"You Yella-Bellied Polecat! You Stole My Pig!"
Two households, both alike in dignity . . . Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
—from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet
The word “feud” conjures up many images. The more classic vision is of Old World Sicilian vendettas. There were also feuds in the American Old West. The Lincoln County War in New Mexico, a range war that raged from 1878-1881, gave birth to the notorious (and over-rated) Billy the Kid. The Earp Brothers carried a feud with the Clantons and McLaurys in Arizona, culminating in the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881.
The world of organized crime (drawing its cues from the old Sicilian ideas of blood vengeance) had its share of higher profile feuds. The late 1920s in America watched a bloody feud rage between Al Capone and his territorial rival Bugs Moran. This came to a head with Capone’s massacre of several of Moran’s men in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The Castellammarese Family in New York likewise engaged in such vendetta behavior against its enemies from 1929-1931.
In general, however, when one hears the word “feud”, one thinks of warring hillbillies, living in the mountains and hollers of some backwoods part of the US, a-shootin’ at, and a-whompin’ on, each other at will, their jugs of moonshine close at hand, along with their coon dogs, hogs, and unwashed, shoeless children.
This image of the uncouth, uneducated, classless, toothless hillbilly waging a pointless, bitter, and long-standing “feud” with a neighboring family is most famously represented by the grandfather of all family feuds, the rivalry between the Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Kentucky. Credit: Warner Bros., "Hillbilly Hare", circa mid 1940sThe truths behind why these two factions warred with each other, however, are not related to lack of education or hillbilly ignorance. Rather, the problems of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud were born of political, sociological, and economic differences (with a minor crossing-the-line love affair thrown in for good measure).
Logan/Mingo County, West Virginia, nestled in the foothills and ridges of Appalachia, is a remote area (even more isolated during the Civil War period). Accessibility was difficult, with few roads and even fewer reasons to be in the area unless one lived there. The Big Sandy River drains the region and the Tug Fork (a small tributary creek of the Big Sandy River) was the natural geographic boundary between Kentucky’s Pike County and Virginia’s Logan County. This small creek later represented a dividing line between the North (Union) and the South (Confederacy – at least for the first few years of the War until West Virginia was formed). Life was eked out from lumbering, subsistence farming, hunting, and fishing. The people who lived here represented a microcosm of the general ideology of their times. They, however, because of political or economic connections, were able to exert a great influence locally – it was truly a case of being a big fish in a very small pond.
In this post-War West Virginia (having formerly been citizens of Virginia) was a group of staunch Confederate sympathizers named Hatfield. The Hatfields had been one of the earliest families to settle this western Virginia county (arriving in the late 1700s). By the standards of the day, the Hatfields were fairly affluent. They were not slave holders at the outbreak of the war, but were lumbermen and colliers (when coal was discovered). Living in the Union, as they now were after 1863, was a tough pill to swallow.
Kentucky, as a “border state”, generally stayed with the Union in its thinking with some exceptions. Pike County, Kentucky, was divided on the issue. In this county, loyalties were split and often heated. This was the home of the McCoy clan, a family that, like the Hatfields across the Tug Fork, had settled this area of Kentucky in the late 1700s. They, too, were prominent in the sense they were well-known and relatively respected; however, unlike the Hatfields, the McCoys were not nearly as affluent. Nor did they wield the political clout of the Hatfields (whose influence, as will be noted, also extended into Kentucky).
The two families were well acquainted, and while not necessarily the closest of friends they did enjoy cordial relations for the most part. McCoys and Hatfields intermarried (in this small area matrimonial prospects were limited at best – for example, the patriarch of the McCoy family, Randolph, married his first cousin, Sarah).
At the outbreak of the Civil War sides were chosen. The McCoys were not so keen on the Union, but neither were they much “fer” the Confederacy, either. The Hatfields, however, were vehement Southerners, and the Confederate cause, at least in spirit, was their cause, too.
