Chuck Keeney, Historian: I first learned about the Hatfield-McCoy feud from Bugs Bunny. When I was a little kid I saw a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which there were these two feuding mountaineer families. The Hatfield and McCoy Feud really created the stereotype of the hillbilly in the American popular consciousness. And it was this image of a simple-minded, violent and backward people.
Dean King, Writer: There’s a stereotype that these were toothless, moonshinin’ hillbillies taking pot shots at one another, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Hatfield-McCoy feud is perhaps the most famous family conflict in American history. It has become a mythical tale of jealousy, rage and revenge. Yet the events that took place near the end of the 19th century in central Appalachia are part of a much richer and more complex story—a story of a people’s way of life slipping away, and their struggle to adapt to forces far beyond their control.
Altina Waller, Historian: the Hatfield and McCoy Feud is much more than an Appalachian story. It’s an American story.
Anthony Harkins, Historian: One way to embrace all the radical changes that urbanism and industrialism were bringing was to define the rural as not just different, but in some ways dangerous and problematic.
Robert Hutton, Historian: We need to understand that sometimes the people telling the story about violence have as much of an agenda as the people who are acting out the violence in the first place.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: What you really see is a story of the dark underbelly of industrialization and how industrialization impacted rural communities in America.
Scene 1: Tug Valley Arcadia
The Tug Fork valley, deep in the mountains of Central Appalachia, was the edge of the American frontier in the early 1800s. The Hatfields and the McCoys were among the earliest white settlers in the valley, a rugged and remote region filled with thick forests, rocky streams and steep ridges.
Steven Stoll, Historian: The Hatfields and the McCoys were absolutely identical to thousands of other families and extended families that lived in the mountains at the same time. People who had the run of a great deal of woods, and took from that all sorts of things which they lived upon and which they sold.
Dean King, Writer: they would hunt for deer and bear. They kept hogs and they would let their hogs go out in the woods to forage before they would take them in in the fall and slaughter them and that’s what would keep them living through the winter. They wanted that opportunity to succeed in life, and that’s what they found in the mountains.
The Tug Fork formed the border between the states of Kentucky and Virginia. The Hatfields, McCoys and other families settled in the Tug valley on both sides of the shallow waterway, a tributary of the Big Sandy River that fed into the Ohio.
Anderson Hatfield was born in 1839 on the Virginia side of the Tug. One of eleven children, Hatfield was known as a fierce hunter—he reportedly killed a mountain lion as a boy, and was said to have been given the name “Devil Anse” at an early age.
Randolph McCoy, also called Randall, grew up in a family of thirteen children living a hardscrabble life on a farm neighboring the Hatfields. More than a decade older than Anderson Hatfield, McCoy later moved with his wife and family across the Tug to Kentucky.
Kimberly McCoy, Descendant: The Tug Valley region was a tight knit community. Family was always important. You take care of your family first, but you also take care of your neighbors.
Dean King, Writer: The citizens of that valley, they were intermarried, the Hatfields and McCoys were intermarried, they worked together, they did business together. There was a lot of harmony and strength in this valley.
Scene 2: Seeds of Hate
In April 1861, the outbreak of the Civil War ripped apart the bonds of harmony in the Tug Valley, between and even within families.
On the Virginia side of the Tug, Anderson Hatfield and many of his neighbors enlisted in the Confederate Army when the state decided to secede. Across the river, Kentucky eventually sided with the Union. In the McCoy family, Randolph signed up with the Confederacy while two of his brothers joined the Union.
Robert Hutton, Historian: Families and individuals made decisions for themselves and ended up making oppositional decisions very close to each other. So you would have a pro-Union family, a pro-Confederate family living cheek-and-jowl.
Divisions in the Tug Valley became even more complicated when voters in western Virginia elected in 1863 to leave the Confederacy and join the Union as the new state of West Virginia.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: The Tug Valley was on the borderlands, and areas in the Civil War that were on the borderlands had a very different experience. It became a battleground. Guerilla fighters from both sides went back and forth, looting, killing livestock, burning down homes, in large part, terrorizing the local population.
