A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How did the Hatfield-McCoy feud end, anyway?

October 30, 2007

Who won, the Hatfields or the McCoys?

Rather than rekindle any hard feelings up in the Appalachians, let's just say it was a draw.

Really, there’s no way to answer the question. From 1875 onwards, the most famous family feud in American history resulted in 12 deaths within the two families, plus those of several bounty hunters hoping to earn rewards offered by one side for the capture of parties on the other. Although the feud theoretically ended in 1891, it wasn’t until 1976 that representatives from the two sides came together to shake hands, and even that wasn’t the end of all contentiousness; in 2000, the issue of access to a historic cemetery led to a legal dispute that set Hatfields against McCoys yet again. The court battle ended with a compromise in which both sides claimed victory, and that’s a fair way to describe the outcome of the feud's earlier, more violent phase as well. Both sides lost lives, but neither could be said to have gotten the worst of it.

Tensions between the two families had been escalating steadily since the Civil War. The Hatfields fought on the side of the Confederacy, though they lived in the area of Virginia that would break away to become West Virginia precisely because of local opposition to Virginia's secession from the United States. Their neighbors the McCoys, living primarily in Kentucky, across a stream called the Tug Fork, fought on the Union side. Some historians trace the beginnings of the fight to the death of Harmon McCoy, who was discharged early from the Union army with a broken leg and later found murdered in the mountains. But in the years following the war a number of land-boundary disputes broke out between members of the two families, and these came to a head in 1873 over ownership of a hog: Floyd Hatfield had the hog on land he claimed was his, while Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy claimed the hog belonged to him. Called upon to settle the matter, the local justice of the peace awarded the animal to Floyd Hatfield. This was perhaps unsurprising, the judge being one Anderson Hatfield; apparently the concept of judicial recusal was not widely accepted at the time. Bill Staton, a witness for the Hatfield side (though he was related to both families), was subsequently killed by two McCoy brothers. This sparked a sequence of retaliatory arson and murder that ultimately found its way to the United States Supreme Court, which in 1888 ruled on an issue raised after a posse kidnapped eight Hatfields from Virginia to stand trial in Kentucky for a McCoy murder.

What would an epic family feud be without a pair of star-crossed lovers? Here Juliet was played by Roseanna McCoy and Romeo by Johnse Hatfield. In an effort to derail the romance budding between the two, some McCoys kidnapped Johnse, upon which Roseanna made a clandestine midnight ride to alert his father (and Anderson's brother), the fractious “Devil Anse” Hatfield, revealing Johnse's whereabouts and thus leading to his rescue. The Shakespeare analogy goes only so far: despite her having chosen disloyalty to her family rather than see him come to harm, Johnse wound up dumping the pregnant Roseanna and marrying her cousin Nancy McCoy. This, as you might imagine, did nothing to calm the ire of the other McCoys; shortly thereafter Devil Anse’s brother Ellison was killed by three of Roseanna’s brothers, who were murdered in turn by other Hatfield kin.

In 1891 the families unofficially agreed to stop fighting, but the conflict had already received widespread newspaper coverage, quickly becoming a comic emblem of vicious backwoods feuding that would be referred to countless times over the coming decades. In 2003, CBS’s Saturday Early Show broadcast an event at which clan descendants Reo Hatfield and Bo McCoy signed an “official truce” between the families – an uncontroversial move, considering the last death attributed to the feud was by then over a century old.

Sources:

Jones, V.C., The Hatfields and the McCoys, 1948

CBS News, "Official End of Legendary Feud," June 14, 2003

Hatfield-McCoy information at the town Web site of Matewan, West Virginia

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