“The Hatfield & McCoy Feud after Kevin Costner: Rescuing History,” by Tom E. Dotson
The book is now available on Amazon, Click Here -> The Hatfield & McCoy Feud after Kevin Costner: Rescuing History
The documented events of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, as a war between the two families headed by Devil Anse Hatfield and Ran’l McCoy, occurred on a total of five days: The day in October, 1880 when Tolbert and Bud McCoy arrested Johnse Hatfield and Devil Anse forced the release of Johnse; the killing of Ellison Hatfield and the vigilante execution killing of his three McCoy killers on August 7-9, 1882; the Hatfields’ January 1, 1888 raid on the McCoy home. Outside those five days, there was no documented violence between the two families.
The “feud story” is, with the exception of those five days, a story—not history. The Hatfield-McCoy “feud story” as it is presented by the feud industry is either a confusion of the troubles between the two families and the larger conflict between the Pikeville elite and Devil Anse Hatfield, or a mixture of folklore, yellow journalism and outright lies.
There was a reason for the original invention of “the feud,” and for its recent “revival.” The answer can be found only if we “follow the money.”
A quarter century after Professor Altina Waller’s The Feud took the feud out of the folklore file and into real history, the Kevin Costner movie and the books that followed in the movie’s wake have taken us all the way back to the yellow journalism of the 1880′s. This book attempts to repair some of the damage done to the historical record by the movie and the recent books.
The Hatfield-McCoy feud is a story that has become an industry. The participants in the industry, like their counterparts in other industries, seek growth. The growth needed to expand the revenue of the industry cannot occur unless the story itself grows. This growth is possible — and is occurring as I write — only because the feud is a story and not history.
The feud story, as it has been told from the time of the 1888 newspaper reporters to the 2013 book by Dean King, is not a true story. It is not true, because it is built upon a false premise. This premise is stated early in the Dean King book, in his Prologue, where he says: “…the bloodthirst in their veins worked on them like spring…,” and, “…their inescapable urge to behold a man hang by his neck.”[i] King makes these atrociously false judgments of Tug Valley people at the beginning of his book, then spends the bulk of the following four hundred plus pages trying to prove it, by gathering up almost every tall tale told over the last century and a quarter, while ignoring almost entirely the factual record.
The facts belie King’s assessment from the start. There was not a single documented case of murder in the Tug Valley where the Hatfields and McCoys lived before the Civil War. For fifteen years after the war, there was peace in the valley, broken by the killing of Bill Staton in 1880, after a new generation of landless young men reached manhood. How does King derive “bloodthirst” from a record like that? “Bloodthirst in their veins” denotes an inborn defect of character that can never be overcome. One of King’s favorite yellow journalist “sources,” T.C. Crawford admitted in 1888, after all the killings associated with the “feud” had occurred, that the murder rate in the valley was no greater than in other “more civilized states,”[ii] yet King says our forefathers had a “bloodlust.” King is wrong, as we shall see.
To his second charge, I answer: As a boy, I talked to more than twenty people who were old enough to remember the hanging of Ellison Mounts. Not one person I talked to on Blackberry Creek went to the hanging of Ellison Mounts. Furthermore, not one person I talked to even knew anyone who saw the hanging. No one on Blackberry Creek, where most of the “feud” happened, had King’s “inescapable urge to behold a man hang by his neck.”[iii]
With the History Channel now running a reality show which claims that the feud is one hundred fifty years old and still counting, one might think the growth has reached its limit — but it hasn’t. As history grows slowly, and only as a result of hard work by historians, it is a poor foundation for an industry, but a story can grow continually, limited only by the imagination of the story-tellers.
I have both Hatfield and McCoy blood, although not directly from either Ran’l McCoy or Devil Anse Hatfield. One of my maternal great, great grandfathers was the Confederate veteran, Uriah McCoy. He was Ran’l’s first cousin and also a brother of Ran’l’s wife, (Sarah) Sally. Neither Uriah nor his son Asa, who was my great grandfather, was ever involved in the feud. Preacher Anderson Hatfield, first cousin once removed to Devil Anse was my great-great grandfather on both sides. I was born and raised about a mile from the spot where Ellison Hatfield was killed, and about four miles from where the three McCoy boys met vigilante justice.
The first question most people ask when they learn that I have both Hatfield and McCoy blood is, “Which side are you on?”
I confound most of them when I answer: “I’m with the majority.” The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Anyone who has worked in an office knows the general validity of the principle, since 80% of the work in most offices is done by 20% of the people.