To protect his family from raids occurring on the border, Hatfield deserted the regular army and joined a local Confederate militia unit. He soon earned a reputation for fearlessness.
Near the end of the war, Randolph McCoy’s brother, who had sided with the Union, was found brutally murdered. Some McCoys blamed Anderson Hatfield’s guerilla unit.
Robert Hutton, Historian: Sometimes these acts of war were based on prior animosity. Sometimes these acts of war created the animosity. One way or the other, though, a civil war is going to be very disruptive for a place like the Tug River Valley.
Scene 3: Tug Valley Entrepreneur
After the fighting ended, as Anderson Hatfield settled into family life with his wife and two sons, he started cutting down trees along Grapevine Creek on the West Virginia side of the Tug.
Altina Waller, Historian: When Anderson Hatfield, Devil Anse, came home from the Civil War, he was still living on his father’s land. His father had quite a few sons, but for some reason, the only son he didn’t leave any land to was his son Anderson. This is one reason that Devil Anse had to think about making a go of life on his own. And he said, “All right, I’m going to start a timber company.”
Chuck Keeney, Historian: Devil Anse was not unique in the sense that he saw profitability in the trees around him. There were many locals who wanted to profit from the industrialization boom that was taking place in the decades after the Civil War.
As Tug Valley residents worked to reconstruct their community, industrialization in the United States was increasing at a breakneck pace. The new economy was dominated by large corporations that hired wage laborers to work their factories.
To fuel the growing economy, investors began eyeing Central Appalachia for its natural bounty of timber and mineral reserves. “[The] hills and valleys are full of wealth,” noted a report about the resources in West Virginia, “which only need development to attract capitalists like a magnet.”
Chuck Keeney, Historian: Industrialization comes along and that changes the value of the land. The forest is no longer a place where you go to get your sustenance; it’s now something that you destroy to make a profit.
Hatfield began logging on property he claimed was his father’s. But two relatives of Randolph McCoy who lived nearby, a young man named Perry Cline and his brother, asserted that Hatfield was trespassing and illegally timbering on their land—a 5,000 acre tract they had inherited from their father.
Dean King, Writer: Devil Anse was respected, but feared. We don’t know how much that came to play in his transaction with Perry Cline, but Perry Cline would have seen Devil Anse as a very powerful figure in the community.
Robert Hutton, Historian: Devil Anse Hatfield probably considered himself having earned a certain amount of authority just having been in the war, and it’s naturally going to be premised on his ability to use violence.
Despite the protests of the Cline brothers, Hatfield refused to leave. They accused him of taking their inheritance “by the muzzle of a gun.”
Dean King, Writer: Perry Cline eventually signed over part of the family property to Devil Anse. So, whether Devil Anse bullied him to make that happen, or, took advantage of a younger, more naïve person, we really don’t know, but he did sign over that property.
Cline soon left the Tug Valley, but he never forgot the loss of his land to Anderson Hatfield.
Now one of the largest landowners in the area, Hatfield, despite being illiterate, proved to be a savvy and opportunistic businessman. He borrowed money from local merchants using his new land as security, purchased equipment on credit, and hired relatives and neighbors to man his timber crew. His workers floated logs down the Tug Fork to the Big Sandy and on to the Ohio River where sawmills churned out the lumber that was building America.
Steven Stoll, Historian: Devil Anse was extremely ambitious and understood how things were changing. I could see how someone like Devil Anse could become an entrepreneur and, in fact, a small-scale capitalist.
Robert Hutton, Historian: Devil Anse Hatfield is what one might call a job creator in the 1870’s. There’s a lot of young men who are coming from farms that had gotten busted recently either during the war or because of the recent recession, and they’re becoming wage earners under Devil Anse Hatfield. Hatfield is creating himself as a sort of fictive father figure, a kind of patriarch. And it ends up being a relatively extensive familial network, one that’s based as much on economic relationships as it is on kinship.