Across the Tug Fork was William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield (1839–1921), the leader of the Hatfield tribe. Hatfield and his wife, Levisa, had 13 children (four daughters and nine sons). Like Randolph McCoy he was tall, grey-eyed, and bearded. Unlike Randolph McCoy, though, Anderson Hatfield was gregarious, given to playing pranks, and loved to tell jokes and tall tales.
The more affluent Hatfields were well-connected politically. Anderson Hatfield's timbering operation thrived, and most of his family was engaged in the business. He employed many non-Hatfields, too, and he even hired a few McCoys to work for him (Albert McCoy, Lorenzo Dow McCoy, and Selkirk McCoy).Credit: T. F. Hunt, 1897
In 1863, West Virginia was admitted to the Union. The Hatfields realized, as Southern sympathizers, the family and its property were endangered in what was now “Yankee” territory.
For home defense, Anderson Hatfield and others formed a group of Confederate raiders they named the “Logan Wildcats”. This group ranged the Union/Confederate border between Kentucky and Virginia, stealing hogs and supplies wherever they felt. It was one of the most feared guerrilla bands to patrol the Tug Fork’s banks, cashing in on the spoils of war (though none were enlisted men), often forgetting its “honorable” objectives of protecting home and hearth. In retribution, guerrillas from the “other” side stole hogs, horses, and hides. In the midst of this tumult both the McCoys and the Hatfields took turns as victims and attackers. The two clans’ hostilities escalated dangerously.
At the time of the Civil War’s eruption the extended McCoy tribe was mostly pro-Union with some dissension. The Hatfields sided wholly with the Confederacy – Virginia was, after all, their home state. A key player in the feud’s start between the Hatfields and the McCoys was Randolph McCoy’s younger brother, Asa Harmon McCoy. Because of the Logan Wildcats’ raiding and threats Randolph had warned Asa not to sign on with the Union Army. Asa waited two years to enlist, but in the end he ignored his brother’s advice and served his time as a Union soldier.
Asa sustained a broken leg and was discharged early from service on Christmas Eve 1864 (and came back to Pike County after twelve months’ enlistment). He returned home to a chilly welcome from his family for defying their wishes. He also received a warning from Anderson Hatfield’s uncle, Jim Vance. Vance despised Asa for enlisting as a Union man. Jim Vance advised Asa that he could “expect a visit” from the Logan Wildcats.
Asa (in early January 1865) while drawing water from his well was surprised by gunshots fired at him. Fearing for his life he hid in a nearby cave. Over the next couple of days he was supplied with food and other necessities daily by his ex-slave, Pete. The Logan Wildcats, however, tracked Pete’s footprints through the snow; soon enough, an ailing Asa was shot and killed.
Although Anderson Hatfield was first suspected, he was later exonerated after his alibi (sick at home at the time of the murder) was verified. It was widely believed Anderson’s uncle, Jim Vance (a member of the guerillas, and the man who had forewarned Asa about an impending “visit”), plotted the murder, but with the real gunman being a man named “Wheeler” Wilson.
In the Tug Fork area Asa’s military service with the Union Army was considered disloyal – even his own family believed Asa had brought his murder upon himself. In the end, the case went nowhere, and no one was ever brought to trial. [Many people might ask just how much sincere effort was really expended to find Asa’s killers, considering the Tug Fork valley was almost entirely pro-South and Asa was widely considered an outcast by the time of his murder.]
Hostilities between the two families settled over the next several years after Asa McCoy’s murder. In West Virginia, times were good. Anderson Hatfield’s logging works prospered, and he employed a work crew of thirty men. Through a lawsuit against Perry Cline (a lawyer and a McCoy relative), he gained 5,000 acres along Grapevine Creek, turning him into one of Logan County's wealthiest men.
