Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900, by Altina Waller

We welcome a guest post from Altina L. Waller, author of Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900. The famous family feud was the subject of the recent History Channel miniseries “Hatfields and McCoys”. Waller was interviewed extensively for the accompanying documentary to the miniseries. We asked her what she thought of the dramatic portrayal, and this is her response.


Almost twenty-five years ago I finished writing my book on the violent conflict in Appalachia that came to define feuds everywhere. After ten years of research I thought I had clearly laid out what happened and why, at least as far as the historical documents allowed. I tried to cut through the myths and legends associated with this iconic event and bring it into the realm of a documentable historical event. Somewhat self-satisfied I went on to other projects, gratified by many reviewers’ comments that the book actually did reveal social roots of the violence in understandable if not condonable conflict over land, timber rights, and a changing way of life. Alas, the latest incarnation of the famous feud as portrayed in the Kevin Costner-produced made-for-TV movie has brought me down to earth with a resounding thump, for here are the old myths and legends fully intact.

What caused the feud? Costner implies that it was the Civil War. Although he avoids the old myth that the McCoys were Unionists and the Hatfields Confederates, he tells us that Anse Hatfield and Randal McCoy fought together for the South, but when Anse decided to go home and deserted, Randal never forgave him. Home after the War, Randal still regarded Anse with suspicion and hatred, accusing a Hatfield cousin of stealing his hog and Anse himself of a lack of Christian behavior (not clear what that was). Soon, according to Costner, violence escalates way out of proportion to the original disagreement, lending credence to the myth of Appalachians being inherently violent. Even though Anse makes some attempts to stop it, the film gives the impression that the entire Hatfield clan was lined up on the West Virginia side of the river ready to annihilate all McCoys on the Kentucky side of the river. 

In the film, the term “blood lust” is employed to explain why the violence continued, the implication being that causes no longer mattered once the killing began. The movie takes on the Johnse Hatfield/Roseanna McCoy romance by casting it in the familiar Romeo and Juliette framework—star-crossed lovers—ignoring all evidence to the contrary. So despite the effort to make a modern version of the feud which tries to realistically re-create the mountain setting (even though it was filmed in Romania) and use real events, these are put together in such a way as to reinforce the old myths of a backward mountain people who instinctively turned to violence for little or no reason. Discouraging.

Despite the film’s attempt to incorporate real events, it falls very short of putting them together in even an approximation of known facts. Although most McCoys and Hatfields were confederates, there is no evidence that I have found which supports a contention that Randal McCoy hated Anse Hatfield because of desertion from the army. Even after Randal’s brother Harmon was killed by a confederate guerrilla group, there is no evidence to suggest that the feud began at that moment. His brother, after all, was a Union soldier and thus considered by just about everyone in the Tug Valley to be a traitor. Yet the film proceeds from this erroneous foundation to show total war between Hatfields and McCoys. It does not explain why there is absolutely no feud activity between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the traditional beginning of feud events in 1878, a long thirteen years later. 

At that point Randal accuses Floyd Hatfield, only a distant cousin of Anse’s, of stealing his hog. A trial was held. Here the movie is correct; a trial, not a shootout occurred! But the movie shows that Devil Anse’s older brother Valentine, or Wall, was the judge, so of course the Hatfields won. But this is incorrect. The judge was Preacher Anse Hatfield, who lived on the Kentucky side of the river and was related to and friends with Randal McCoy. And the juror who tipped the balance voting for Hatfield ownership of the pig was a McCoy, Selkirk McCoy! What this demonstrates is something that is not at all clear in the film, that there were McCoys supporting Anse Hatfield and Hatfields supporting Randal McCoy. That brings into question the entire premise of a family war.

The next event, the romance between Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy is presented in a way to reinforce the family war theme when the reality undermines it. When Roseanna spends the night with Johnse, her father refuses to let her come home so she goes to live with Johnse in Devil Anse Hatfield’s home. Legend, reinforced in the film, says that Devil Anse let her live there but refused to allow them to marry. The film also portrays Johnse as a steadfast lover but in fact he began flirting with other women very soon after he and Roseanna began living together. Some evidence suggests that it was her decision to leave him even though she was pregnant. Soon thereafter, Johnse married Nancy McCoy, daughter of the traitor, Harmon McCoy. Devil Anse did not object to that marriage so it seems unlikely he would have objected to marriage between his son and Roseanna.

