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Taking Another Look at the Hatfields and McCoys

Appalachia Revisited

Photo by Kody Dahl / Unsplash

If America has ever had a non-pluralistic culture, it was Appalachia in the nineteenth century before the coal mining started: Poor, backward, an area left behind by the increasing industrialization of America, its denizens isolated from the increasing influence of America's mass media.

It was here that the shooting began, leaving a dozen Hatfields and McCoys dead over a span of twelve years from 1879 to 1891 on the banks of the Tug River along the Kentucky/West Virginia border.

It apparently all started over a pig. In the fall of 1878, Randolph McCoy sued Floyd Hatfield for stealing his hog. The local judge convened a jury evenly divided between Hatfields and McCoys. The court ruled against McCoy.

The judge's insistence on dividing the jury between Hatfields and McCoys strongly indicates that tension already existed between the families. No one knows the source of the tension, but it seems that it started from the first trickling of industrialization and profit in Appalachia following the Civil War. The high quality hardwood timber of Appalachia was in high demand throughout America, and the Hatfield clan had profited well from it (possibly from deceitful practices against their neighbors, thus resulting in the hard feelings). The Hatfields were also somewhat flamboyant and boastful, which added to their neighbors' jealousy.

After the bitter lawsuit, things settled down between the families, until Johnse Hatfield (the son of the most successful woodcutter Hatfield, Devil Anse) seduced Randolph McCoy's daughter, Roseanna. She got pregnant. Johnse wouldn't marry her. Tensions rose. In 1882, three of Randolph's sons (Roseanna's brothers) murdered Johnse's uncle (Devil Anse's brother) by stabbing him 26 times and shooting him in the back. Devil Anse retaliated by arranging the “execution” of the three boys.

Startled by the murders, the Appalachian hollows settled down for a few years, until news spread that the Norfolk and Western Railroad Company planned to build a line to link Virginia with the Ohio River. The line would run through the Tug Valley and its landowners would profit immensely. Devil Anse owned 5,000 acres. Perry Cline, an influential attorney and member of the McCoy clan, thought he rightly owned the land, but had lost it in a lawsuit that Devil Anse had brought against him a few years earlier. In 1887, the bitter Cline sought to extradite nine Hatfields for the murder of the McCoy boys. But that takes awhile, so, in the meantime, he hired a posse to hunt and capture the nine Hatfields. The McCoy and Hatfield feud was now back in full swing. Randolph McCoy's house was burned and two more of his sons were killed. Military-like skirmishes took place along the Kentucky and West Virginia border. Some say the feud was beginning to resemble a war between Kentucky and West Virginia.

Enough was enough. The authorities and U.S. Supreme Court got involved. The Supreme Court ruled that the Hatfields allegedly involved in the execution of the three McCoy boys in 1882 should be extradited to Kentucky for trial (which resulted in one hanging and three life sentences). Devil Anse, fearful that he might be extradited for trial, sold his lucrative acreage and moved away, thus ending the feud.

We tend to laugh at, or think condescendingly toward, those backward and primitive Appalachians from the pre-Depression era. But the last laugh is on us. Those backward Appalachians, those feuding Hatfield and McCoys, they were on the cutting edge.

I can visualize one of those hillbillies addressing a bunch of us sophisticated Americans. He's standing there in shirtless overalls, pointing his finger, saying in his hillbilly drawl:

“Yeah, I's knows. Dozen killings in a dozen years, and all because of a danged hog. Or a bunch of hogs. Sexual hogs and money hogs. Hillbilly sexual libertinism. Flamboyant boastfulness. Bast'ud child. Dee-seet in them business practices. Lawsuits. Abuse of process. Greed. Even nonsense killings. It all looks daggone familiar, too daggone familiar. You's take away them hillbilly backgrounds, and you done gots yourself a fine picture of modern America in the inner cities, rural towns, Wall Street, Hollywood, professional sports, even the White House recently. You done gots it all, 'cept, of course, the strong sense of family.”

Economically, we're not the backward Appalachians of the late nineteenth century, but, culturally, those Appalachians weren't as backward as we presume and we're not as far removed from them as we like to think.