The feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families of Appalachia has transcended its origins as a bloody multi-generational backcountry conflict to become a metaphor for all vendettas. Yet, despite its lexical fame and inherent drama, it has rarely been depicted on television outside of documentaries, cartoons (Bugs Bunny, The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo have all done versions) and a particularly awesome episode arc of Family Feud. Starting Monday at 9:00 PM EST, the History Channel will step into that void with Hatfields & McCoys, a three-episode miniseries starring Kevin Costner as William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy.
I understand the show is basically faithful to the historical record, although of course it’s fictionalized to some degree. If you don’t want to read spoilers for something that happened 140 years ago, stop here. If you want to follow in the footsteps of these most notorious of feuders, check out the Pike County website which has a handy printable brochure (pdf) describing the key Hatfield-McCoy landmarks, as well as tips for other activities in the area, places to eat, hike, etc. They also have a companion CD to enhance your Hatfield-McCoy driving tour. Call Pike County Tourism at (800) 844-7453 or contact them via email to purchase a copy.
And now for the backstory.
The Hatfields and McCoys were early settlers of Tug Valley, an area on the border between Kentucky and what is now West Virginia. The Hatfields lived mainly on the West Virginia side in Mingo County, the McCoys on the Kentucky side in Pike County. During the Civil War, the Hatfields fought for the Confederacy while the McCoys sided with the Union. The trauma of the war underpinned much of the conflict between the two families.
In fact, the first to die at the hands of the other family was Asa Harmon McCoy, a Union soldier who returned home after breaking his leg. He was immediately threatened by a posse of ex-Confederate vigilantes headed by Devil Anse Hatfield who called themselves the “Logan Wildcats.” After he was shot at while drawing water from his well, Asa Harmon fled his home and hid in a cave. The Wildcats found him by following his slave Pete (yes, the Union soldier had a slave well after the Emancipation Proclamation) to the cave where they shot Asa dead on January 7, 1865.
The McCoys blamed Devil Anse, who as it happened was not among the killers that day because he was home sick. It was Devil Anse’s uncle Jim Vance who probably did the killing. Nobody was ever brought to trial. Much of the community, even many members of his own family, thought Asa had it coming for fighting for the Union, so no witnesses ever came forward and the case was never officially solved.
It was 13 years before tensions erupted again; this time the central bone of contention was a pig. The McCoys said the pig belonged to them, but the Hatfields claimed that since it was found on their property, it was now theirs. Unlike the murder of Asa Harmon, the pressing matter of the pig was taken to court, or rather, to the home of the local Justice of the Peace, Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield. Bill Staton, who was related to both feuding families, testified for the Hatfields and the Hatfield judge ruled in the Hatfields’ favor.
Two McCoy men took their revenge by killing Staton. They were acquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defense.
The next year came the Romeo and Juliet portion when Roseanna McCoy, daughter of Randolph, and Devil Anse’s son Johnson “Johnse” Hatfield fell in love. She squealed on her own family in order to save Johnse when they captured him. Despite that and despite the fact that she was pregnant with his child, Johnse married someone else, specifically, Roseanna’s cousin Nancy. The McCoys were less than pleased, and in 1882 Roseanna’s brothers Tolbert, Pharmer, and Bud killed Ellison Hatfield, Devil Anse’s younger brother.
The brothers were on their way to trial when Devil Anse captured them, waited until Ellison died of his wounds, and then killed all three of them in retribution. Sadly, that wasn’t even the peak of the violence. The culmination of this murderous madness came in 1888 with the New Year’s Night Massacre. The Hatfields, led by Uncle Jim Vance, surrounded Randolph McCoy’s home in the dark of night and shot up the cabin before setting it on fire. Randolph managed to escape, but two of his children were killed and his wife was beaten severely and left for dead.
By now the murders were making headline news all over the country. The governors of Kentucky and West Virginia were under pressure to stop the slaughter. Devil Anse’s brother Wall (played in the History Channel mini-series by Powers Boothe who was so chillingly brilliant as Cy Tolliver on Deadwood) and seven other Hatfields were arrested for one of the New Year’s Night Massacre killings. After legal vicissitudes that reached as high as the United States Supreme Court, all of the men were found guilty. Seven were condemned to life in prison. Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts was sentenced to hang from his neck until dead.
Although trials on various Hatfield-McCoy charges continued into the 20th century, the bloody murder sprees stopped after the hanging. Almost a hundred years passed before Hatfields and McCoys shook hands in 1976. That laid the groundwork for that awesome three-parter of Family Feud in 1979, and by 2000 the Hatfield and McCoy descendants were having joint family reunions. They officially signed a truce document in 2003, inspired to come together permanently by the events of September 11, 2001.