America's Biggest Feud Hatfields and McCoys Part 1

About the history of America's biggest feud between the Hatfield and the McCoys in the southern United States


by V.C. Jones

Strange tales of a bloody feud between two neighboring families crept down out of the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia some years after the Civil War, to rivet the incredulous attention of the nation. They had about them the tone of such an ancient age that it was difficult for civilized people of the eastern U.S. to believe them.

Just 300 mi. from the nation's capital as the crow flies, so the reports went, members of a family named Hatfield in Logan County, W.Va., and a family named McCoy in Pike County, Ky., were firing back and forth at one another across Tug Fork, a clear-water mountain stream that followed a winding course to empty into the Big Sandy River at Louisa, Ky. Supporting each family were numerous confederates, moved by marriage and other ties to take sides.

An unknown number of persons were dead, most of them McCoys, before word of the vendetta reached news channels during the 1880s and started a shocked furore of national conscience. The law dutifully, if belatedly, stepped in to put an end to the shooting. The governors of the two states were called on for action, and each ordered the militia to stand by fully armed and ready to protect their respective fellow citizens.

There were tense moments until the matter reached the courts--even the Supreme Court in Washington--and one of the defendants was hanged, while others, all from the Hatfield clan, were sent to prison for life.

Stunned that such a thing could happen in late 19th-century America, New York newspapers and others hurried reporters to the scene. Back they came with a sordid tale of mountain hatred and--by romantic contrast--of a love story involving a Hatfield boy and a McCoy girl. With as many details as they could gather from the tight-lipped hill people, they tried to put together a logical account of what had actually caused the difficulty between the two families, but these efforts were futile. It would take the court record and the perspective of future generations to find the answer.

Some of the trouble was definitely an aftermath of the Civil War. It seems a tragedy that the Hatfields, under the leadership of strong, young Anderson--"Devil Anse" to the mountain folk--should side with the South, while the family of Randolph McCoy--"Old Rand'l"--over on the other side of the hollow through which coursed Tug Fork, should have just as strong a sentiment for the North.

There was a marked difference between these two leaders. Hatfield was in his mid-40s, a bearded six-footer with a slight stoop. He loved pranks and was jovial and an excellent storyteller. McCoy, on the other hand, was in his 60s, tall and bearded, with a thatch of gray showing beneath his black slouch hat. He carried his burdens heavily, was serious in nature, and often voiced a preference that the law be allowed to take its course.

The Hatfields seemed to be the chief defiers of legal procedure. Entries in the order book in the Pike County court showed numerous accusations against members of the clan, most of them charges of carrying concealed and deadly weapons. But warrants went unexecuted. Law officers in the county seat were reluctant to venture up into the mountain hollows to serve summonses or make arrests when they knew they would have to make their way through bands of armed men, most of them adept with weapons.

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