The Unbelievable True Story of the Hatfields and McCoys

hatfield and mccoy dinner show with photos of cast and real life famillies

A feud between two families spanning two decades inspired the Hatfield and McCoy dinner show in Pigeon Forge, Tenn (photos by eakkarat rangram/shutterstock.com, public domain and Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud)

A timeline of events that inspired shows, movies and more

The truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and it’s certainly the case with the Hatfields and the McCoys. Growing up in East Tennessee, I’ve seen the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud along the Parkway several times. But until recently, I didn’t know the full story of their famous feud. You see, 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 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. 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).

What caused the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys?

The feud was a series of events that reportedly began with Asa Harmon McCoy. Both families fought in the Confederacy during the war, except Asa Harmon. On this part of the story, there are varying reports. But here’s the over-simplified version: Anse’s friend passed away at the hands of the Union. Anse wanted revenge. So when Asa came home from the war injured, Anse sent him a warning, which caused Asa to go into hiding. But reportedly, he met his end as soon as he was found. The person responsible for the crime was never accused or convicted, but the McCoy family pointed fingers at James “Jim” Vance, Anse’s uncle.

hatfield family clan, large family in black and white
The Hatfield clan in 1897 (archive media photo/public domain)

The second dispute: The famous stolen pig

The stolen pig is believed to be the big first dispute. 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 back then. The dispute was taken to court. However, the local judge or Justice of the Peace happened to be a Hatfield, and the key testimony of the case came from Bill Staton, a relative of both families. The judge ultimately ruled in favor of the Hatfields.

So Floyd went free, and Ole Ran’l wasn’t too happy about it. 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, and the McCoys fatally fired back. 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.

The forbidden romance

Meanwhile, Roseanna McCoy entered a relationship with Anse’s son Johnson – or Johnse Hatfield, according to some sources. 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. However, the baby did not survive infancy due to the measles, and Johnson ultimately abandoned Roseanna to marry her cousin Nancy McCoy in 1881.

black and white image of randolph mccoy imposed with devil anse hatfield
Randolph McCoy (left) and Devil Anse Hatfield (right) (archive photos/public domain)

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. 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 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. 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

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 opened fire and set a flame on the McCoy cabin with the sleeping family inside. Ole Ran’l escaped. However, not all of the family members were so lucky. In 1889, the Hatfields were tried, and some were sentenced to life in prison. And 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.

real life family vs show cast in pigeon forge of hatfields and mccoys
The cast of the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud Show in Pigeon Forge next to the real-life family (photo courtesy of Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud)

The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud in Pigeon Forge

In more recent years, retellings of the story have renewed interest in the old feud. 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 me 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.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

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1 thought on “The Unbelievable True Story of the Hatfields and McCoys”

  1. I’ve been lucky enough to go twice! The food is fabulous and the show great. I liked the second time the best because the pool had been added and I loved that addition!

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