If you ask somebody who was in the feud what started the feud, they would say the hog trial."

Keeney, who teaches a class on the subject, doesn't buy into that. He's of the belief that changing times, including postwar reconstruction and industrialization (in timber and the burgeoning coal industry), outside influence from national and international investors, and land grabs (including the one involving Cline and Devil Anse) all contributed to the feud.

"Even a lot of my students think it was over a pig. You have the same misconceptions here now," Keeney says. "Think about it: When Randall McCoy believes a pig is stolen from him, he doesn't grab his gun and start shooting the place up. He goes to court. They have a case. And they lose the court case. And nothing happens for five years. But those types of ideas really endure for a long time."

Whatever the start, the feud lasted for nearly 30 years, from what might have been its start to what is widely regarded as its end. The feud was lowlighted by two instances of particularly brutal violence.

The first was in 1882, a few years after the Cline, when Ellison McCoy was jumped, in public, during an Election Day quarrel by three of Randall McCoy's sons. Ellison, Devil Anse's brother, was stabbed more than 20 times, and then shot and killed.

The McCoy boys were arrested, but Devil Anse, incensed at the murder of his beloved younger brother, took some of his sons and snatched the killers away from the authorities. The Hatfields eventually took the McCoy boys into a stand of pawpaw bushes, tied them up and shot them some 40 times.

The second big event in the feud happened on New Year's Eve 1887, when Devil Anse's uncle, Jim Vance, led a group of Hatfields into Kentucky to capture Randall McCoy at his farm. The group burned down his house, shot and killed two of his children and badly injured his wife. But Randall McCoy escaped.

During the on-again, off-again life of the feud, numerous legal proceedings were filed, one that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bounty hunters were hired to capture Hatfields; one was an extremely mean sort by the name of "Bad" Frank Phillips, who eventually hunted down and killed Jim Vance.

And, during much of the feud, a sort of Capulet-Montague love story, which began with Johnse Hatfield wooing Roseanna McCoy, played out. That subplot was further complicated when the scalawag Johnse — he'd marry four times in his life — left the pregnant Roseanna to marry her cousin, Nancy McCoy, causing a lot of fear and embarrassment on both sides of the conflict.

Roseanna's baby died in infancy, and Roseanna died months later at age 29. Nancy eventually left Johnse and took up with "Bad" Frank. (It's confusing, we know. Just stay with us.)

By the feud's end, after what is now known as the Battle of the Grapevine Creek (in which no one died but several members of the Hatfield clan were captured, tried and convicted of the New Year's Eve murders at the McCoy house; one was eventually hanged), 12 people had died — 13, if you count Roseanna.

Hatfield and McCoys
Johnse Hatfield (right) got Roseanna McCoy (left), pregnant and then left her pregnant and married her cousin, Nancy McCoy.
Public Domain

Who won the feud is argued to this day.

"By all definitions, the Hatfields came out on top," says Richardson. "But here's the thing: If it happened today, the Hatfields would be the ones that everybody thought, 'These people need to go to jail.' And that's what happened at the end of the story."

Randall McCoy died in 1914 after being severely burned in a cooking fire. He was 88. He's buried in a small plot in Pikesville, Kentucky.

William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield died of pneumonia in 1921 in his cabin in Logan County, West Virginia. He was 88. He's buried under a life-sized marble statue in a cemetery near Sarah Ann, West Virginia, in Logan County.

The Hatfield-McCoy Feud Today

The Hatfield-McCoy rivalry, as it was first portrayed by New York World reporter T.C. Crawford in the late 1800s, was a case of barbarism carried out between two warring factions deep in the hills of Appalachia. Crawford's reporting, later gathered in the book "An American Vendetta," went even further in portraying the people of the area as uneducated, uncivilized and unsophisticated.

"When I was a kid, we used to vacation in Florida a lot, and I can remember going down to Cypress Gardens, and they had this water skiing show, and the water skiing show was the Hatfields and McCoys," says Keeney. "They had the McCoy group and the Hatfield group, and then they had another skier that was dressed as a pig. I think that was the late '80s, early '90s. I was a kid, but all that I vaguely understood is that we were being mocked. I knew enough to know that I was being mocked."

In fact, starting with Crawford's reporting in the World, much of America — much of the world — came to know West Virginia, Kentucky and all of Appalachia as an area hopelessly lost in time, beset with violence, inbreeding and lawlessness. Crawford's reporting on the Hatfields and McCoys is credited with popularizing the image of the toothless, simpleton hillbilly.

Before that time, the people of the area were better known as frontiersmen. Think Davy Crockett, Kit Carson and Daniel Boone. Once Crawford got hold of the Hatfield-McCoy story, though, the image changed. "In the West, the cowboys were taming the wilderness," Keeney says. "In the East, these were people who had yet to modernize. They were remnants of a bygone era."

That image has endured. (See Bugs Bunny in 1950's "Hillbilly Hare," an Ozarks version of the Hatfields and McCoys, complete with bearded, barefoot, overall-wearing, moonshine-chugging, trigger-happy hicks.)

Ironically, a 2012 television miniseries, starring Kevin Costner as Devil Anse and Bill Pullman as Randall McCoy, enjoyed good reviews and managed to rework the image of the hillbilly, at least somewhat, even sparking a boost in tourism to the area.

Today, in Pike County, Kentucky, visitors can snag an official map of the "Hatfields and McCoys Historic Feud Driving Tour" that includes gravesites, the site of the pawpaw tree executions, the site of the hog trial, and the site where Ellison "Cotton Top" Mounts — the son of Devil Anse's murdered brother Ellison — was hanged, effectively ending the feud.

Every fall, the Hatfield McCoy Heritage Days Homecoming in Pikeville, Kentucky is attended by descendants of the family and curious visitors as a "celebration of the peace made between the Hatfields and McCoys."

The locals have even come to embrace the story.

"You go into the coal fields of southern West Virginia," Keeney says, "Devil Anse Hatfield is kind of seen as almost a mythical figure in that area. Everybody in southern West Virginia somehow or another claims to be related to Devil Anse Hatfield.

"On one hand, it's kind of a point of pride. People have adopted it as something they kind of take pride in — even the stereotype," he adds. "'You say I'm this way? All right. I'll wear it as a badge of honor.'"

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