For Randolph McCoy, Anderson Hatfield’s success fed a growing and deep-seated bitterness. According to legend, the animosity between Anderson Hatfield and Randolph McCoy may have started when Randolph lost a court case over a stolen hog. McCoy had blamed the crime on one of Hatfield’s relatives who also was on Anderson’s timber crew.
Dean King, Writer: Randall McCoy was known to be somewhat of a testy, cranky guy. He was a little bit more of a follower, less of a leader than Devil Anse Hatfield. I would say he was not as lucky as Devil Anse. His business transactions hadn’t gone as well.
McCoy’s only involvement in timbering had been a failure. He had joined his father in a logging venture, but it fell apart when his father was accused of cutting down trees on a neighbor’s property.
Altina Waller, Historian: In order to settle the court case, Randall's father had to sell the land he did own, which impoverished the family. So the experience that Randall McCoy had was very unlike Devil Anse’s experience in the timbering business. It turned out to be a disaster.
Bill Richardson, Local Historian: Randall is almost the opposite of Devil Anse Hatfield. He is a subsistence farmer, and it is very, very difficult to eke out a life. Devil Anse Hatfield becomes economically successful and that never happens for Randall. And I think there may have been a certain jealousy there, and Randall seems to be someone who has a chip on his shoulder.
Scene 4: The N&W
The prospect of developing Appalachia’s natural resources took a dramatic turn in 1881, when a Philadelphia industrialist journeyed to a remote region of central Appalachia along the Virginia and southern West Virginia border. Frederick Kimball, the vice-president of the newly created Norfolk & Western Railroad, had heard about a massive 13-foot thick coal seam in the area and wanted to inspect it for himself.
When Kimball saw the exposed outcropping, he knew immediately that this was the future of the Norfolk & Western.
Robert Hutton, Historian: The northeast and the Midwest have been building a steel industry that is powered by coal and eventually Pennsylvania’s, and Ohio’s, and Indiana’s coal aren’t going to be enough for them. So, capitalists start to show up in places like the interior of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia.
VISUAL: Map of N&W
The Norfolk & Western had formed by taking over a railroad that ran from the port city of Norfolk, Virginia to the western part of the state. Kimball convinced the railroad’s board to build a spur into the vast, rich coalfields that ran through much of southern West Virginia. The railway, Kimball announced, would be “prepared for heavy mineral traffic.”
Chuck Keeney, Historian: It’s difficult to over exaggerate the impact of the railroad. In a place like the Tug River Valley, you aren’t going to be able to extract enormous amount of resources from the area without the railroad. So if you’re going to get to the coal, if you’re going to get to big chunks of timber, you have to have a railroad to go in that region in order to get the materials out.
Norfolk & Western crews began to lay down tracks before the end of the year.
Robert Hutton, Historian: In some of the more sparsely populated parts of Appalachia, like the Tug River Valley, you’re going to see industry showing up very quickly in a place that had previously been predominantly agricultural. This is going to completely change Appalachia.
Scene 1: Rage and Retribution
In the summer of 1882, families from both sides of the Tug gathered for election day at a polling place in Pike County, Kentucky. Like election days all around the country, it was a festive and volatile occasion.
Dean King, Writer: Election Days were important in this area. It’s when this hard-working community, isolated by these hills, came together. And courting went on, business went on, political machinations were at work.
Robert Hutton, Historian: Election days were often very raucous and heated affairs. This was when there were a lot of young men gathering close together, and there was a lot of alcohol fueling whatever tensions were there previously.
“Strife and ambition were high” on that Pike County Election Day, a resident recalled. Late in the afternoon, a squabble over a small debt broke out between a distant relation of Anderson Hatfield and Randolph McCoy’s son, Tolbert.
