Dean King’s “Feud” — fresh eyes on America’s most famous quarrel

Posted by | June 10, 2013

Please welcome guest author Dean King, who weighs in on the Hatfields & McCoys with his newly published history Feud. King is the author of the national bestseller ‘Skeletons on the Zahara.’ He has written for many publications, including Men’s Journal, Esquire, Garden & Gun, Granta, Outside, New York Magazine, and the New York Times. He lives in Richmond, VA.  Feud opens as follows:


Prior to the Civil war, the Tug River Valley essentially ignored calendars and resisted progress. There were no roads, no rails, no schools, and no churches in the area. The transcontinental telegraph system, which crossed the nation in 1861, bypassed the region.

Feud book coverTelegraph service would not arrive in the valley for three more decades. Barricaded as they were in mountainous cul-de-sacs, locals spoke a dialect barely recognizable to outsiders, a tongue more Elizabethan than modern Victorian, using yit for yet, mought for might, seche for such, and the word allow to mean “figure.” They added es to form plurals like nestes. They afeared witches and haints. Questions from outsiders made them techeous (a state in which they were best avoided). The forest that enveloped them and, along with the hills, shaped their lives — a part of what the botanist-explorer William Bartram dubbed the sublime forest—was still dense, vast, and virginal.

One day in the fall of 1854, when he was fifteen, Anse Hatfield went out in the forest to bag some squirrels for the stew pot, something he had done many times before. Gangly, on his way to six feet, Anse, whose mother called him Ansie, was always on the move, slipping adroitly through the trees, already with the signature Hatfield slouch in his gait.

His hawk-nosed intensity and nasal twang were cut by a penchant for practical jokes and a raucous and infectious laugh. Like his father, Big Eph (pronounced “Eef”), he liked to wrestle, but not more than he liked to hunt. Wearing a buckskin coat and carrying a rifle, powder, and balls, he set loose his pack of hounds, led by three trustworthies named Rounder, Fife, and Drum. No sooner had he let the dogs go than they scared up a large spike horn deer.

The trio went tearing off after it. As the buck topped the ridge of Big Pigeon mountain, Anse took into account the distance and the rise, leveled the barrel of his gun considerably above it, and squeezed the trigger. But his prey was too far away. It disappeared over the ridge with the dogs in hot pursuit.

Dean King.

Dean King.

Anse was concerned. This buck had legs and might lead his dogs beyond return. There was plenty of trouble to get into among the intricate bends and folds of the woods here, almost no stretch of which was flat. Boulders, roots, and rocky streams hid beneath the leaf cover and behind rotting logs. In slicks, where lightning strikes and landslides had felled the trees, grew thick snarls of laurel, myrtle, huckleberry, and rhododendron that could trap a hell-bent hound like a steel cage. It was easy to get lost here, no matter how acute one’s sense of smell or direction. Anse, worried yet confident in his mastery of the place, set off at a fast trot.

He raced through the undulating wilderness, past trees festooned in ghastly hues of old-man’s beard. Here and there antler lichen clung tombstone-like to trunks living and dead.

The Mingo chief Logan, like many of the Indian tribes that had once roamed the place, had welcomed white traders and settlers to his tribe’s vast sacred hunting ground, until 1774, when they murdered his family. Then Logan had attacked white settlements with ferocity. “When the good soul had the ascendant, he was kind and humane,” the chief later explained, “and when the bad soul ruled, he was perfectly savage and delighted in nothing but blood and carnage.”

By 1824, the Indians were gone, and the Virginia General Assembly created Logan County, which would eventually form nearly half of the state of West Virginia. Within a year, the last known bison in the county (and, indeed, in all of Virginia) were killed. Still, young Anse stalked a stretch of the Great Forest where elk roamed and where wolves and wildcats — the latter called variously cougars, catamounts, pumas, panthers (pronounced “painters”), or mountain lions by the locals — prowled.

There have been many stories about the way Anderson ‘Devil Anse’ Hatfield acquired his name. Some have suggested that he killed a panther in his youth, prompting his mother Nancy to say “That boy’s not afraid of the devil himself.” This 1901 photo is from the American Journal of Sociology.

There have been many stories about the way Anderson ‘Devil Anse’ Hatfield acquired his name. Some have suggested that he killed a panther in his youth, prompting his mother Nancy to say “That boy’s not afraid of the devil himself.” This 1901 photo is from the American Journal of Sociology.

When Anse did not return home for supper, his mother, Nancy — the illegitimate daughter of the scandalized daughter of Abner Vance — began to worry. She told Big Eph that she was afraid that Anse was hurt. He told her not to worry: the boy was every bit as “stout as a bear.”

Big Eph, a six-foot-tall, dark-complected, blue-eyed, Bunyanesque man of 250 pounds who had once treed and killed a wildcat with a butcher knife he carried in a scabbard, was a shrewd judge of these things. He laughed when Nancy suggested that a bear might have attacked Anse. “If a bear even gets a glimpse of a man in the woods, then he goes the other way,” he assured her. “Besides, Ansie has hunted so much, he’s a dead shot.”