Tempers flared and soon the two faced-off in court. The pig was in contention as some of the Hatfields believed (since the pig was on their land) it was theirs. Some McCoys objected, claiming the notches on the pig’s ears were McCoy marks, not Hatfield marks. Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield (a hard-shell Baptist minister and justice of the peace) heard the case. [The “court” location was the preacher’s shabby cabin.] With a jury comprising six McCoys and six Hatfields, Randolph lost his case predicated upon the testimony of Bill Staton, a relative of both families; Staton was a nephew of Randolph McCoy and a brother-in-law of Ellison Hatfield – “Devil Anse” Hatfield’s brother. Staton swore to Floyd Hatfield’s ownership of the pig.
This seemingly trivial incident, involving a lost lawsuit about a pig, was apparently the last straw in Randolph’s mind and in the minds of other McCoys minds.
Within months Bill Staton (the key witness at the pig trial and cause of Randolph’s loss) was shot to death by Paris and Sam McCoy (more of Randolph’s nephews). Sam McCoy was tried for the shooting and he was acquitted. Some researchers believe Anderson Hatfield may have influenced the court for acquittal as a means of preserving peace in the Tug Fork area; if that is so, his efforts were not received graciously by the McCoys. The McCoy clan was outraged at Sam’s even being brought to trial in the first place. Already resentful of the more affluent and influential Hatfields the McCoy's hatred grew for Anderson’s “charitable” influence on their behalf in court. An uneasy peace resumed, but one of Randolph’s daughters, the young Roseanna McCoy, would stir the pot to boiling over with her involvement with a young Hatfield man, Johnson “Johnse” Hatfield.
One writer, in trying to match Roseanne McCoy and Johnse Hatfield more closely to the Romeo and Juliet ideal, had even gone so far as to knock a few years off her age to place her closer to Johnse’s own age of 18 years.
This, too, is not true. By the time Roseanna and Johnse Hatfield began their mostly sexual relationship Roseanna was 21 years old, and a legal adult. Her level of sexual experience is unclear; one (perhaps naïve) modern source claimed she was probably a virgin when meeting Johnse, but this seems unlikely. She probably had some experience with men before meeting him. She was a typical mountain girl, looking for whatever decent mate might present himself. This does not suggest Roseanna was a conniving, manipulative vamp out on the prowl for a kill – she was just a young woman looking for a good time and love, not necessarily in that order.
Unfortunately, the most convenient target was the teenage boy Johnse Hatfield (himself with a bit of a reputation for “enjoying” the local girls), and he would have been an easy and willing partner for Roseanna (who knew of his family’s wealth and connections). It made sense she would set her cap for him (unattached and from a materially well-off family by the day’s standards) in a region sorely lacking in available men of means.
Johnse, striking gold by finding a ready and compliant sex partner, would have gladly followed her anywhere. At least, for a time.
Election Day Tryst
Elections were great social events in the mountainous areas of eastern Kentucky. Men swapped goods and stories, got drunk, and dozed. Local women (though not allowed to vote) visited with each other and gossiped. A quaint custom for women was the baking of gingerbread, brought to the polling places as token gestures of bribery for the voting men. Elections were generally good times for these people with much celebrating and carousing. The festivities were not missed by many, and Election Day of 1880 was no different.
Johnse Hatfield, as would any other teenage boy living in the area at that time, found his way to Jerry Hatfield’s Kentucky residence where the voting party was held (even though he could not vote: he was only 18 and not of voting age, and as a West Virginia resident he was ineligible to vote in Kentucky). He arrived in the height of fashion (or his ability) that day: yellow shoes and a new mail-order suit.
Johnse, despite his youth, was a well-established bootlegger in the area and had several outstanding violations pending against him in Kentucky. He and Roseanna met at the daytime party and within a short period had retired to a nearby scrub brush area. They emerged some time later; the sun was beginning to set and Roseanna realized her brother, Tolbert, had left for home without her. She was fearful of being discovered in congress with a Hatfield, and expressed that concern to Johnse. He suggested she come home with him to the Hatfield family cabin.
