Hatfield-McCoy Feud Carries Lessons for Today

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When she wrote her third book, “Feud: Hatfields, McCoys and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900,� historian Altina Waller thought the true story of the impact of modernization and industrialization on two families along the border of Kentucky and West Virginia would make a good film.

While movies, television, musicians, and authors have long used family feuds as storylines for entertainment, the real backstory of the most famous family conflict in American history now will be told in a documentary film on Tuesday, Sept. 10, with Waller, an emeritus professor and former head of the Department of History, as one of the historians providing commentary in a new episode of the PBS documentary series American Experience, titled “The Feud.� The one-hour program airs at 9 p.m. on Connecticut Public Television.

Waller says the feud represents a larger part of American history.

“For such a long time it’s been regarded an aberrant event in a strange place,� she says. “The coming of capitalism to Appalachia was what really precipitated all this violence and led to this feud. I had seen some of this before because I had originally studied New England during the early part of the 19th century, when capitalism was emerging in New England. I saw a lot of problems. The difference is that in Appalachia it came more suddenly. While it seems like an anomaly, it is actually a story about economic development and social change.�

The two families at the center the story are those led by Anderson “Devil Anse� Hatfield and Randolph “Randall� McCoy, whose bloody feud in the late 19th century helped to create the “hillbilly� image of violent backwoodsmen scratching out a living in the mountains.

Waller says when she heard about the feuding Hatfields and McCoys, she was not certain if it was real or simply a legend. While teaching at West Virginia University in Morgantown, she started to research the legendary feud, learning it was real but that there had been little historical writing about it.

Although anecdotal history of the feud cites its origin from divided loyalties during the Civil War or a dispute over a pig, Waller says the root of the Hatfield-McCoy dispute was the nation’s increasing demand for harvesting timber from the lands of the Tug Valley at the Kentucky-West Virginia border. Although families and individuals held deeds to their land, harvesting trees across a neighbor’s property line was an accepted practice early on. But the increased demand for timber and conseqent rise in the value of land caused serious conflict among the neighbors.  With a small timber operation in West Virginia, Hatfield prospered in business. McCoy, living nearby in Kentucky, had been in the logging business with his father, but was harvesting timber on someone else’s property and was sued, losing a court case, land and money.

“Randall McCoy lost land and it made him very poor. They had to sell their land to pay off the person they lost the case to. He was known to be very bitter about what happened. He constantly talked about it to his children,� Waller says. “Nothing happened in what we know of as feud events until 13 years after the Civil War. It suggests that the community had dealt with the Civil War to rebuild, and animosities were fading. Violence in frontier areas was true, but it wasn’t the primary cause of this animosity. The primary cause was the land value went up.�

The violence between the two families began in 1882 on Election Day in Kentucky, a time when both Kentuckians and West Virginians gathered as a community from both sides of the Tug Valley border. In a region where Hatfields and McCoys were common surnames, Randall’s son Tolbert started a fight with a Hatfield who was not related to Anderson. Ellison Hatfield, a brother of Anderson, intervened to stop the fight and was attacked by Tolbert McCoy and two of his brothers. The McCoys had knives and guns and seriously wounded Ellison, who was unarmed. Upon hearing about the fight, Anderson announced that if his brother survived, he would let the boys go, but if he died, there would be revenge. After Ellison died, the three sons of Randall Hatfield were ritually executed by a group of Hatfields.

Waller says this act of bloody revenge was unusual for the man known as Devil Anse, because he typically used the legal system to resolve disagreements and issues.

“It’s interesting in this case he couldn’t depend on the justice system because this event had happened in Kentucky,� she says. “I think while most people were horrified [by the violence], it’s a justice in a way. The community had decided to let it go. Five years later the feud was revived.�

The feud resumed when the McCoys — still angry that no Hatfield had been held accountable for the killings of Randall’s sons — reached out to the politically connected husband of a member of the McCoy family, Perry Cline, who had his own grudge against Devil Anse after losing a lawsuit to him. In the years since the Election Day incident, the discovery of rich coal deposits in the Tug Valley had caused coal and railroad companies to covet the land for industrial development and profit. The image of violent family conflict in the region was portrayed as an obstacle to modernization.  Cline convinced the governor of Kentucky to issue arrest warrants against the Hatfields.

The arrest warrants caused panic among some of the Hatfields. Waller describes the sons of Devil Anse as “hotheads,� who gathered several employees of the family timber business on New Year’s Day 1888 to capture Randall McCoy at the Kentucky cabin where he lived with his family. The Hatfield posse attacked with guns in the middle of the night and set the house on fire. Two of McCoy’s children were killed, his wife was nearly beaten to death, and Randall escaped with his other children to Cline’s home in Pikeville, Kentucky.

“This is where the press coverage comes from,� Waller says of the resulting national headlines in newspapers across the nation. “The first news reports come from Perry Cline and set the tone for the coverage of the rest of the feud.�

Over the next several years, more than a dozen people from both families died either violently or were executed following trials. One case involving the feud went before the Supreme Court of the United States, Mahon v. Justice, based on Kentucky’s pursuit of the Hatfields across state lines into West Virginia without an extradition procedure, which was decided in favor of Kentucky.

Waller says she is pleased that the true story of the Hatfields and McCoys is gaining attention with the American Experience documentary and that her book is still in print. She says the feud has relevance today.

“When I was writing this book I was thinking a lot about the issue of modernization and industrialization worldwide and the question of how can you bring the benefits of industrialization and modern society without the exploitation and the violent conflict,� she says. “I was thinking more on a worldwide scale than just in the United States because industrialization has always been accompanied by conflict and violence, yet it has so many benefits. Today, we’re in this situation where we have such a hate-filled environment based on ethnicity, race, and gender. We need to think about how that gets started and what’s behind it. Is that just about race and ethnicity or is it about people’s place in society and their economic situation? Why do you start to hate other people? Are they scapegoats for your own problems? That’s why I think I has a lot of relevance today.