The boy was used to pursuing not only deer and squirrels but raccoons, possums, and groundhogs, along with grouse, wild turkeys, and ducks. He even knew how to shoot a swimming turtle in the head so that it would not sink. “No bear is going to get in speaking distance of him,” Big Eph declared. And then he added, “why, I seen him shoot a squirrel’s eye out in the top of a tall hickory when I couldn’t even see the squirrel before it fell.” Anse, he knew, could do a man’s work and could fend for himself.

But the next day, Nancy was even more worried that a bear might have gotten Anse, who, no matter how stout and sure of shot, was still just a boy. Nancy, like her son, was tall, strong, and smart. She was graced with her mother’s features: a high forehead, a thin nose, and a square chin. Only ten of her eighteen children would survive childhood, but those who did were, like her, sturdy and intelligent.

Able to read and write, she owned a medical book and served as the area’s midwife, which yielded her a wide network of friends. Between her tutoring and the will of the family to improve its lot, eight of her grandchildren would go on to become doctors.

Now Nancy decided something must be done to find her boy. Big Eph and their oldest son, seventeen-year-old Wall, rode over to Ben’s Creek, to the east, where two Hatfield uncles lived, to see if Anse had stayed there or stopped by for a meal. He had not.

Dean King discusses ‘Feud’ at May 31 lecture in Logan, WV. Photo by Keith Davis/Woodland Press.

Dean King discusses ‘Feud’ at May 31 lecture in Logan, WV. Photo by Keith Davis/Woodland Press.

In fact, as the stag thrashed off through the woods, Anse had set out too fast, stumbling to his knees before he even made it up Big Pigeon. Cursing, he jumped up and moved his gear back in place as he made his next stride. But a breathtaking mile later, when he gained the top of the ridge, the buck had vanished.

Stopping to consider his next move, Anse sensed that something was not right. He reached down to his shot pouch — it was too light. when he stumbled, he realized, the shot had all fallen out.

“There I was with my gun shot empty, bullets lost, and that spike buck aleadin’ every dog I had clean out of the county,” he would recall. He decided he could not afford to go back, for if he did, he might never see his hounds again. He had to stay on their heels.

5 Responses

  • Frank Slider says:

    This is one of my favorite subjects. The Feud is now on my reading list. Thanks for the heads-up.

  • Margaret Browning Trump says:

    I can hardly wait for my copy to arrive. I try to stay a step ahead but don’t always succeed. Sorry I didn’t get to WV and meet Dean King while he was in Huntington. I am a great granddaughter of Anderson and Levisa Hatfield via their daughter Elizabeth (Betty) Hatfield Caldwell. She lived with our family (her daughter Osa) even before I was born in 1939, until her death on 2/7/1962. She was my guiding light, mentor, best friend and the best Grandmother in the world. I have 4 photo albums on the “Hatfield and McCoy feud” site on FB.

  • Wilma Dagnan Wilson says:

    Hello, I am also a Hatfield, my fathers mother was Nora Hatfield Dagnan she married Grover Dagnan, he died in 1918 of the Spanish Flu before my father was born February 12,1919.
    My father is Timothy Grover Dagnanmy mother was Geneva Sanders Dagnan.
    My greatgrand mother was Alice Redden Hatfield and she married
    Swafford Hatfield.
    I love and enjoy the stories and books and also movies about the Hatfield family.
    I just happened to find some information lately on the family.
    Is there a new book being published on the Hatfield family, please let me know.
    Also I will try to find you on Facebook to see all of the family pictures.
    My sister Sue Dagnan Moreland is working on our whole family tree and this one is so interesting, also she is on Facebook, I will tell her about this sight, she will be so happy.
    Wilma Dagnan Wilson

  • Tom Dotson says:

    I am surprised to see a site with the word “history” in its title featuring such a fable as this. The first paragraph says there were “no churches in the area.” Anyone can go to the website of the Mates Creek Association of Primitive Baptists and see that there were enough churches in the Valley to form the Association in 1849, twelve years before King says there were NO churches in the area.

    Then he gives us a super-sized version of one of the tall tales that Devil Anse was famous for telling, wherein Anse, as a mere stripling of a fifteen-year-old lad, kicks a “colossal’ bear in the behind and drives it up a tree. This is loosely based on the tale as it is presented in Coleman Hatfield’s book, Tale of the Devil. Unlike King, Hatfield introduces it as a “tale.”

    Lastly, you show King standing in front of a photo of a handsome young man with a crew-cut that King says is Asa Harmon McCoy, who died in 1865. This photo claims to be from at least 15 years before anyone wore that style of lapel or neck wear. Maureen Taylor, the nation’s leading expert on old photographs, dates it from circa 1889, twenty-four years after Asa Harmon McCoy died.

    Dean King’s book is a compilation of virtually every tall tale ever told about Tug Valley. It is not even remotely related to the subject of this site, which is HISTORY.

  • Don Dagnan says:

    Interesting stories. I am related to Wilma Dagnan Wilson and Sue Dagnan Moreland.
    My stepmother Ann Hatfield Dagnan may recall more stories about the Hatfields.

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