FEUD FACTS: The Real Story Of The Hatfields & McCoys

Hardly any person in America can hear the name “Hatfield” without thinking “McCoy.” This most infamous feud in American folklore happened right in the Tri-State’s back yard.

The 2012 release of the History channel’s “Hatfields & McCoys” miniseries, starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton, has sparked a renewed interest in the saga. You can find in the pages of the Tri-State Visitors’ Guide several feud-related attractions, activities and festivals. But before you go exploring, here’s a tutorial on what really happened in the hills of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

The feud between the Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Kentucky had its roots in the Civil War and continued through 1981. The feud was led by patriarchs William “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Randolph McCoy. Here are some key events in the feud:

THE CIVIL WAR

Both William “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Randolph McCoy were Confederates and were both along in a raid that killed Union Gen. Bill France in the fall of 1863. That raid sparked into action the Kentucky homeguards, who were sent to take Devil Anse and his men. One of France’s men, Asa Harmon McCoy (Randall’s brother), came after Anse in revenge.

He camped out in a rock house near his home. Anse found out and sent his Uncle Jim Vance and Jim Wheeler Wilson, a fellow soldier, to confront McCoy.

It is believed that one of those men shot and killed Asa McCoy.

COURT ORDERS

A couple of court decisions helped to fuel the feud. In the late 1870s, Devil Anse Hatfield got into a land dispute with McCoy’s cousin Perry Cline. Anse won the land dispute and was granted Cline’s entire 5,000-acre plot of land. A few months after the verdict, Randolph McCoy stopped to visit Floyd Hatfield, a cousin of Devil Anse. While visiting, McCoy saw a hog that he said bore the McCoy marking on its ear. Hatfield denied the accusation and the two were hauled into court with Preacher Anderson Hatfield (a Baptist preacher and justice of the peace) to settle the suit.

Both Hatfields and McCoys served as jurors. Randolph’s nephew Bill Staton, also a brother-in-law of Ellison Hatfield, swore that Floyd Hatfield owned the hog.

Floyd won the case. On June 18, 1880, Staton was killed in a shootout with Paris and Sam McCoy, who were sent to prison for their crime.

Ellison Hatfield testified at that trial.

ROMEO AND JULIET

Two months after the killing of Staton, Devil Anse’s son, Johnse met Roseanna McCoy, the daughter of Randolph McCoy, at an 1880 Election Day event.

They became lovers, but Randolph did not approve.

When she went to be with Johnse in West Virginia, a posse of McCoys rode to the cabin, took Johnse prisoner and set out for the Pikeville jail. Roseanna told Devil Anse, who gathered his own crew to cut off the McCoys and rescue his son. After that, the couple remained apart. Roseanna would give birth to their daughter, Sarah Elizabeth McCoy, in the spring of 1881. The baby died of measles later that year. Johnse Hatfield, who would be married four times in his life, met Nancy McCoy (the daughter of Asa Harmon McCoy, who had been killed by the Hatfields) and they were married on May 14, 1881.

TROUBLE AT THE POLLS

On Aug. 5, 1882, it was Election Day and at the polls on Blackberry Creek, Ellison Hatfield got into a fight with Tolbert McCoy (Randolph’s son). Tolbert’s two younger brothers, Pharmer and Randolph Jr., jumped in the fight with knives, and Pharmer McCoy shot Ellison.

HATFIELDS BURN WITH REVENGE

Preacher Anse Hatfield ordered constables to take the McCoy brothers to the Pikeville jail to face charges. They stopped at Floyd McCoy’s house for food and decided to spend the night further up Blackberry Creek. Devil Anse Hatfield found out and the next morning arrived on the scene, and a posse of nearly 20 family and friends took charge of the McCoy boys. When Ellison died, Devil Anse crossed into Kentucky, tied the boys to paw paw trees and the group of men executed the boys who had killed Ellison.

GOVERNORS GET INVOLVED

Hoping to leave no witnesses, the Hatfields raided the McCoy cabin in the dark of morning on New Year’s Day 1888. A firefight ensued, killing Randolph McCoy’s daughter Alifair and son Calvin. The raiders burned Randolph’s cabin to the ground. Randolph, his wife Sarah and the remaining children escaped.

The murders of the McCoys caused Kentucky’s governor Simon Buckner to unleash special officer Frank Phillips and 38 men to arrest the nearly 20 men and put out a special reward which brought a slew of bounty hunters to come after the Hatfields. Phillips captured several of those men, and Phillips shot and killed Uncle Jim Vance on Jan. 10, 1888.

On Jan. 19, a large firefight between Phillips and his men and Devil Anse Hatfield and his men happened, since known as the Battle of Grapevine Creek. Although no one was killed in the fight, it prompted Devil Anse to order 25 new Winchester repeating rifles to prepare for future attacks.