Altina Waller, Historian: Tolbert McCoy was an angry young man because of his prospects for the future. Unlike Devil Anse’s crew, who were now doing well and getting land, he wasn’t. He was a tenant farmer.
Anthony Harkins, Historian: There was relatively little tillable land to begin with, and as they had large families, there was less land available. And so what was initially plenty to be, you know, perfectly content on was increasingly being pinched as time went on.
Altina Waller, Historian: You have this younger generation who’s extremely frustrated. They were being restricted from the things that they thought they should be able to have. They didn’t understand the economic forces behind it; they’re going to be worse off than their parents, and they know it.
Tolbert McCoy had also had a recent confrontation with Anderson Hatfield that would lead to devastating consequences. Tolbert and several of his brothers had arrested Hatfield’s eldest son on a concealed weapons charge and were taking him to a jail in Kentucky when Hatfield and a gang of armed men intervened.
Bill Richardson, Local Historian: Nobody is killed but one of the stories is that Devil Anse made Tolbert get down on his knees, and cursed him, and humiliated him. If you’re seen as being weak, especially as a man, that’s the worst thing you can be in this culture.
Back at the election day celebration, a crowd gathered as Tolbert and Hatfield’s relative continued to argue. Then, another Hatfield intervened. Ellison Hatfield was bigger and stronger than Tolbert. More importantly, he was Anderson Hatfield’s brother.
Dean King, Writer: Here you have Tolbert staring down Devil Anse’s brother, with everybody circled up there watching to see what’s going to happen, and because of the family enmity, this took on a larger life.
Altina Waller, Historian: Tolbert McCoy saw in Ellison Hatfield all the things that he would like to be: Ellison had land, and Ellison was a extremely respected member of the community. Put that together with Tolbert’s humiliation by Devil Anse not too long before, and you can see that rage emerging in a very deadly way.
After being confronted by Ellison Hatfield, Tolbert McCoy attacked him with a knife. Though unarmed, Hatfield fought back. Two of Tolbert’s brothers joined in, stabbing Ellison 27 times. Then, as he picked up a rock to hit Tolbert in the head, one of the McCoy brothers shot Ellison in the back, severely wounding him.
The McCoy brothers were quickly apprehended, and two Kentucky constables were assigned to take them to the jail in the county seat of Pikeville the next morning.
Altina Waller, Historian: Although Devil Anse wasn’t there that day he was soon informed. The problem for him was that this had happened on the Kentucky side of the river, and if the McCoy boys were taken to Pikeville for trial, which was not even considered part of the Tug Valley and it was the Kentucky side, I think Devil Anse felt that they would probably not be found guilty.
Hatfield organized an armed posse and started in pursuit.
Kimberly McCoy, Descendant: Devil Anse had his own band of 20-plus men that worked the timber around his home place and that became a militia pretty quickly. Loyalty was everything to the mountain folks and they prided themselves on that.
Altina Waller, Historian: Devil Anse’s timber crew came to be seen as his family. The fact that they came to his support so quickly and without question tells us a lot about what they thought of him.
The posse seized the three McCoys, brought them to West Virginia, and locked them up in an abandoned schoolhouse. Hatfield warned his captives that, if Ellison died, so would they.
That night, in the pouring rain, Sally McCoy, the three boys’ mother, crossed the rain-swollen Tug Fork to plead for mercy on her boys.
Kimberly McCoy, Descendant: Sally was a strong woman. She went right into the den of the devil, and she begged for her sons’ lives, and she wanted justice to take place in a Pike County court, and it just, it didn’t go down that way.
Ellison died two days later. Under the cover of darkness, Hatfield and his posse marched the McCoy brothers to the Kentucky side of the river.
They blindfolded them and tied them to some pawpaw bushes on the riverbank. Then, they opened fire.
Bill Richardson, Local Historian: You could hear the shots ring throughout the mountains. It was a death knell.
