Adela,  Americas,  United States

Hatfield – McCoy Family Feud

The Hatfields 1897 (Google images)
The Hatfields 1897 (Google images)

When thinking of great family feuds most would think of the Wars of the Roses but for Americans, The Hatfields and Mccoys feud is notorious. The Hatfields of West Virginia were led by William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield while the McCoys of Kentucky were under the leadership of Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy. Those involved in the feud were descended from Ephraim Hatfield and William McCoy.

The majority of the Hatfields lived in Mingo County (then part of Logan County), West Virginia and fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War; most McCoys, lived in Pike County, Kentucky, also fought for the Confederacy; with the exception of Asa Harmon McCoy, who fought for the Union (his own family was upset with his decision). According to his pension statement, was discharged from the army early because of a broken leg.

Tensions within the two families heated up when Harmon was murdered by a group of ex-Confederate Homeguards called the Logan Wildcats (local militia group with members from the Hatfield family including Devil Anse) as he returned home from war. Devil Anse was a suspect at first, but was later confirmed to have been sick at home at the time of the murder. It was widely believed that his uncle, Jim Vance, a member of the Wildcats, committed the murder. Vance warned Harmon he could expect a visit from the County Wildcats. Frightened by gunshots as he drew water from his well, Harmon hid in a nearby cave, supplied with food and necessities each day by his slave, Pete, but the Wildcats followed Pete’s tracks in the snow, discovered Harmon, and fatally shot him on January 7, 1865.

The second recorded instance of violence in the feud occurred thirteen years later, in 1878, after a dispute about the ownership of a hog: Floyd Hatfield, a cousin of Devil Anse’s, had the hog, but Randolph McCoy claimed it was his, saying that the “notches” on the pig’s ears were McCoy, not Hatfield, marks. The matter was taken to the local Justice of the Peace, Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield, who ruled for the Hatfields by the testimony of Bill Staten, a relative of both families. In June 1880, Staten was killed by two McCoy brothers, Sam and Paris, later acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.

The feud escalated after Roseanna McCoy entered into a relationship with Devil Anse Hatfield’s son Johnson, known as “Johnse” (spelled “Jonce” in some sources), leaving her family to live with the Hatfields in West Virginia. Roseanna eventually returned to the McCoys, but when the couple tried to resume their relationship, Johnse Hatfield was arrested by the McCoys on outstanding Kentucky bootlegging warrants. He was freed from McCoy custody only when Roseanna made a desperate midnight ride to alert Devil Anse, who organized a rescue party. The Hatfield party surrounded the McCoys and took Johnse back to West Virginia before he could be transported the next day to the county seat in Pikeville, Kentucky. Despite what was seen as a betrayal of her family on his behalf, Johnse Hatfield thereafter abandoned the pregnant Roseanna for her cousin, Nancy McCoy, whom he wed in 1881. Roseanna and their baby girl sadly died. Its believed Roseanna died of a broken heart.

The feud continued in 1882 when Ellison Hatfield, brother of Devil Anse, was killed by three of Roseanna McCoy’s younger brothers: Tolbert, Pharmer, and Bud. During an election day in Kentucky, the three McCoy brothers fought a drunken Ellison and his other brother; Ellison was stabbed 26 times and finished off with a gunshot. The McCoy brothers were initially arrested by Hatfield constables and were taken to Pikeville for trial. Secretly, Devil Anse organized a large group of followers and intercepted the constables and their McCoy prisoners before they reached Pikeville. The brothers were taken by force to West Virginia, to await the fate of mortally wounded Ellison Hatfield and when Ellison died from his injuries, the McCoy brothers were killed by the Hatfields’ vigilante justice in turn: being tied to pawpaw bushes, where each was shot numerous times with a total of 50 shots fired. Their bodies were described as “bullet-riddled”.

About twenty men, including Devil Anse, were indicted. All of the Hatfields escaped arrest and this greatly angered the McCoy family, who took their cause up with Perry Cline (married to Martha McCoy). Historians believe that Cline used his political connections to reinstate the charges and announced rewards for the Hatfields’ arrest as an act of revenge. A few years prior, Cline lost a lawsuit against Devil Anse over the deed to thousands of acres of land, subsequently increasing the hatred between the two families.

Hatfield–McCoy feud site along the Tug Forktributary (right) in the Big Sandy River watershed (Google images)
Hatfield–McCoy feud site along the Tug Forktributary (right) in the Big Sandy River watershed (Google images)

The feud reached a boiling point when what is now known as the 1888 New Year’s Night Massacre occured. Several members of the Hatfield clan surrounded the McCoy cabin and opened fire on the sleeping family. The cabin was set on fire in an effort to drive Randolph McCoy into the open. He escaped by making a break for it but two of his children were shot, and his wife was beaten and left for dead. The remaining McCoys moved to Pikeville to escape the West Virginia raiding parties.

Between 1880 and 1891, the feud claimed more than a dozen members of the two families. The Governor of West Virginia once threatened to have his militia invade Kentucky. In response, Kentucky Governor S. B. Buckner sent his Adjutant General Sam Hill to Pike County to investigate the situation. Nearly a dozen people died and at least 10 people were wounded.

Jim Vance was eventually hunted down by “Bad” Frank Phillips, who was an enterprising lawyer and gun for hire. He had bad blood with the Hatfields and convinced the Kentucky Govenor to increase the focus on the feud. Kentucky Governer Buckner offered rewards on the capture of the Hatfield gang. He also named Frank as his special deputy to track down and capture or kill the Hatfield’s. Nancy McCoy would later divorce Johnse Hatfield to marry Phillips.

In 1888, Wall Hatfield and eight others were arrested by a posse led by Phillips and brought to Kentucky to stand trial for the murder of Alifair McCoy, killed during the New Year’s Massacre. She had been shot after exiting the burning house. The United States Supreme Court became involved and ruled 7–2 in favor of Kentucky, holding that, even if a fugitive is returned from the asylum state illegally, instead of through lawful extradition procedure, no federal law prevents him from being tried. Eventually, the men were tried in Kentucky and all were found guilty. Seven received life imprisonment, while the eighth, Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts, was executed by hanging. Mounts was mentally challenged, and many viewed him as a scapegoat even though he had confessed his guilt. Although public executions were against the law in Kentucky, thousands of spectators gathered to witness the hanging of Ellison Mounts on February 18, 1890. Reports claim that his last words were: “They made me do it! The Hatfields made me do it!” Valentine “Uncle Wall” Hatfield, elder brother of Devil Anse, was one of the eight convicted and eventually died in prison of unknown causes. He petitioned his brothers to assist in his emancipation from jail but none came for fear of being captured.

Fighting between the families eased following the hanging of Mounts. Randolph McCoy became a ferry operator and in 1914 he died at the age of 88 from burns suffered after catching fire over a cook stove/fire. He is buried in the Dils Cemetery in Pikeville, next to his wife Sarah. It’s believed he continued to be haunted by the deaths of his children. Devil Anse became “born again” later in life when he was baptized for the first time at age 73 and in 1921 died at the age of 81 of pneumonia.

Today, the Hatfields and McCoys still live in the same area but now live peacefully together.