The Hatfields and the McCoys Feud
Myth, Legend and History
By Big Jim Charles, CSR
The myths and legends surrounding the world famous Hatfield-McCoy Feud persist despite reams of research and well researched books that have drawn a different picture of the infamous 19th century vendetta than the stereotypical portrayal of backwoods vengeance that has haunted Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky for well over a hundred years.
Ironically the primary story BEHIND the Hatfield-McCoy Feud reveals a fairly common and modern cause for a dispute — a lawsuit over property rights.
That's right, over a century of myths, legends and rumours to the contrary, the famed feud was not started over a fiddle, or a pig or a romance gone wrong.
Also the participants of the famed feud were hardly the backwoods barbarians that the yellow press (followed by sensationalistic book authors later and motion picture and television portrayals) made them out to be.
Many folks forget that in the period between 1850 and 1900, backwoods West Virginia and Kentucky were culturally no different than upstate New York and backwoods New Jersey.
Ironically the famous "Hillbilly" stereotype owes more to the writings of a sensationalistic author than to real life rustic mountain people. Far from being the "barbarians" depicted in lurid accounts by yellow journalists, the Hatfield and McCoy families consisted of ordinary citizens. Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield himself being a school superintendent, elected official and a businessman at various points in his life. His grandchildren included lawyers, doctors and businessmen.The primary individual responsible for the most violent epoch of the fued was Perry Cline, a practicing lawyer who was kin to Randall McCoy.
How did this portrayal of "American Barbarism" as it was called come about?
Through the popularity of an author who single handedly created the stereotype of the lazy, ignorant, violent hillbilly as a tribute to the "border novels" of Sir Walter Scott.
Mary Noailles Murfree (January 24, 1850-July 31, 1922) wrote several popular novels and short stories under the pen name Charles Egbert Craddock. She single handedly created the "Hillbilly" stereotype in her popular books such as "In the Tennessee Mountains" which had gone through a whopping 11 editions by 1885, and The Ordeal: A Mountain Romance of Tennessee" which was still in print by
People who read these "colorful" novels mistakenly assumed her books were authentic as she was born near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She began writing under her pen name in the 1870s. Murfree actually had very little first hand experience with rural mountain folks and based her version of them on Scottish Highlanders in books like "Rob Roy." She called them, "ignorant," "untutored" and "primitive," as well as "superstitious." Most of their activity is made up of drinking, gambling and feuding.
She was so popular, other authors jumped on the Hillbilly bandwagon and some of them became best selling authors too. So when newspaper editors up North read realistic accounts of the skirmishes in the mountains they were furious and wanted the reporters to give readers a Mary Murfree-ized picture of the feudists.Dispatches to reporters from New York read, "Add local color!"
So they did. Anderson Hatfield became "Devil Anse" terror of the Tug River Valley. In reality, Hatfield was a businessman and school administrator during his lifetime. Albeit he did enjoy bear hunting.
The harsh feelings between Hatfield and "Ran'll" (Randall or Randolph, depending on the accounts) McCoy actually began during the civil war when Anderson Hatfield was a member of an irregular volunteer unit of Confederates known as the Logan County Wildcats. Hatfield was credited with the killing of a Union General named Bill France. Ironically "Devil Anse" was accompanied by one of Rand' ll' McCoy's kinfolk on this mission, and France may actually have been shot by a McCoy. But Ran'll McCoy blamed Hatfield for the murder of his friend. This incident laid the groundwork for animosity between Hatfield and McCoy which would be utilized later by a greedy lawyer who would cash in on Ran'll McCoy's animosity towards "Devil Anse".
There were hard feelings between the two families over the Civil war incident. However the various stories about "how the feud started over a pig" or "how the feud started over a fiddle" or the suspiciously "Romeo and Juliet" romance between Johnse Hatfield and Rosanna McCoy had little if nothing to do with the feud itself.