“We found my three brothers tied together,” remembered McCoy’s eldest son. “My little brother was on his knees, the top of his head shot off.”
Altina Waller, Historian: Randall McCoy tried to raise a posse to get revenge on the Hatfields, but his wife Sally, said, “Let it go. It’ll just make things much worse.
Bill Richardson, Local Historian: I think a lot of people saw the killing of those three boys as pretty much an eye for an eye, you don’t see a lot of upheaval and, and people coming to the defense of the McCoys at that time. So, it was either they didn’t want to get involved or they saw it as justified.
In one of the first news reports of the Hatfield-McCoy conflict, the New York Times described “a bloody affray” in Pike County as a part of a list of other crimes from around the nation.
Bill Richardson, Local Historian: When the Hatfield and McCoy conflict is going on, there are very similar conflicts out West—the OK Corral, Jesse James, those sort of things—and America romanticizes, even at the time, the things that are going on in the West. This eastern conflict that’s so similar, it becomes a very pejorative thing. America looks down on it.
“More bloodshed is expected,” the New York Times article concluded, “as the members of the families are numerous and vindictive.”
Scene 2: Coal and Perry Cline
Steven Stoll, Historian: Economic growth is not something that serves the needs or the interests of everybody, but it’s presented to us in a universal way. It’s about greater consumption. It’s about turning nature into wealth. It’s about a notion of progress that comes from the spread of capitalism.
In 1884, two years after the murder of the McCoy brothers, the Norfolk & Western made its first shipment of coal from southern West Virginia. But Frederick Kimball, now president of the railroad, had bigger plans. He soon announced the building of an extension line west to the Ohio River. The route was still to be determined, but it was headed toward the Tug Valley.
Outside investors began to clamor for titles to land in the area. Their agents swarmed into the backcountry, buying property for as little as a dollar an acre.
In Kentucky, Pike County native John Mayo recognized the wealth lying just under the surface of the mountain farms where he grew up. A former school teacher, he traveled hundreds of miles across the region to persuade families to sell him the mineral rights to their land. Mayo used a deceptively simple legal construct called a broad form deed that granted rights to all natural resources in, on and under the land.
Steven Stoll, Historian: The way that mountain households understood this offer was that they had won a great victory. They were gonna be paid something for the coal underneath their feet, and they were gonna be able to remain there and live as they saw fit. What they did not understand was what it would mean to extract that coal because in the fine print of these contracts it said that the coal companies could do anything necessary in order to extract it. They could build roads, they could cut down the trees, and they, in fact, could come right up to the cabin.
Land prices in the Tug Valley soared in anticipation of the railroad, and large corporations began vying for property. The increased competition undercut Hatfield’s timber business.
Altina Waller, Historian: The merchants in Logan County who had been so willing to fund Devil Anse’s timbering operations when it benefited them, now begin to see it as a problem as they were trying to attract larger companies from outside the area. So they took him to court to collect what Devil Anse owed them. And it really bit into Devil Anse’s business.
As Hatfield faced increased financial pressure, an old nemesis sought to take advantage of his situation. It had been nearly fifteen years since Perry Cline lost his land to Anderson Hatfield. Cline had moved out of the Tug Valley to Pikeville, where he started several businesses and served as deputy sheriff before becoming an attorney. Cline, who had been a member of the Kentucky state legislature, was now part of the inner circle of Pike County’s local elite.
Robert Hutton, Historian: Perry Cline is what one might call a middleman. He knows the terrain, he knows who can be convinced, he knows who cannot be, and he’s the one who seems to have a certain sense of what’s going to happen in the near future.
Someone like Cline must have had a hunch that the most likely place for the Norfolk & Western to run its line was along the Tug Fork in West Virginia—the very land that Hatfield had taken from him a decade before.
But Cline had more than just land issues with Hatfield. His sister had married Randolph McCoy’s brother, the Union soldier believed to have been killed by Hatfield’s guerilla group, and Cline had become close to the McCoy family.
