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In American history and folklore the Hatfields and the McCoys symbolize the backwardness and violence most Americans associate with Appalachian mountain culture. Yet an accurate retelling of this famous instance of family conflict reveals a more complex story - - a story involving competition over rich timer resources and the desire of eastern corporations and state government to foster economic development in the region. The feud was more a foreshadowing of the era of the bloody coal mine wars than it was the final gasp of traditional mountain culture.
The first hint of animosity between the Hatfields and McCoys occurred in the fall of 1878 on the Kentucky side of the Tug Fork. This was a time when the Tug Valley was one of the most remote and isolated valleys in the United States; there were no railroads, no coal mines, and no villages or towns. When Randolph McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing his hog, it was a very serious offense; hogs were extremely valuable to the farming economy of the valley and court records indicate that any kind of theft was very rare. For the most part, an atmosphere of trust prevailed among neighbors up and down the hollows. But when Randolph McCoy took his complaint to the local judge and that judge took the trouble to assemble a jury evenly divided between Hatfields and McCoys it is obvious that trouble already existed between these two families.
Although the historical record is silent on the specific origins of the trouble, it seems to have been related to the market for timber. In the period following the Civil War, America was industrializing at a rapid rate and the high quality hardwoods of the Southern Appalachians were in great demand. In this brief period before large timber corporations were operating in the Tug Valley, local farmers cut and marketed timber. In this endeavor the branch of the Hatfield family headed by William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield had been more successful than any other family in the Tug Valley. Not only were the Hatfields financially successful, they liked to brag about it, thus causing resentment among their neighbors. Randolph McCoy and his family were especially irritated because their own efforts to profit from the timber market had ended in disaster.
Whatever the specific grievances, it is significant that the McCoys attempted to resolve them through the legal system, not with guns and violence as Appalachian stereotypes would suggest. When the court ruled against Randolph McCoy he accepted the verdict but bad feelings festered over the next four years, especially when Devil Anse's son, Johnse, romanced and impregnated but did not marry Randolph McCoy's daughter Roseanna. The peak of hostilities came when three of Roseanna's brothers attacked and killed Ellison Hatfield on election day in 1882. Because the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River is the boundary between Kentucky and West Virginia and and jurisdiction was unclear, the legal system, for the first time in the feud, broke down. Devil Anse retaliated for the killing of his brother by executing, without trial, the three sons of Randolph McCoy near present day Matewan, West Virginia.
For five years after this shocking incident, things were quiet in the Tug Valley. No newspaper anywhere reported the feud and most residents fervently wished to forget about it. But developments outside the Tug Valley mandated otherwise. The Norfolk and Western Railroad Company announced plans to build a line linking Virginia with the Ohio River to run right through the Tug Valley. This would allow the large scale exploitation of the high quality coal seams known to exist in the region. The Tug Valley was about to become the focus of the economic modernization and development which had bypassed it for so long; there were huge profits to be made in land, timber, and coal.
In this new political and economic climate, the Hatfield-McCoy feud was revived by a Pikeville lawyer named Perry Cline. Cline was a distant cousin of Randolph McCoy who had grown up in the Tug Valley, a neighbor of Devil Anse Hatfield. As a young man he had fought a protracted legal battle with Devil Anse over five thousand acres of land along Grapevine Creek, West Virginia. In and out of court settlement Cline had lost the five thousand acres to Devil Anse, land that was now skyrocketing in value. In 1887 Cline used his influence with the leading citizens of Pikeville and the Governor of Kentucky to have the five year old murder indictments against the Hatfields reissued and to have an extradition process started to bring them to trial in Kentucky. Not satisfied, however, with the slowness of the legal process, Cline recruited "Bad" Frank Phillips who organized a posse, crossed the Tug Fork into West Virginia and captured nine Hatfield supporters. This entailed several quasi-military skirmishes along Grapevine Creek and an attempt by the Hatfields to eliminate Randolph McCoy on January 1, 1888. This action resulted in the death of two of Randolph McCoy's children and the destruction of their home on Blackberry Fork, Kentucky, by fire.
This was no longer family violence but warfare between Kentucky and West Virginia. The Governor of West Virginia, E. Willis Wilson, accused Kentucky of violating the extradition process and appealed the matter to the Supreme Court of the United States., In May of 1889, the Supreme Court decided against West Virginia; the nine Hatfields would be tried in Pikeville. Although this ruling intensified the efforts of many private detectives to hunt down Devil Anse, the Hatfield leader was never jailed or tried. Wisely, he retreated. Selling the Grapevine Creek lands he moved his family away from the valley to Main Island Creek, near Sarah Ann, West Virginia where a life size statue marking his grave can now be seen.
By 1892. the railroad through the Tug Valley was completed and coal began to be shipped out. The towns of Williamson and Matewan sprang up along the West Virginia bank of the Tug Fork. The feud was over. (It had lasted 12 years and cost 12 lives.) But the violence that marked the beginning of economic modernization was to continue and even intensify as mountain farmers became coal miners who clashed repeatedly with owners in a conflict which culminated in the bloody coal mine wars of the 1920s.
Altina L. Waller is an Associate Professor
of History at the University of New York, Plattsburgh, and is author of the
recent publication, FEUD: Hatfields, McCoys, And Social Changes In Appalachia
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