The mini-series Hatfields & McCoys, currently airing on the History Channel and starring Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, and Tom Berringer, has revived interest in the story of the celebrated backwoods feud between two warring families. From the 1860s to the 1890s, members of both families argued, fought and killed each other. And the sheer scale and violence of the feud – twelve people were killed, and several more seriously injured, including children – meant that it quickly became a notorious incident in American history.
The Hatfield clan lived on the West Virginia side of the Tug Fork tributary of the Big Sandy River, located on the Kentucky/West Virginia state border, while the McCoy family lived on the Kentucky side. Like many communities in the southern Appalachians, the Tug Valley was divided by the issue of slavery and the onset of the Civil War. Most of the men in the Hatfield family fought for the Confederacy, while many of the McCoys fought in the Union army. In 1865, Asa McCoy, who had fought for the Union and had just returned from the war, was killed, allegedly by Jim Vance, a member of the Hatfield family.
Tensions simmered until the 1870s, when Randolph McCoy sued the Hatfields over the alleged stealing of a pig, and was defeated by a court led by Anse Hatfield. Anse’s son, Johnse Hatfield, began courting Roseanna McCoy, Randolph’s daughter; the two lived together with the Hatfields briefly, but never married, and Johnse later married Roseanna’s cousin. Anse’s brother, Ellison, was stabbed and shot by Roseanna’s brothers in 1882, after an argument on Election Day. The McCoy brothers were arrested, but the Hatfield family took the brothers from the police and murdered them after Ellison died from his injuries.
Six years later, during an incident known as the New Year’s Night Massacre, members of the Hatfields opened fire on a McCoy cabin, and two of Randolph McCoy’s children were killed. The militias of the states of Kentucky and West Virginia stepped in, eventually arresting eight of the Hatfields for the killings. All were convicted; seven were jailed, and one was hanged. Jailings and trials continued for several years, but the violence slowed after the New Year’s Night Massacre convictions.
The Hatfield/McCoy feud continues to capture the imagination of generations of Americans. It reminds us of our frontier origins, but it also reminds us of the violence of the nineteenth century United States, and the deep conflicts that occurred over land, slavery, and control of resources.
Further reading: Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, by Altina L. Waller. University of North Carolina Press, 1988.