Dean King, Writer: Randall McCoy turns to Perry Cline who has political clout and the capability to get the, the wheels of justice turning. Now Perry Cline is going to become the leader in the confrontation with the Hatfields.
Scene 3: The Feud Reignited
In late November 1886, after four years of relative calm, violence between the Hatfields and McCoys resurfaced when twenty-two-year-old Cap Hatfield, one of Anderson’s sons, stirred things up.
“Cap is simply a bad young man,” a reporter later wrote. Even Cap’s uncle singled him out as being “trouble” from the start.
After a violent altercation, Cap allegedly shot and killed Randolph McCoy’s nephew as he was attempting to escape to Kentucky by swimming across the Tug Fork.
Dean King, Writer: Randall McCoy has lost another relation. He turns to Perry Cline, and Cline is looking for an opportunity to get revenge.
Instead of issuing an arrest warrant for the recent killing, Cline revived the five-year-old case against Anderson Hatfield and his posse for the murder of the three McCoy brothers. But Cline needed authority to pursue the Hatfields across state lines. He turned to Kentucky’s newly-elected governor, Simon Bolivar Buckner.
Not long before Buckner’s election, a geological survey had identified an enormous amount of coal in eastern Kentucky. This mountainous and remote region, which largely had been ignored by state politicians, was now seen as vitally important.
Robert Hutton, Historian: Simon Buckner sees a future that’s going to be based on steel, and coal, and steam power, and the story he’s trying to tell is that eastern Kentucky is a place that is primitive and in need of help, and the best way of bringing about that help is bringing a more vigorous, capitalist, industrial economy to the area. That’s Buckner’s main goal.
Within days of Buckner’s inauguration, Cline met with the governor. He pressed him to actively prosecute the case against the Hatfields and to increase the reward for their capture to $500 each.
Altina Waller, Historian: At this time, there were other Kentucky feuds that had hit the newspapers and eastern Kentucky was getting this reputation for being this violent place and that might discourage outside companies from coming in. Cline went to the Governor of Kentucky and said, “Look, we can’t attract industry unless we get rid of these terrible marauders, the Hatfields.
Buckner agreed, and four days later he sent an extradition request to the governor of West Virginia to hand over Hatfield and his posse to face charges in Kentucky.
When news spread of the call for extraditing the Hatfields, Logan County residents lobbied on their behalf. One praised the Hatfields as “the very best and law abiding citizens of that county.” After several weeks of deliberation, West Virginia’s governor denied Buckner’s request.
A frustrated Perry Cline, without legal authority, sent a special deputy into West Virginia to capture the Hatfields. Frank Phillips, known as “Bad Frank,” was aggressive and relentless.
Phillips started mounting raids across the Tug. He soon arrested two of Hatfield’s associates, and brought them across the river to the Pikeville jail.
Bill Richardson, Local Historian: Kentucky, through “Bad” Frank Phillips, had basically said, “Tough. We’re not gonna adhere to the law. We’re gonna do what it takes to bring you to justice.” And that was a game changer for the Hatfields.
Altina Waller, Historian: It’s not really sanctioned by the state, although I’m sure Devil Anse, saw it that way, here was the State of Kentucky after them, and I think this really scared them.
Scene 4: New Years Day Raid
On the night of New Years Day 1888, a nearly full moon illuminated the fresh snow blanketing the ridges and hollows of the Tug Fork valley. The events of that evening would mark a turning point in tensions between the families.
At the McCoy home, Randolph, his wife, and several of their children and grandchildren had gone to bed. Suddenly, their watchdog started barking. A voice yelled out for McCoy to give himself up. A group of armed men, led by Cap Hatfield, had surrounded the house.
Altina Waller, Historian: It’s Devil Anse’s sons and some of his more aggressive crew members who get together, I’m pretty sure without Devil Anse’s knowledge, and decide, “All right, we need to do something about this.”
