Please welcome guest author Thomas E. Dotson. Dotson’s book “The Hatfield & McCoy Feud after Kevin Costner: Rescuing History,” will release in October. Dotson is a direct descendent of Uriah McCoy, first cousin to Randolph and brother to his wife, Sarah (Sally). He is also directly descended from Preacher Anderson Hatfield, the justice in the hog trial and a major witness in the trials of the Hatfields. Dotson grew up on Blackberry Creek, Pike County, KY, one mile from where the Election Day killing took place in 1882 and four miles from where the three McCoys were executed two days later.
The 2013 book by Dean King, The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys: The True Story, by one of the nation’s most gifted story-tellers, is the best-selling book ever written on that subject. It is also one of the worst conglomerations of fables, tall-tales, legends and lies ever offered as history.
Of the scores of whoppers in King’s book, some are extremely maddening to me, as a descendant of both Hatfields and McCoys, while others made me literally laugh out loud. Many of King’s yarns conflict directly with the sparse documentary record, while others are so egregiously exaggerated that they could not be believed by any sentient reader.
King sets up his fable with an early description of the Valley and its people that is libelous in detail. The Tug Valley[i] was settled around the turn of the nineteenth century. All the families of the original settlers were present by about 1820. Each family had enough land to allow them to live pretty well as subsistence farmers. Everything they ate or wore came from the land, as did the materials for their homes. They sold furs, ginseng, corn whiskey and a little timber for cash, enjoying an extra-ordinarily peaceful life until interrupted by the Civil War.
Those who survived early childhood diseases generally enjoyed long and healthy lives. Many of them lived into their eighties and nineties, and there were a surprisingly small number of deaths due to childbirth. The Valley was bountiful, and, most significantly, it was peaceful! Not a single case of murder is documented in the Valley before the Civil War brought murder to the Valley.
On the very first page of his Author’s Note, King begins his book with a statement that is flatly false, saying: “After the war, a West Virginia faction of the Hatfield family and a Kentucky branch of the McCoy family found themselves at each other’s throats. Their hostilities would stretch over the course of three decades—from 1865 to 1890.” The historical record is that there was absolutely no trouble between the families of Ran’l McCoy and Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield before 1880.
King continues in the very next sentence: “The fighting grew so bitter and became such a threat to public safety that it almost brought the two Civil War border states back to war.”[ii] This could only refer to the situation arising in 1888, when the two governors were arguing over requests for extradition of the men indicted in each state. That bloody period came, not because the Hatfields and McCoys were fighting so much that public safety was threatened, but, rather, because the Pikeville elite, quite apart from Ran’l McCoy, had urged the Governor of Kentucky to revive old indictments against the Hatfields, and place large rewards on them. The real purpose for reviving a “feud” that had been non-existent for five years was to force Devil Anse to sell the five thousand acres of valuable coal land he owned.
The first person King quotes in this opening indictment of Tug Valley is New York reporter T. C. Crawford, saying: “I have been away in Murderland.”[iii] This is the first of over two hundred citations by King of the yellow journalists of the 1880’s, who, like King, were much more interested in selling newspapers and books than in historical truth. Crawford, himself, after describing the 1882 Election killings, wrote: “For five years there was nothing more than the ordinary neighborhood quarreling.”[iv]
King says that my ancestors had “bloodthirst in their veins,” meaning that it is genetic and there is nothing we can do to change it. He says that the crowd at the 1890 hanging of Ellison Mounts was there to “satisfy their inescapable urge to behold a man hang by his neck.”[v]
Growing up on Blackberry Creek in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, I talked to at least two dozen people who had been old enough to remember the hanging of Ellison Mounts. No one I talked to even knew anyone who attended the hanging.
King says that Nancy McCoy’s uncle, Perry Cline, and her mother, Patty McCoy opposed the marriage of Nancy to Johnse Hatfield in 1881, but they were married anyway—in Pikeville.[vi] The records in the court house show that they were married in Patty McCoy’s home on Peter Creek, and that the marriage bond was signed by Perry Cline.
At the time the Civil War began, he describes the men of Tug Valley, saying: “The men who lived in these mountains had learned to fight from the indians.”[vii] In fact, the last Tug Valley man who fought Indians was likely Ephraim “Eph of All” Hatfield, progenitor of all the Tug Valley Hatfields, in 1792. There were no Indian battles in the Valley after the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, and no one of fighting age in 1861 had ever seen an Indian warrior, much less “learned to fight” from them.
King’s penchant for gross exaggeration of numbers is evident throughout. He has one hundred armed McCoys invading the town of Logan in 1880,[viii] when the Census for that year shows a total of forty McCoys over the age of fourteen in Pike County. Twelve hundred people regularly attended Preacher Anse’s church,[ix] when the church had no more than two dozen members.[x] King says there were twenty-seven warrants outstanding for Johnse Hatfield,[xi] but the court records show only one.
My biggest laugh comes when King says that his research uncovered a previously unknown incident where a bounty hunter attempted to arrest Devil Anse in the deep woods of Logan County. The man-hunter had a gun pointed at Anse, but Anse was able to draw his own gun and kill the man before he could pull the trigger. This occurred, according to King, because, more than sixty years before the Miranda decision, the bounty hunter was distracted as he “read him his rights!”[xii]
King has photographs purported to be of Randolph and Asa Harmon McCoy, which have been dated by a leading expert as at least fifteen years too late to be what King claims.[xiii]
Anyone attending one of King’s lectures, where he stands in front of one of several fake photographs from his book, should try to enjoy it for what it is—an entertaining tale with a slight resemblance to history.
[i] When I refer to the “Tug Valley,” I mean specifically that part of the drainage of the Tug River from the mouth of Pond Creek, just upstream from the present town of Williamson, West Virginia, to the Virginia line.
[ii] King, Dean, The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys: The True Story, ix.
[iii] King, x.
[iv] Crawford, 16.
[v] King, 3.
[vi] King, 83.
[vii] King, 23.
[viii] King, 85
[ix] King, 89.
[x] See minutes of Mates Creek Association at: http://www.matescreek.com/minutes/matescreek_1890.pdf The Pond Creek Church had 28 members in 1890.
[xi] King, 69.
[xii] King, 307
[xiii] Randolph is on p. 22, Asa H. on p. 37. Maureen Taylor http://www.maureentaylor.com/ dates the Randolph photo as later than 1885, at which time he would have been in his sixties, and the Asa Harmon photo at c.1889, twenty-four years after A.H. died.
[xiv] King, 53. “Hog Floyd” is, of course, a different man by the same name, who was accused of stealing a hog from Randolph McCoy.