The feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys is well-known by many Americans. It’s been spread through storytelling among those who lived in the area where it took place. Popular culture and Hollywood have also raised awareness of the bitter “war” between the two families. But very little is known by most about the true details of the fight between the two families — including how long it took place or how many lives were lost.
Where do you stand on the issue? Do you favor one family over the other? Or are you somewhat in the dark about what the fight was all about in the first place?
Patriarchs Led Both Families
Both families were led by two patriarchal heads. In West Virginia, William Anderson Hatfield, better known by many in the area as “Devil Anse,” led the Hatfield family. William (pictured here) was a timber merchant and had earned a modest living from his business, and even employed several individuals to work for his company.
Randolph “Old Ranel” McCoy, on the other hand, was less well-off, but not in a bad economic situation by any means either. He led the McCoys on the Kentucky side of the river. He was a livestock farmer and owned quite a bit of land in the area.
Where It All Began
The Hatfield-McCoy Feud took place in two separate states, Kentucky and West Virginia, and started sometime around 1863. It lasted until 1891. The families lived on lands that ran along the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River between the two states.
The Hatfields lived along the eastern side of the river in West Virginia, while the McCoys lived on the western parts of the Big Sandy, in the easternmost parts of the state of Kentucky. These rules weren’t strict, of course, because, as you’ll find out later, some forces actually brought Hatfields and McCoys to live in closer proximity to one another.
What Started The Feud?
There aren’t any doubts that the feud was legitimate. Many people from both sides of the family were harmed during the many years that the “war” took place, and some even suffered fatal injuries. But what exactly started the animosities? No one is really sure.
According to traditional folklore about the feud, it’s widely believed that a dispute over a piece of livestock was to blame. The story goes like this: Old Ranel McCoy believed that Devil Anse Hatfield had taken one of his hogs from his farm. From there, the feud just kept escalating. It’s a story that might not be the real basis for the fight between the families, but one that makes for an entertaining story nevertheless!
A Death Made Things Worse
Others believe that a hog didn’t play a role, but the death of a McCoy family member did. Asa Harmon McCoy served in the Union Army during the Civil War (even though most of his family was sympathetic to the Confederacy). When he returned, he paid with his life, likely because his assailant viewed him as a traitor.
It’s widely believed that Asa’s death was caused by a militia group called the Logan Wildcats. Among its members were several Hatfield family members, including Devil Anse, the family’s patriarch. It’s never been proven, however, that any of the Hatfield members took part in Asa’s death.
The Civil War
For anyone to serve on either side of the Civil War in this region was a very controversial thing. A lot of allegiances were given to the Union by people in both states (West Virginia itself was created out of counties from Virginia that opposed joining the Confederacy).
Yet at the same time, the states themselves could be bitterly divided — Kentucky was a slave state that stayed loyal to the U.S., but a pseudo shadow government supporting the Confederate States of America was active at the time of Asa’s death. Kentucky would never officially join the CSA, but the rebelling nation did include in its flag a star that was meant to represent the state alongside others that did leave the Union.
Bloodlines Didn’t Always Define The Fight
The Hatfield and the McCoy families obviously fought with one another based on familial legacies, but it didn’t always correspond that way. Both families found “allies” in their communities, for instance, who weren’t part of the bloodlines but who sympathized with their “cause.” There were other things in life that couldn’t be avoided, and sometimes members from one family ended up siding with the “opposing side.”
What could cause this kind of thing to happen? Love, for starters. While it probably wasn’t common, it wasn’t unheard of for members of the McCoys or Hatfields to end up marrying one another, even while the feud was going on. Another event that sometimes led to members switching sides was employment — if someone got a job from the opposite family, they were usually less inclined to take part in the fight.
The Feud Lasted A Long Time
As already noted, the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys lasted for quite some time, more than a few decades in fact. Though the exact origin of the feud isn’t completely known, it’s believed to have started sometime near the middle of the Civil War, close to 1863. The families stopped fighting one another in 1891, with no additional hostilities after that point.
To make sure the fight was over for real, representatives from the two sides came together and shook hands with one another in 1976. It wouldn’t be the only time the two sides came together, either…
People Actually Lost Lives
Getting into a fight with your neighbor is one thing, and plenty of feuds have started over the years because of back-and-forth bickering. But this fight between the McCoys and the Hatfields actually resulted in deaths for both sides of the family.
At the end of it all, the various scuffles and chance meetings between the feuding factions resulted in at least 13 deaths. It would take many years before the feuding would come to an end…but who would be the family to “win” the feud? To learn about that, you’ll have to read on and find out more about how the “war” finally came to an end!
Featured In Life Magazine
During the height of World War II, Americans joined Allies overseas to fight the Axis powers. But the efforts of American citizens were important, too, as nearly every single citizen of the country had to make sacrifices in order to help out with the war effort. This meant a lot of cooperation was necessary, and the Hatfields and McCoys were no different.
Although fighting between the two sides had been over for almost 50 years by that point, Life magazine featured some of the family members in an article to demonstrate that the two most famous feuding families in America were joining together to help the cause of the Allies. Pictured: Shirley Hatfield, 17 (left), and Mrs. Frankie McCoy Wellman, who worked together.