Dean King, Writer: The Hatfields realize that pressure is building against them, and they decide that if they can take Randall McCoy out of the equation, that will somehow end the feud and there won’t be any reason to come after them anymore.
Gunshots ripped into the cabin. Randolph started firing back. Then, the attackers set the McCoy cabin on fire. Randolph’s son and daughter were shot down as they ran to escape the flames. His wife, Sally, was struck unconscious with a rifle butt. Randolph managed to escape.
The Hatfield party withdrew as the house burned to the ground. “We have made a bad job of it,” one said. “There will be trouble over this.”
McCoy returned to find two of his children dead in the snow, and his wife critically injured.
Dean King, Writer: This is a catastrophic violent event beyond anything he’s seen before. This was ratcheting up the feud to a whole ‘nother level of brutality, of violence, of meanness.
Kimberly McCoy, Descendant: I think that in a lot of ways the Hatfields were condemned at that moment. They were condemned to the brutality and the savageness that would live on through that one event.
Over the next few weeks, Frank Phillips conducted over a half-dozen more raids into West Virginia. He killed one of Hatfield’s most trusted allies, and seized six more men on the wanted list.
The New York Times called the feud “A War of Extermination.” The governors of West Virginia and Kentucky, stirred up by the press frenzy, put their state militias on high alert.
Anderson Hatfield, in addition to worrying about the safety of his family, was fighting for his financial survival. He owed hundreds of dollars, payable immediately, on old debt cases that had been rushed to trial.
Altina Waller, Historian: Devil Anse was really forced into selling his land, which he did for very little, especially compared to what it would become in just a few years when the railroad came through and the coal mines came in. Which is really what Perry Cline and his allies in Pikeville had been hoping for all along.
Just four weeks after the New Year’s Day raid, Hatfield sold his lands by the Tug River to a coal agent who also agreed to pay off his debts. Like many of his neighbors, Hatfield had lost his land to outside capitalists.
Altina Waller, Historian: It seemed to symbolize a conflict between folks trying to preserve local autonomy, and power, and control versus the power of the state and the power of the modernizers and the industrialists to come in and take control. The big capitalists destroy the little ones. And I think this is what was happening to Devil Anse.
Hatfield moved higher up in the mountains, to land he purchased twenty miles north of the Kentucky border in Logan County. He built a sturdy, windowless fort near his cabin and posted armed men at each corner of the property.
Scene 1: Vendetta in the Press
In the late summer of 1888, six months after selling his land, Hatfield received word that a reporter from New York City wanted to interview him. For journalist T.C. Crawford of The New York World, an audience with the infamous feudist would be a major scoop. “No one had seen or described Anse Hatfield, his fort and his guard of armed men,” Crawford noted. They were “the talk and terror of the country.”
Robert Hutton, Historian: Crawford is practically the first northeastern reporter to get firsthand knowledge of what’s going on in the Tug River Valley. The story he ends up telling is as much fancy as it is fact, and that’s not necessarily because he was a bad reporter. T.C. Crawford is typical of a journalist working in what’s going to very soon be called yellow journalism. The important thing wasn’t so much to get the facts right as it was to tell an elaborate, entertaining story.
The first of three articles appeared on Sunday, October 7, 1888. “I have been away in Murderland for nearly ten days,” Crawford wrote. “No one would believe that there is in this country such a barbarous, uncivilized and wholly savage region.”
The series continued for three consecutive Sundays, reaching hundreds of thousands of readers. The Cincinnati Enquirer picked it up and took the story national, calling Hatfield the “outlaw king” and giving him equal billing with Jack the Ripper.
Bill Richardson, Local Historian: The Hatfield-McCoy Feud was a media sensation. Everyday people would pick up the newspaper wanting to read about what was going on in this little part of America. It is a story of violence. And it’s a story of retribution. But also I think it’s a story of passion. And I think people can identify with that.