The Pareto Principle was definitely at work in the Hatfield and McCoy troubles. There were about sixty males over the age of fourteen in each of the two families in the 1880 Census but the largest number of men of either name that was ever involved in a feud incident was nine. There was never an event in the feud — not even the climactic Battle of Grapevine” — that involved as many as 20% of either family.
Therefore, if one is a descendant of either of these Tug Valley families, the odds are at least four to one against that person being the descendant of a feudist.
In fact, since eight McCoys were witnesses against Paris McCoy at his 1880 trial in Logan, and eight Hatfields were witnesses against the Hatfields tried in Pikeville in 1889, the odds that today’s Hatfield or McCoy is descended from someone who took the opposite side are roughly the same as the odds that he or she is descended from a feudist.
All of my Hatfield and McCoy ancestors were among the great majority who elected not to participate in the feud. Those members of the eighty percent are libeled by the recent supersizing of the feud story, which melds them into the tiny percentage who engaged in violence. Thus we see the descendants of Uriah McCoy presented in a television reality show as potential feudists who may erupt in violence at any minute, when Uriah, himself, was never involved in any of the feud violence.
The feud became, for a while, more history than a story in the 1980’s, with the book by the historian, Altina Waller— but that period has now ended.
The 2012 Kevin Costner film, which was a great drama but terrible history, signaled the end of the feud as a subject for serious historical inquiry and breathed new life into the story of the feud. The story grew with the Lisa Alther book, Blood Feud, which followed in the wake of the movie.
The 2013 book by Dean King, The Feud, is an exponential expansion of the feud story, which, of course, brings with it a similar expansion of the feud industry. It is amazing to see someone writing what he purports to be history, while citing as factual proof the writings of nineteenth century newspaper reporters who were demonstrably in error in many, if not most of the factual statements they wrote. King obviously thinks that the uncorroborated word of a yellow journalist is the stuff of which real history is made. By regurgitating most of the tallest tales from 1888 forward in a book that has been stamped as history by the media complex, King has set real history back to where it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.
With several Kentucky feuds ongoing at the same time as our feud, involving more people– including high county office holders–resulting in much higher casualties than our feud, why has the Hatfield-McCoy feud received more publicity than all the other feuds combined? In the three years preceding the inauguration of Governor Simon B. Buckner, in August, 1887, the feud in Rowan County claimed more than twenty lives. A few days before he was sworn in there was a battle in the streets of the county seat of Morehead that involved more than sixty fighters and claimed four lives with several more wounded.
Within days of his inauguration, the governor took steps which reignited a “feud” that had been dormant for five years and led directly to the illegal raids into West Virginia kicking off the most violent phase of the Pike County conflict. Why did he do this?
Within weeks of this re-ignition of our feud, New York newspapers sent their reporters to Kentucky. They ignored the much larger and bloodier feuds ongoing elsewhere in Kentucky and went directly to Pikeville and Logan, from whence they returned to their city bases and emitted a string of columns that grossly exaggerated the events in Tug Valley, thus becoming the original supersizers[iv] of our feud. Why did they do this? This book will attempt to give the answers.
The two best-selling books that followed the TV movie, like most previous books on the feud, are largely fable, legend and fiction. I hope to prove it by showing that much of what has been written is either illogical, impossible, or is in conflict with the evidence.
The Hatfield-McCoy feud is probably unique among all the events in history in that writers of feud-based fiction are more constrained than are writers of feud history. The good fiction writer is always careful to avoid writing something that is patently impossible. A fiction writer would never say that twelve hundred people regularly attended a church in an isolated mountain hollow that had only two dozen members. Dean King, writing a “True Story” of the feud, can say that and still have reviewers from prestigious media organs laud his factual accuracy.
The New York newspapermen wrote in 1888 with the sure knowledge that, with the exception of a small group of professional historians, none of their readers would check their facts. Today’s feud industry writers obviously count on the same thing — but they are wrong. With the modern miracle of the internet, one does not have to be a professional historian to be able to expose many spurious “historical” facts.
If I have more to say about some writers than about others, it is because they wrote more fiction and sold it as history.
[i] King, Dean, The Feud, 3.
[ii] Crawford, T. C., American Vendetta, 7-8.
[iii] The only person I ever talked to who was at that hanging was a woman who lived on Johns Creek at the time of the hanging.
[iv] Mr. Ryan Hardesty invented the term “supersizer,” to identify writers who fill books with folklore, legend and outright lies about the Hatfield-McCoy feud and call it history.