The Families Signed A Truce In The 21st Century
Fighting between the families ended in 1891. The two sides came together for a photo spread in Life magazine. And there was a handshake in 1976 that symbolized unity as well. But in June of 2003, the Hatfields and McCoys finally made things official, signing a truce between themselves that put an end to any chances of future hostilities.
Appearing on the CBS Saturday Early Show together that year, the families announced that the truce read, in part, that the two sides “do hereby and formally declare an official end to all hostilities, implied, inferred and real, between the families, now and forevermore.”
From American Folklore To Pop Culture
The Hatfield and McCoy feud became the stuff of American folklore and legend over the decades after it ended. It eventually spiraled beyond the realm of traditional storytelling to become a part of the nation’s lexicon itself. If two sides of an argument were described as fighting like the Hatfields and the McCoys, it was widely understood that the argument had taken a turn for the worse.
Eventually, the feud (even though it had been long over) seeped into popular culture. Cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and the gang from Scooby-Doo featured the feuding families (or depictions of them), and even Abbott & Costello got into the act, using the Hatfields and McCoys as comedic fodder.
It’s said that the feud between the families inspired a well-known game show — Family Feud, which pits two families against one another, answering questions as they try to determine how 100 individuals answered themselves on surveys.
If the show was indeed inspired by the feuding families, it doesn’t appear that the two sides were mad about it — in fact, as it turns out, the Hatfields and the McCoys got into the act themselves!
Playing For A Hog
Since the show seemed to be about two feuding families going up against one another in a competitive manner, it only seemed right that the Hatfields and the McCoys should be on the program as well. In 1979, the two families competed on Family Feud, which had only debuted itself a few years prior.
And the grand prize? It was a pig, which according to legend was the source of the fighting in the first place. So who eventually won the program? It was a best-of-five series, and it was a pretty close outcome.
Dressing The Part
During the filming of their Family Feud special, the two sides even wore outfits that matched what their ancestors would probably have worn during the height of the “war,” and carried fake guns on the set to “threaten” the other side! One can only imagine what the deceased family members might have thought of the spectacle — would they laugh about it, or were some rolling over in their graves??
Between the five games they played against each other for the special, the McCoys came out on top, winning three games to two against the Hatfields. However, if you take into account total winnings, the Hatfields actually won more money during the course of all five episodes! It looked like the feud would live on…at least, in a jovial way.
A Hatfield-McCoy Miniseries
In 2012, a television miniseries called Hatfields & McCoys aired on the History channel, depicting the bloody battle between the families. It starred some pretty big names, too, including Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton as the patriarchal heads of the Hatfields and the McCoys, respectively.
The series aired over three episodes, with each lasting two hours. It was a well-received television event, with critics giving it decent marks (it has a 71 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes). The series won a Golden Globe for Best Actor for a TV miniseries or made-for-television film, with Costner taking home the award.
The End Of The Feud
After one of their family members, Jim Vance, was slain, the Hatfield family decided to try a major offensive against the McCoy family. Apparently, word of their plans reached the McCoys before the offensive began, so it wasn’t going to be much of a surprise attack…and unfortunately for the Hatfields, they weren’t aware that their plot had slipped out.
When word did reach the McCoys, the Hatfields were already on their way, with weapons loaded and ready for a big fight. They were stopped short on the way to the McCoy family’s estate, however, and a battle ensued that would end the violent part of the feud once and for all…
Battle Of The Grapevine Creek
The McCoys managed to intercept the invading Hatfields near the Grapevine Creek, which is on the West Virginia side of the Tug Fork River. Shots were fired back and forth between both families. It would probably have been a stalemate, were it not for the quick strategizing of the McCoy family.
A group of McCoys managed to get a number of Hatfields to meet and fight in a particular area of the battlefield. Unbeknownst to the Hatfields, a second group of McCoys came around the side to flank the Hatfields, too, and the family suffered lots of casualties as a result. Many retreated, but some were taken prisoner by the McCoys.
Trial Of The Hatfields
After the 1888 skirmish, the McCoys, who had a number of Hatfields captive, sought and gained permission from the state of Kentucky to put their prisoners on trial. As a result, every single member of the captured Hatfield family was found guilty of various crimes that occurred throughout the feud.
Each of the “guilty” Hatfields was sentenced to time in prison, and not a short time at that — they all received life sentences, save for one. Cottontop Ellison Mounts, the illegitimate son of Ellison Hatfield, was sentenced to death, after it was discovered that he had been the Hatfield who had slain Randall McCoy’s daughter.
The Supreme Court Got Involved
Before the trial began, the two states defended their respective families. West Virginia felt that the Hatfields had been unduly extradited to Kentucky, while Kentucky argued they (and the McCoys) had the right to try them.
The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the McCoys and Kentucky, which allowed the trials to commence. The violence stopped after the hanging of Cottontop, but more trials between the families continued, up until 1901. After that, the feud seemed to fade away, and after several decades, the two families actually befriended each other at times, as pointed out earlier.
Did Genetics Make The Feud More Violent?
In a study conducted in 2007, researchers looked into the genetic makeup of several McCoy descendants. They discovered that there was a higher-than-usual rate of Von Hippel-Lindau disease. The condition causes tumors in the eyes, ears, pancreas, and adrenal glands.
Another side effect of the disease is that it can cause the “fight or flight” reaction in humans to go into overdrive. Indeed, many of the McCoy family members recalled to researchers the antagonistic nature of some of their older family members. Could this have played a part in the growing tensions of the feud?