Roseanna joined the Hatfield household. Anderson Hatfield, however, was not at all pleased with his boy’s choice of partner, and he hated the idea of the two perhaps marrying. His reason for disapproval may have had to do with Johnse’s relatively young age (though people in the mountains tended to marry young, often of necessity in classic “shotgun” weddings). But more likely it was because he did not relish the idea of adding yet another McCoy to the Hatfield household (intermarrying, as noted, was very common). He ultimately refused to allow the two to marry.
Neither was his wife, Levisa (sometimes called “Levicy” or “Vicey”, for short), keen on her boy marrying Roseanna. Vicey, unlike her husband, probably knew Johnse would only make Roseanna miserable with his philandering ways and likely did not want to see the young woman hurt by him.
A few months after Roseanna’s defection her mother, Sarah, sent her sisters to beg her to return. According to some historians, she reluctantly agreed to return to her own kin because of Johnse’s wandering eye (so much for the unrequited love scenario that romantics like to build).
Roseanna’s return to her own family was short-lived, however. Randolph McCoy’s nagging reproaches ultimately led her to retreat to the home of an aunt, Betty McCoy, in Stringtown, Kentucky. Aunt Betty’s house was closer to Johnse, and afforded an ease where they could meet without prying eyes.
Roseanna’s brothers, however, hated the relationship between their sister and the Hatfield boy. One night, as Johnse and Roseanna met near Aunt Betty’s, a group of McCoy men surrounded them. Young Johnse was taken prisoner (allegedly for his outstanding Kentucky warrants), and the vigilantes headed for the Pikeville jail.
Roseanna believed the group would kill Johnse at the first convenient spot. She borrowed a neighbor’s horse and rode, bareback, to Anderson Hatfield’s place in Logan County, West Virginia. Anderson took up arms; with some of his sons and neighbors he used a shortcut and met the McCoys. Anderson took custody of his son, and no one was injured.
Roseanna did not fare well in the wake of this incident. Johnse could not risk returning to Kentucky to see her. Anderson did not want her around, either. She went back to Randolph McCoy wCredit: public domain; tourpikecounty.comho considered her warning ride out to the Hatfield compound an unforgivable, traitorous sin.
Hopeless, and pregnant with Johnse’s baby, she lived amid her family’s hostility and her own shame. She managed a live birth in 1880, a girl she named Sarah Elizabeth, but the baby died from measles about eight months later. Roseanna went to live then, in 1881, with the lawyer, Perry Cline, and his wife, Martha, to help them care for their children.
To add insult to Roseanna’s injury (considering she did save Johnse’s life, no doubt) he married Roseanna’s 16-year-old cousin, Nancy McCoy, only a few months later, on May 14, 1881.
After Ellison died the Hatfields sought revenge. On August 9, 1882 (the same day Ellison died), a Hatfield posse captured the three McCoy sons, tied them to some bushes, and sprayed them with bullets. Sarah McCoy was on hand to witness this execution.
This incident just led to a string of meaningless, violent acts. The Hatfields believed someone was feeding information to the McCoy household of Hatfield movements. They turned on Mary Elliot, sister of Nancy McCoy (Johnse Hatfield’s wife). A Hatfield party barged into her home and “horse-whipped” both her and her daughter with a cow’s tail as a warning. When Mary’s brother, Jeff McCoy, tried to seek revenge, he was arrested, escaped from bonds, and quickly shot on the banks of the Tug Fork.
Discovery of coal had brought the Norfolk & Western Railroad through Anderson Hatfield’s land, hugely increasing its value. Virtually overnight, state politicians became obsessed with economic development in the mountains. The bad press from the Hatfield-McCoy feud made this development difficult and embarrassing for both Kentucky and West Virginia. Something needed to be done to stop the feud.
