The Hatfields and McCoys. America’s very own Montagues and Capulets. Symbols etched in America’s mind for Appalachian lawlessness, vigilantism, and ruthless violence. Note that the most famous feuds all clustered in the closing years of the 19th century: Hatfield-McCoy (1880–1887), Martin-Tolliver (1874–1887), French-Eversole (1885–1894), and Hargis-Callahan-Cockrell (1899–1903). By the Depression era they were the stuff of schoolbooks. How did such bitter disputes arise, often even over the most trivial things?
The generation born immediately before and during the War Between the States had lots of scores to settle. Being the only state cleaved from another state at that war’s end, West Virginia suffered double trauma. As in other border states, friends set against friends, family against family, and one part of a neighborhood against the other over the Union/Confederacy divide. Animosity continued afterward on the issue of whether to seek statehood or not. In 1913, West Virginia was the only state to send relatively the same number of Union and Confederate veterans to the Battle of Gettysburg 50th year reunion, a potent symbol of this division.
In “Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900,” Altina L. Waller explains what legend does not: namely, that both Hatfields and McCoys devotedly sought legal redress, ultimately through the Supreme Court of the United States. But justice was never done.
Waller describes how passions were actually intensified by the intrusion of the state. The Hatfields and McCoys were tangled by marriage and many other common interests. They were separated only by the Tug River, which happened to serve as the state line, further complicating the legal logistics. When news of the feud began to circulate, the governor of Kentucky worried that the coal- and timber-rich mountains of his state would soon be seen as unsafe by outside investors.
He sent an extradition request to the governor of West Virginia for the “troublemaker Hatfields,” hired a special deputy, and offered rewards for their capture. Private detectives and bounty hunters flooded the region, ironically provoking more violence, which in turn led to more negative publicity.
The Civil War generation was in its ‘80s by the 1930s, so even though the actual feuds themselves had died down, the bitter stories were still being handed down from grandparent to grandchild. Is it any wonder revenuers and other government officials continued to be viewed with such suspicion?
“Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900,” Altina L. Waller University of North Carolina Press.