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Monday, February 25, 2013


“The Hatfields and McCoys” is the most famous “feud” in American history. It raged on and off over more than 35 years from the end of the Civil War until 1901.
In the early 19th Century both families had settled in the Tug Valley along the Kentucky-West Virginia border. The McCoys put down roots on the Kentucky side of a stream called Tug Fork, while the Hatfields lived on the West Virginia side. By the time of the Civil War each family was headed by an ambitious and confrontational man. The McCoy family was led by Randolph McCoy. The patriarch of the Hatfield clan was William “Devil Anse” Hatfield.
Trouble started during the Civil War; the Hatfields fighting for the Confederacy and the McCoys for the Union. After being discharged from the Union Army, young Harmon McCoy, returning home from the war, was hunted down and killed by resentful Hatfield kin folk.
Bitter feelings really began to rise about ten years later when Randolph McCoy accused a Hatfield man of stealing one of his pigs. The Hatfield’s contended that the pig belonged to them because it was on their property, even though it was tagged as one belonging to Randolph McCoy. The case went to court. The presiding judge was a Hatfield who decided in favor of the defendant. Tempers flared in court with threats exchanged and future reprisals promised. Not long after, the key witness in the trial, who testified in favor of the Hatfields, was killed by two McCoy brothers. They in turn were found not guilty due to self defense. 
Purloined pigs, crooked courts, and rising resentment fueled even more violence. Hostilities peaked in 1882 when three of Randolph McCoy’s sons killed Ellison Hatfield, the brother of “Devil Anse” Hatfield, leader of the Hatfield family. “Devil Anse” retaliated by capturing and executing the three McCoy brothers, without a trial of course, by tying them to a tree and shooting them. The accompanying photo shows heavily armed Hatfields.
Violence surged and receded for the next few years. In 1887, a lawyer, the cousin of Randolph McCoy, used his influence to have the murder indictments reissued against the Hatfield boys who had killed the McCoy brothers. Their extradition from West Virginia to trial in Kentucky was slow and frustrating, so the McCoys raided the Hatfield settlement taking several men captive back to Kentucky for trial.
The Hatfields were enraged and planned to kill Randolph McCoy. On January 1, 1888, a party of Hatfield men surrounded McCoy’s home and opened fire on his family sleeping inside. They set fire to the house killing two of Randolph’s children and beating his wife, who they left for dead. This has been called the New Year’s Night Massacre.
Now the conflict expanded. It was not only between the two families, but between Kentucky and West Virginia. The Governors of both states called up the National Guard as more retaliation raids were made by the McCoys into West Virginia. The governor of West Virginia accused Kentucky of violating the extradition process and took the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled against West Virginia (and therefore damaging the Hatfield cause). All eight Hatfield men were found guilty of murder by a Kentucky jury; seven were sentenced to life in prison and one was executed for murdering the daughter of Randolph McCoy.
The bloodshed had finally reached its finale, but the “Hatfields and McCoys” became an American metaphor for any harsh rivalry.
Tensions eased over the years. In 1979, representatives of the two families appeared on the TV show “Family Feud.” A pig was prominently displayed on stage during the game. The two families even held a joint family reunion in 2000, but no one was quite ready to forget what happened those many years ago. “We feel that through the press the Hatfields and McCoys played a big role in the stereotyping of Appalachia. We were not ruthless, illiterate hillbillies murdering each other over a pig” (Sonya Hatfield). You can be the judge of that.

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