In 1887, the lawyer (and McCoy relative) Perry Cline (whom Anderson Hatfield had bested in a land grant dispute involving 5000 acres in the early 1870s) persuaded Kentucky’s governor Simon Buckner to authorize a posse to cross into West Virginia and arrest the Hatfields (for the murders of the McCoy brothers and other acts of vigilantism in the area). The Kentucky posse fought a few battles with the Hatfield group. Several people on both sides were killed.
Public opinion over this outrageous arson went against the Hatfields. The leader of the posse assigned to capture the Hatfields, Frank Phillips, began his work with new names on his list of suspects, even though he did not have properly filed extradition papers to remove anyone from West Virginia.
West Virginia’s governor, as a counter-move to keep Phillips’ Kentucky raiders out of his state, put up a reward offer, and sued Kentucky for the unlawful arrest of nine prisoners. The “unlawful arrest” case went to the United States Supreme Court; the Court ruled in favor of Kentucky, saying that “even if a fugitive is returned from the asylum state illegally instead of through lawful means no federal law prevents trying him”.
The men were tried in Kentucky (primarily for Alifair McCoy’s murder) and all were found guilty. Seven received life imprisonment. Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts received a death sentence and was hanged February 18, 1890. Thousands attended the hanging in Pikeville, Kentucky.
Hostilities between the families eased after the hanging of Ellison Mounts. Follow-up trials continued for years afterwards; the trial of Johnse Hatfield was the last of the feud trials in 1901.
Johnse Hatfield (convicted separately from, and later than, the others in the feud crimes) was pardoned when he saved the life of Lt. Gov. William Pryor Thorne. Thorne was attacked by an inmate during a prison inspection. His wife, Nancy McCoy, had long since left him. She moved in with and (upon the pair’s mutual divorces) eventually married Johnse’s pursuer, Frank Phillips. Nancy died when she was 36 years old.
Jim Vance, the conspirator involved in starting the feud in 1865 with the murder plot of Asa Harmon McCoy (though not Asa’s killer himself) was gunned down by Frank Phillips in January 1888 in the feud battles.
Valentine “Uncle Wall” Hatfield (Anderson’s older brother) died in prison (sentenced to 14 years in 1888) of unknown causes. He had petitioned his brothers to aid in his emancipation; none came for fear of being captured and brought to trial. He was buried in the prison cemetery (since paved over).
“Doc” D. Mahon (Valentine’s son-in-law) was one of the eight convicted to end the feud. He served his prison term, and then returned home to live with his son, Melvin.
Pliant Mahon (Valentine’s son-in-law and “Doc” Mahon’s brother) was also one of the eight convicted to end the feud. He likewise served his prison time, then went home to rejoin his ex-wife, who had remarried (she left her second husband to be with Pliant again).
William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield (lower left) became a baptized, born-again Christian in 1911. He died of pneumonia on January 6, 1921.
Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy (lower right) caught on fire while cooking over a stove. He died of his burns on March 28, 1914. [His wife, Sarah, had died sometime in the 1890s, and he lived alone.]
In the wake of the last trial the McCoys and the Hatfields made their peace with each other, publicly burying the feud hatchet on more than one occasion (even appearing on the game show Family Feud in 1979). Their feud has been glamorized, satirized, romanticized, and immortalized in many forms (books, cartoons, movies, and television).
The area of West Virginia where the Hatfields lived is now Mingo County (not Logan County). Local tourism invites inspection of the area. It is worthwhile to go there, stand on the banks of the creek, and place oneself in Randolph McCoy’s shoes, staring off up into the mountain mists, perhaps wondering where Roseanna went. Or, if one imagines being a Hatfield, one might wonder who just fired that shotgun blast overhead.
Either way, these skirmishes were much informed by family dynamics, class struggles, economic issues, the insularity of the area, and politics. The Hatfield-McCoy Feud was more complex than popular belief allows. They weren’t just a bunch of ignorant hillbillies shootin’ up each other over a stolen pig!
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