Crawford soon published the series in An American Vendetta, the first book to tell the tale of the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
Anthony Harkins, Historian: I think the politics of the word “feud” are quite important. It reinforces the notions of violence, of a certain irrationality. Oftentimes these feuds get framed as having no real reason to exist other than a sort of innate violence and temperament of the people.
Steven Stoll, Historian: It was a disaster for mountain people to be turned into this kind of lurid, violent literature in which there was no social content whatsoever or attention paid to their motives. They became two-dimensional and entirely the victims of the journalists and the perceptions of the readers, which were that these people were savages, that they were living in the past, backward, incapable of historical progress.
Robert Hutton, Historian: It’s a sort of propaganda in a way. It’s a justification for what’s about to happen because of capitalists who are making their way into the interior of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. It’s not necessarily a conspiracy between the newspapers and the railroads and the coal companies, but there is a symbiotic relationship between the press and big business. And the story that people like Crawford are trying to tell is that these are people who need to be fixed.
“This country … is wonderfully rich,” Crawford proclaimed to the world. “And needs only a railroad to come up through it to drive out this outlaw class.”
Scene 2: A Civilizing Force
By 1890, Norfolk & Western construction crews were laying track for their new extension line to the Ohio River. As predicted, it ran right through the bottomland along the Tug Fork in West Virginia, cutting through Hatfield’s former land.
Soon, massive timbering operations would turn the mountains into an alien landscape, and company-owned coal camps would spread along the creek bottoms and hillsides where there once had been farms. Notices in a local paper warned people not to trespass on recently acquired lands, including over 1,300 acres on the Tug river purchased from Anderson Hatfield.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: In the span of one generation, families went from being able to roam anywhere they wanted to go, owning their own homes, having their own land, to living on someone else’s land, living in a company house, not being able to go wherever they wanted to go. It’s not just that industrialization and the way in which they took the land stripped people of their way of life. It also in some ways stripped them of their identity. It’s a complete loss of control over your own destiny.
Steven Stoll, Historian: There is an explicit part of the urban narrative for the feud, which says that industrial extraction is, in fact, bringing them into the civilized world. It’s not ruining an older way of life; it’s replacing it with something which they badly need. The feud itself becomes evidence that the extractive economy moving into the mountains is doing them all a great favor.
Scene 3: Legacy
As industry invaded the Tug Valley, Hatfields, McCoys and other mountain families either found ways to adapt to the new economic and social order, or chose to move out of Appalachia altogether, seeking factory jobs in cities or opportunities out west.
Randolph McCoy lived out his remaining years in Pikeville where he operated a ferry. The trauma of the feud haunted him, and he told his story to whomever would listen. He died at the age of eighty-eight in 1914.
Seven years later, thousands of people attended Anderson Hatfield’s funeral. By this time, many members of the Hatfield family there mourning his death had reinvented themselves. They had successfully become part of the area’s growing middle class as coal company employees, politicians and lawyers.
To celebrate the memory of their patriarch, the family later erected a life-size marble statue over Anderson Hatfield’s grave.
Kimberly McCoy, Descendant: A lot of people viewed us as uneducated people, savages, and that really has never been the case at all. People can call us whatever they want, but we’ve always been very proud people, very proud of our heritage, and very proud of our home place.
Sparked in large part by reports of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, the image of the hillbilly would permeate American popular culture.
Chuck Keeney, Historian: The Hatfield and McCoy Feud created the idea of this violent, backward, inbred type of culture that supposedly existed in this isolated pocket of America.
Bill Richardson, Local Historian: A lot of people ask me, “Who are the winners and who are the losers in the feud?” In the long term, the people of Appalachia have been the losers because the negative opinions that the feud created is something that we live with even today.
Steven Stoll, Historian: The feud feeds into the notion of people who are unredeemable, and that the poverty in Appalachia is often not explained as the outcome of industrial development itself. Their poverty is thrown back at them as their own fault. And I do think that that was absolutely implicit and even explicit in the way in which the feud has come down to us.