The truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and it’s certainly the case with the Hatfields and the McCoys.You may have heard about this famous Hatfield-McCoy feud. You may have seen the dinner show in Pigeon Forge. But do you know the history of the Hatfields and McCoys?
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Is the Hatfields and McCoys story true?
Yes, at least in part. Behind the slap-stick comedy and musical numbers that have been interpreted from the story is a real-life history involving stolen pigs, bitter revenge and sinister plots. So where does our story begin? Let’s go back to the era of the American Civil War in 1863.
The Hatfields lived on the West Virginia side of the Tug River Valley. The patriarch of the family was William Anderson Hatfield, or “Devil Anse” Hatfield. Anse ran a successful timber operation, which was the main source of wealth for the family. On the other side of the river lived the McCoys. The McCoys were less affluent than the Hatfield family, but they were believed to be well-connected politically. The patriarch of the McCoys was Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy (or Randall McCoy). Both families fought in the Confederacy during the war, except Asa Harmon McCoy.
What caused the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys?
The feud was a series of events that began with Asa Harmon McCoy. You see, Devil Anse was believed to be involved with the Logan Wildcats, an infantry of the Confederate Army. There are many intricacies and varying reports to this part of the story. But here’s the over-simplified version: Anse’s friend met his end at the hands of the Union, and Anse wanted revenge.
When Asa came home from the war injured, Anse and the Wildcats sent him a warning. This causes Asa to go into hiding. But reportedly, the moment Asa came out of hiding in 1865, he met his end as well. The person responsible for the crime was never accused or convicted, but the McCoy family pointed fingers at James “Jim” Vance, Anse’s uncle and a member of the militia group. Anse himself had an alibi. While some reports claim this was the start of the famous Hatfield-McCoy battle, other reports say that there wasn’t much bad blood between the two families (yet). So for the most part, things were more or less peaceful between the families until …
The second dispute: The famous stolen pig
Thirteen years later in the late 1870s, chaos broke loose when Ole Ran’l accused Floyd Hatfield, a cousin of Devil Anse, of stealing his hog. While this sounds a bit funny today, a pig was an expensive piece of property and a direct source of food and income for his family back then. The dispute was taken to court. However, the local judge or Justice of the Peace happened to be a Hatfield. Some reports claim he tried to make it a fair trial and had a jury of half McCoys and half Hatfields. The key testimony of the case came from Bill Staton, a relative of both families, and the judge ultimately ruled in favor of the Hatfields.
So Floyd went free, and Ole Ran’l wasn’t too happy about it. He also had to pay court costs. And if you remember, the McCoys were not as wealthy as the Hatfields. This sparked a few physical fights between the families over the years. Eventually, the fighting came to a head when Staton – who had the key testimony – was spotted hunting in the woods by two McCoy boys. Now, some reports say that this was the Staton who gave the testimony But other reports say this was Bill Staton, Jr. Either way, Staton or Staton Jr. was alarmed by the two McCoys and fired his weapon at one of the boys. The other McCoy then terminated Staton in response. Some reports say that the two McCoy brothers – Sam McCoy and Paris McCoy – were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, while other reports say that they were sent to prison.
Adding fuel to the fire: The forbidden romance of Roseanna McCoy and Johnson Hatfield
Meanwhile, Roseanna McCoy entered a relationship with Anse’s son Johnson – or Johnse Hatfield, according to some sources. The two lovers hit it off at a local election day event. Roseanna reportedly left her family to live with the Hatfields in West Virginia. She became pregnant, but Johnson didn’t marry her. And because of the baby, her family disowned her. She then decides to live with her aunt. Some folks have even likened the ill-fated romance to Romeo and Juliet. However, the baby did not survive infancy due to the measles, and Johnson ultimately abandoned Roseanna to marry her cousin Nancy McCoy in 1881.