The raids brought the ire of West Virginia Gov. E. Willis Wilson, and many thought there might be another Civil War break out along the Tug Fork between factions in the two states. Both states ordered their National Guard units to prepare to defend their borders.

West Virginia’s governor sued Kentucky for the unlawful arrest of nine prisoners and unsuccessfully appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court in April 1888. The court ruled the Hatfields would have to stand trial in Kentucky whether or not the original arrests by Phillips were legal. Elison Mounts was hanged on Feb. 18, 1890, for the shooting of Alifair and Calvin McCoy, and the rest were given life sentences for their roles in killing the three McCoy brothers.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Hatfields and McCoys

1. Hollywood has always loved the Hatfields and McCoys.
The Hatfields and McCoys saga has been reflected in various forms of entertainment, including books, songs and Hollywood films. Some of the most memorable portrayals of the feud include a 1952 Abbot and Costello feature; a Hatfield- and McCoy-themed episode of the animated series “Scooby-Doo”; and Warner Bros.’ 1950 “Merrie Melodies” cartoon “Hillbilly Hare,” in which Bugs Bunny finds himself ensnared in a dispute between the rival Martin and Coy families.

Frankie McCoy and Shirley Hatfield pose together in a photograph that appeared in Life magazine in May 1944. (Credit: Walter Sanders//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

2. The Hatfields and McCoys inspired a famous game show.
The conflict is believed to have been the primary inspiration for the popular game show “Family Feud,” which premiered in 1976. In 1979 members of both families appeared on the show during a special Hatfields and McCoys theme week to battle it out for the usual cash rewards—with one unique twist. Also included in the prize package was a pig, symbolizing the origins of the feud. (It was the rumored theft of a valuable pig by a Hatfield ancestor that had served as a catalyst for the eruption of hostilities more than 100 years earlier.) The Hatfields won the contest.

3. The formerly feuding families were featured in Life magazine in the 1940s.
In May 1944, an issue of Life magazine revisited the Hatfields and McCoys nearly 50 years after violence among them rocked the Tug Valley area between Kentucky and West Virginia. The article was meant to show how the two “famous families now live together in peace,” and interviewed a number of descendants about the rivalry and relations between the two families five decades after the conflict. Among the photographs was a shot of two young women, Shirley Hatfield and Frankie McCoy, working together in a local factory that produced military uniforms. It was meant to symbolize the unifying effect of America’s war efforts at the height of World War II.

4. The feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1888 several Hatfields were arrested and stood trial for the murder of two of Randall McCoy’s children. West Virginia sued for the men’s release, arguing that they had been illegally extradited across state lines. The Supreme Court eventually became involved in the case, known as Mahon v. Justice. In its 7-2 decision, the court ruled in favor of Kentucky, allowing for the trials and subsequent convictions of all the Hatfield men. Seven of them received life sentences, and one, Ellison “Cotton Top” Mounts, was executed for his crimes.

5. A rare medical condition may be partly to blame for the violence of the notorious clash of clans.
In a 2007 study, a team of doctors and geneticists who had studied dozens of McCoy descendants noted an unusually high rate of Von Hippel-Lindau disease, a rare, inherited condition that produces tumors of the eyes, ears, pancreas and adrenal glands as well as high blood pressure, a racing heartbeat and increased “fight or flight” stress hormones. The researchers also collected numerous oral histories from family members detailing the combative and often violent nature of the McCoy family dating back to the feud’s roots.

6. The Tug Valley witnessed another violent clash nearly 30 years after the Hatfields and McCoys feud.
On May 19, 1920, detectives working for the anti-union Baldwin-Felts Agency evicted the families of workers who had attempted to unionize the Stone Mountain Coal Company mines outside Matewan, West Virginia. After Sid Hatfield, the Matewan chief of police and a Hatfield descendant, intervened on the miners’ behalf, a violent clash broke out that left seven detectives and four locals dead. The Matewan Massacre became a rallying cry for union activists across the country, with Sid Hatfield garnering fame for his defense of the miners. A year later, however, Hatfield was assassinated, purportedly by Baldwin-Felts agents. The events surrounding the Matewan Massacre and Sid Hatfield’s murder were depicted in the acclaimed 1987 film “Matewan.”

7. There are thousands of Hatfield and McCoy descendants—but not all of them are real.
Sid Hatfield is just one of many notable Hatfield and McCoy descendants. Others include Henry D. Hatfield, nephew of family patriarch Devil Anse, who served as a senator and governor of West Virginia; 1930s jazz musician Clyde McCoy; and basketball coach Mike D’Antoni. There have even been fictional descendants, including Leonard “Bones” McCoy from the television and film series “Star Trek,” who was supposedly dozens of generations removed from his McCoy family roots.

Reference

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