Ran'll McCoy did sue Floyd Hatfield for stealing his pig but when Floyd Hatfield won the case in 1878, it hardly set off a genocidal feud. The American Civil War, the politics that descended from it and a backroom attempt to steal timber rights are what caused the famed feud. Right before the feud itself began, Devil Anse was making his primary living in the timber business and a lawyer across the river tried to swindle him out of some property rights. Hatfield took him to court and won -- unfortunately for Devil Anse as it caused Randall McCoy to fixate upon him as the author of all his woes.
Following the Civil War, politics could get rough in rural areas with former rebels registered as Democrats and former Union soldiers registered as Republicans. It was not unusual for the Blues and the Grays to shoot it out in rural areas as late as the 1920s on election day. In August of 1882, in Kentucky a trio of McCoys assaulted Ellison Hatfield on election day, stabbing and shooting him in Kentucky. Ellison was carried to a nearby home and his family was notified. The McCoys were taken into custody by the Hatfields.
"Devil Anse" Hatfield decided that if the victim lived, the trio would be handed over to the courts. If he died, they would be killed in retribution. When Ellison Hatfield died, Tolbert, Pharmer, and Randal McCoy, Jr. were tied to trees and executed. Anderson Hatfield was never convicted of the murders. Remember, Anderson Hatfield was a well respected citizen in Logan County. In his lifetime he was a lawman, elected official and a school administrator. Hardly the backwoods barbarian he was remade into (by the yellow press) in order to appeal to readers of Murfrees dubious novels.
The key to the feud was an ongoing timber dispute between Anderson Hatfield and Perry Cline an attorney in Pike County Kentucky who lusted for the timber property "Devil Anse" controlled. Cline never forgave Hatfield for besting him in court years earlier.
Lawyer Cline realized that his distant cousin Randal McCoy had harbored a grudge against Hatfield since the early 1870s and Cline exploited that animosity to create the most violent incidents of the feud in the 1880s when Bounty Hunters drove the Hatfields deeper and deeper into the backwoods.
Cline got the ear of the governor of Kentucky and had warrants filled out against the Hatfield family. Shortly thereafter a small army of bounty hunters descended upon Logan West Virginia trying to cash in on his scheme. There were some minor skirmishes between the different parties throughout the late 1880s before the hostilities ceased. Despite losing several of his children over the feud, Hatfield secretly met with Perry Cline and agreed to give him the timber rights to the property he controlled. Cline met with politicians in Kentucky and West Virginia and the bounty hunters were called off and the feud basically ended, despite a brief shoot out -many years later - on election day in 1911. It was later claimed that 20 family members from both sides perished during the course of the infamous feud.
For the famed 1897 photograph of the family the Hatfields were asked to go back inside and bring out some guns...Which is why most of the firearms in the portrait tended to be 20 years out of date. They were basically family heirlooms. "Devil Anse" Hatfields children and grandchildren were businessmen, school teachers, farmers, lawyers and doctors. Randall McCoy's family consisted of honest farmers, businessmen, educators and professionals... Hardly the backwoods barbarians from a Mary Murfree novel.
T.C. Crawford's 1889 book "An American Vendetta,"about the Hatfields is also responsible for the view of the clans as murdering barbarians. Todays mythical image of the " Hatfield-McCoy Feud" and the combatants is based more on myths created by Murfree, Crawford and yellow journalists who covered the feud itself as it was going on -in a classic example of yellow journalism - more than reality.
Which is how quaint claims of the incident being sparked by a pig or a fiddle or a star crossed romance got embellished. The first generation of authors who wrote about the feud were familiar with the "hillbilly" novels of a decade earlier and their popularity began to exaggerate the facts in order to make the participants seem more like the characters in such popular books as "In the Mountains of Tennessee" and other backwoods fantasies.
For the best source in print about the famed patriarch of the Hatfield family and an excellent overview of the feud itself, this author recommends — "The Tale of the Devil: The Biography of Devil Anse Hatfield " by Dr. Coleman Hatfield and Robert Y. Spence from Woodland Press.