The feud dramatically escalates
The feud escalated quickly – to say the least – in 1882 when Ellison Hatfield, Anse’s brother, got into a fight after too much alcohol and was stabbed 26 times by three of Ole Ran’l’s sons. The three McCoys were placed under arrest by Hatfield constables. Secretly, Anse organized a large group of followers and intercepted the McCoys before they reached trial. Anse said that if Ellison didn’t pass from his injuries, he would let them go. But ultimately, Ellison did pass from his injuries. So the Hatfields tied the three boys up to trees and bushes, where they met their end.
Bounties were placed on 20 members of the Hatfield clan
This is where a man named Perry Cline enters the picture with a land dispute. Cline, who was married to a McCoy, lost 5,000 acres of land to the Hatfields in a prior lawsuit. Reportedly, he lost this land in court because he was found guilty of cutting the timber from Anse’s land. Some articles say he unfairly lost his 5,000 acres, but some reports say it was justified. Either way, Cline was an attorney with a vengeance and political connections. And so he used this latest execution of the McCoy boys as an opportunity to contact the governor of Kentucky about the Hatfields — and ultimately put bounties on 20 members of the Hatfield clan.
This was a huge problem for the Hatfields because anybody could now come after them to collect rewards. A man named “Mad” Frank Phillips was the main bounty hunter. Phillips made it his personal war to get as many Hatfields across the river as he could. He would carry out raids and abduct Hatfields to bring them to Kentucky, and sometimes he would terminate them. At this point, the feud was getting attention from the press. This put the actual states of Kentucky and West Virginia in a feud. The two governors were standing toe-to-toe, reportedly ready to send troops over to invade their neighboring state.
The climax of the family feud
Amidst all the chaos and abductions, the Hatfields came up with a plan to end the whole thing in 1888. A group of Hatfields set out to ambush the entire McCoy family at their home on New Year’s Day. This would become known as the 1888 New Year’s Night Massacre. Cap Hatfield and Jim Vance led several members of the Hatfield clan to surround the McCoy cabin and opened fire on the sleeping family. The cabin was set on fire, but Ole Ran’l escaped by making a break for it. However, not all of the family members were so lucky to escape.
In 1889, the Hatfields were tried, and some were sentenced to life in prison. That was enough to calm down Ole Ran’l. He reportedly lived a quiet life as a ferry operator for the rest of his days and passed away at the age of 88. Anse was baptized at the age of 72 and spent the next ten years of his life in peace, believing all his sins were washed away. The feud seemed to disappear.
Do the Hatfields still dislike the McCoys?
The patriarchs of the family lived out the rest of their days in peace. Real-life family members even made a special appearance for a taping of “Family Feud” in 1979. A pig was kept on stage as a nod to the stolen pig 100 years prior. Relics about the two families can be found throughout parts of West Virginia and Kentucky. In 1999, a project known as the Hatfield and McCoy Historic Site Restoration was completed. As a result, a committee of historians spent months researching information to find out the factual history of events surrounding the feud. In the present day, family members will say in interviews that there are varying reports about what started the feud. Some say it was just two stubborn old men who got their entire families wrapped up in a battle. The classic tale has been loosely interpreted in several shows and movies.
How long did the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys last?
All in all, the feud lasted for more than two decades. Some sources say 13 family members met their end, but other sources have higher estimates of 24 or more.
The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud in Pigeon Forge
In more recent years, retellings of the story have renewed interest in the old feud. The History Channel released a three-part miniseries featuring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton. Now that you know the history of the famous family feud, you can go check out the fun interpretation and tell your family the real story. The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud show in Pigeon Forge features a much more light-hearted take on actual events with a four-course feast, musical acts and dancing. Have you been to the dinner show? Let us know in the comments!
Editor’s Note: There are some conflicting reports about the storyline of the real Hatfield and McCoy families. The information in this article was a collection of resources from the most consistent reports from the Stuff You Should Know podcast, the Wikipedia entry about the family feud, reports from the Herald-Dispatch and interviews via the History channel, Fast The Latest News and Timeless Evil.