Feuding and Southern Appalachia: Case Study Hatfield-McCoy Feud

Seminar Paper, 2003

17 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents

I. Feuding – a popular pastime among mountaineers?

II. The Hatfield-McCoy feud in American culture

III. The historical facts
1. The Tug Valley Community
2. The feud leaders
2.1. “Devil Anse” Hatfield
2.2. “Old Ranel” McCoy
2.3. Perry Cline
3. The first phase 1878-1882
4. Interim
5. The second phase 1888-1889

IV. Relevance of the Hatfield-McCoy myth

V. Bibliography

I. Feuding – a popular pastime among mountaineers?

The American South is generally known for its hot climates, its cotton and tobacco fields and its slave-holding history. However, for the region of Southern Appalachia, it is a different story. Life in the mountains was quite different from our picture of the South. The people lived on small farms, miles away from each other and owned only little land on which they worked with their whole family and some helpers but normally without slaves.

Since the mountaineers lived so isolated they developed their own traditions and sets of values and became distinct from the ordinary Southerner. Of course that constructed stereotypes. The Appalachian mountaineer, or “hillbilly” is seen as illiterate, dumb, naïve, slow, ugly, dirty, lazy, drunken, violent and all in all “weird”. Also, the role of the family is important: mountaineers are said to have dozens of children and a whole community of hundreds of people may bear only three different surnames. Thus, kin is important in the mountains and family loyalty may be essential.

On grounds of these and other stereotypes and several incidents, happening mainly at the end of the 19th century, a myth about mountain feuding emerged. According to the media of those times and countless stories and legends developing from them, mountaineers start to quarrel about some non-important things and this produces a conflict between their families, which lasts over decades. As Mark Twain, one of the best known writers on mountain feuding lets Buck Grangerford, a character in his novel The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, say:

“[…] a feud is this way. A man has a quarrel with another man, and kills him; then that other man´s brother kills him; then the other brothers, on both sides, goes for one another; then the cousins chip in – and by-and-by everybody´s killed off, and there ain´t no more feud. But it´s kind of slow, and takes a long time.”[1]

Although there were many feuds (about 40 were counted between 1874 and 1895[2] only in the state of Kentucky, which allows to assume similar values for the whole Appalachian region) there is one that is more known than the others: The Hatfield-McCoy feud in counties Logan (today Mingo, West Virginia) and Pike (Kentucky), which is part of the folklore and known to every American. However, what the people know are many myths and legends but only few facts.

This paper seeks to compare those myths with the historical facts collected by Altina Waller[3], John Pearce[4] and Otis Rice[5]. Their books, whose main sources were court documents and census records from the second half of the 19th century, reveal the differences between facts and fiction, and show how much stereotypes on moutaineers shape our view on Southern Appalachia.

II. The Hatfield-McCoy feud in American culture

Though you will not find the Hatfield-McCoy feud in most history books, every American has heard about it.

“Indeed, they have become such an entrenched part of mythology and folklore that many Americans are surprised to discover that the feud actually happened and that the feudists were real people. Ironically, the extraordinary endurance of the folkloric legend that has grown up around the Hatfields and McCoys has obscured consideration of the feud as a serious historical event.”[6]

Today, many tourist attractions in Southern Appalachia are named after this feud, e.g. the Hatfield-McCoy trail, the Hatfield-McCoy speedway, the Hatfield-McCoy marathon, the band Hatfield-McCoy Trio or the “Devil Anse” campsite. The Hatfield-McCoy feud is also a motive on stamps, in comic strips, songs, movies and books, such as The Coffin Quilt by Ann Rinaldi. The reunion festival of the two families or any quarrel between their members is immediately taken on by the media.[7]

But the feud that was covered in countless newspaper articles, books, comics, songs and movies is a different one from the historical feud. In the fiction-feud, “more than one hundred men, women, and children were killed”[8]. The short relationship between Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy is compared to Shakespeare´s Romeo and Juliet, with all its love, hate and tragedy, and the two families are described as dumb and lawless people. In short: fiction describes the feud as a “mountain bloodbath […], time of terror in the mountains”[9], which it was not.

All in all, only 12 people were killed over a period of about 12 years and nearly all hostilities were brought to trial. Plus, there were not only Hatfields and McCoys among the feudists, but also their business partners, brothers-in-law and totally unrelated people. Actually, the second phase of the feud was mainly forced by a man called Perry Cline, with only few McCoys involved and the Hatfields only reacting; and it started because the state of Kentucky intervened. Otherwise the troubles would already have been forgotten by then.

It is also interesting that news coverage on the feud only started, when it was almost over. So, even those contemporary sources rely heavily on the memories of the people in the Tug Valley, the place where most of the feudists lived and are therefore not free of errors or exagerrations.

III. The historical facts

1. The Tug Valley Community

The Tug Valley, the scene of the feud, has got its name from the Tug River (a fork of the Big Sandy River), which is the border between Kentucky and West Virginia. The Tug Valley is “one of the most rugged and forbidding sections of the Appalachian highlands”[10], it consists of deep and narrow valleys between sandstone and limestone rocks. The Tug River constructs both, a geographical unity and a political boundary.

Settlement in the Tug Valley started at the beginning of the 19th century. Most settlers where of Scottish, English or German origin. Two of them were the ancestors of the later feudists: Ephraim Hatfield and William McCoy. Both families settled on either side of the river. They lived – as did their neighbours – in log houses. The land was cheap, but almost useless for farming, because it consisted of near-vertical mountain slopes. This became a problem for the settlers, because traditionally fathers provided their sons with land, when these were coming of age. Since most families had between ten and fifteen children, the areas the farmers owned became smaller and smaller. Beside the traditional activities of farming and hunting, others became important to nourish the families: the timber business and the production of liquor.


[1] Twain, Mark: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1885, p. 110

[2] Waller, Altina L., Feuding in Appalachia. Evolution of a Stereotype. in: Pudup, Mary B. [et al], ed. Appalachia in the Making: the mountain South in the 19th century. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995, p. 354

[3] Waller, Altina L.: Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900 . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988

[4] Pearce, John Ed: Days of Darkness. The Feuds of Eastern Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994

[5] Rice, Otis K.: The Hatfields and the McCoys. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1982.

[6] Waller (1988) p. 1

[7] www.reunionfestival.com (July 31st 2003), http://www.enquirer.com/editions/2003/04/18/loc_kyhatfieldmccoy18.html (July 31st 2003), http://www.whsv.com/news/headlines/365266.html (July 31st 2003)

[8] Rice (1978), p. 1

[9] Pearce (1988), p. 57

[10] Rice (1982), p. 2

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Feuding and Southern Appalachia: Case Study Hatfield-McCoy Feud
University of Rostock
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Feuding, Southern, Appalachia, Case, Study, Hatfield-McCoy, Feud
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Susanne Opel (Author), 2003, Feuding and Southern Appalachia: Case Study Hatfield-McCoy Feud, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/42609


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