Some subsequent events are close to accurate. For example, the 1882 election day murder of Anse’s brother Ellison by three of Randal’s sons. Ellison was unarmed and actually trying to stop a fight when he was attacked by the three McCoy boys, stabbed multiple times, and then shot. Anse and Wall Hatfield then took the McCoys out of the custody of the Pike County Sheriff and crossed the river to West Virgina where they all waited to see whether or not Ellison would die of his wounds. When Ellison died, Anse and several followers killed the three McCoys execution style. These events are portrayed in lurid detail in all their brutality but no attempt is made to explain just why this next generation of young men were so out of control.

In the final episode of the film the last events are compressed together in such a way as to give the impression that all the battles and killings took place in rapid succession within days or weeks of each other in a blood bath that simply washed over the participants like a tidal wave. Only after the trial and hanging of one of Anse Hatfield’s nephews does Anse retreat, renounce violence, and eventually get himself baptized. At the end of the film, we are left with a tragedy allegedly set in motion by the Civil War but sustained by nothing more than ignorance, excessive family loyalty, and “blood lust,” resulting in completely unnecessary violence.

What is missing here is any social and economic context. True, the Civil War is the film’s encompassing social explanation, but it leaves me wondering why the set of social and economic circumstances that confronted folks in postwar Appalachia is completely ignored. In the Tug Valley, as in all Appalachia and even the entire South, economic decline was a serious threat to almost everyone. Agricultural families need lots of children to work the land and take care of household tasks; in this regard both Hatfield and McCoy families were typical in the large number of children—13 in both Randal’s family and Devil Anse’s family. As essential as children were, they also contributed to an economic crisis in a region where there was not enough land to support the burgeoning population. Statistics bear this out for the Tug Valley, where farm size was rapidly decreasing in the postwar years and many young men were unable to become independent farmers. Randal’s sons stayed home with him or worked as farm hands. Devil Anse’s sons worked on their father’s timber operation. In some ways this is a familiar pattern today with this lack of opportunity for young people, the fact that many cannot expect to do better economically than their parents. The problem of declining economic and social opportunity is more than just an economic issue; it fuels feelings of insecurity, frustration, and anger.

This background explains a lot about the feud. After the War, the United States went into rapid economic development mode that meant a huge demand for timber for building cities, houses, businesses. The Tug Valley, like most of Appalachia, had a lot of timber, but the land on which it stood had never had been highly valued because it wasn’t productive agricultural land. Almost overnight the demand for timber increased land values. Many small farmers attempted to take advantage of the market for timber. Randal McCoy worked with his father on a small timbering operation that ended badly because they did not own enough land. They made the mistake of cutting timber on someone else’s property. They were sued and not only lost everything, but the stress caused Randal’s parents to divorce. 

By contrast, Devil Anse started a very successful large timbering operation. He was able to do this because he discovered that his neighbor, Perry Cline (the slick mustached lawyer in the film) had cut timber on Hatfield land and sued him. As damages, the Court awarded Anse Hatfield 5,000 acres—all of Cline’s West Virginia land. Cline was forced to leave the Tug Valley. He went to Pikeville, Kentucky, where he became a druggist and a lawyer but, most significant for the future of the feud, made some important political connections. Cline’s hatred of Devil Anse only reinforced Randal’s obsessive resentment of Hatfield.

The so-called pig trial illustrates the connection between personal animosity and economic circumstances. Randal McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing his pig not because he was still angry about his brother’s death thirteen years before but because Floyd worked on Devil Anse’s timber crew. In fact, Floyd lived on the Kentucky side of the river and was related to the McCoys as much as to the Hatfields. What becomes very clear is that what, in Randal McCoy’s eyes, identified a member of the Hatfield group was not the Hatfield name but rather an affiliation with Devil Anse’s timber operation. Selkirk McCoy, the McCoy who voted against Randal in the pig trial, worked on Anse’s timber crew along with his two sons. Further, analysis of the 35-40 members of Anse’s work crew shows that many of them were not related to Devil Anse at all. What is significant is that Devil Anse was so successful that he was able to provide his partners and employees with economic rewards and social status that most Tug Valley farmers were actually losing. So the Hatfields were not a family group but rather an economic and social group that was defending its newly won prosperity. The inability of Randal to provide this kind of opportunity to his sons helps explain their drunken attack on the unarmed Ellison Hatfield. The economic crisis and declining opportunity in the Tug Valley and Appalachia created a situation ripe for resentment, aggression, and violence. Not old Civil War hatreds, not mountain culture, but very real economic and social threats created this conflict.

But it is also important to remember that not everyone, not even all Hatfields and McCoys, participated in the feud. There were only about 30 feudists on each side and many, many Hatfields and McCoys were horrified at the violence and tried to distance themselves from it. They, too, were feeling the effects of the economic crisis, but they did not resort to violence. This may have been why, after Devil Anse avenged the killing of his brother by executing the three McCoy boys, the feud went into remission. The state of Kentucky did indict Anse and several of his supporters but no attempt was made to extradite them to Kentucky; it seemed that local residents wanted to put the entire thing in the past. Many, after all, had witnessed the three McCoys attack and kill the unarmed Ellison and they hoped a rough kind of justice had been done. Five years passed with no further violent feud events.

But then, five years after the execution of the three McCoy boys, the feud was revived by Perry Cline. Cline, now an influential figure in Pikeville, used his influence to persuade the Governor of Kentucky to reissue indictments against the Hatfields and hired Frank Philips to lead a posse in order to capture Devil Anse and his supporters. This is what actually precipitated the most violent and notorious events of the feud. Private detectives flooded the valley to collect bounties by capturing or killing Hatfields, and the only pitched battle of the feud at Grapevine Creek took place. 

But the real question is how was Cline able to persuade the leaders of Pikeville and the Governor of the state to restart the feud? That is the crux of the matter. The film claims it was simply that Cline had the ear of the Governor who owed him a favor. But it is unbelievable that the Governor of Kentucky would restart a five year old violent conflict just to return a favor. So the crucial question is: What happened between the 1882 execution of the McCoy boys and 1887 when Cline managed to recast the feud into the Kentucky vs West Virginia feud?

What happened was that in the interim, politicians and businessmen in Kentucky learned that the Tug Valley, up until then considered the backwater of the state, contained valuable resources. A government commission reported that the region was rich in coal, another resource now in great demand by industrializing America, such great demand in fact, that the Norfolk & Western Railroad was proposing to build a railroad right smack through the Tug Valley. If timber had increased land values, the imminent building of a railroad made them instantly skyrocket. The mountain region of Kentucky had been a quaint backwater; now overnight it became Kentucky’s economic salvation. So Cline, harboring his own motives of revenge and hopes to get his land back, happened to be in the right place at the right time. He was able to convince the Governor that the barbaric Hatfields stood in the way of economic development. Only this potential economic bonanza can explain why the Governor would respond to Perry Cline’s rants against the Hatfields and his demands for revenge.

This second phase of the feud, the Cline-Hatfield phase, brought about the worst violence along with national notoriety. Eight of the desperate Hatfields attacked the McCoy cabin, killing two children. Both Governors authorized posses to do battle on the border and bounty hunters appeared in great numbers. Most of the initial newspaper reports came from Perry Cline, who was able to portray the Hatfields as the uncivilized barbarians. Yet, in the end, all mountaineers came to be tarred with that brush. The civilized capitalists who built railroads and coal mines were delighted to portray all mountaineers as ignorant, immoral, and violent, arguing that economic development—railroads and coal mines—would bring civilization to the region. What it did bring was more violence and more poverty.

Thus, the context that most helps to explain the feud is not the old rivalries of the Civil War but the agricultural crisis and rapid economic exploitation of the region occurring at exactly the same time as the events of the feud. That coincidence of timing alone suggests we take seriously the relationship between them.

Altina L. Waller is professor emerita of history at the University of Connecticut and author of Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900.