Hatfield-McCoy legend lives on History: Interest in the two feuding families continues more than 100 years after the conflict was declared over.


August 20, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

A West Virginian named William Anderson Hatfield, age 67, died of a brain tumor at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on Aug. 22, 1930. It became news when people heard that this was "Cap" Hatfield.

Though the Hatfield-McCoy feud had ended nearly a half-century earlier, the legend was so vital in American popular culture that Hatfield's death prompted nationwide recollections of the woodland strife that fascinated Americans in the 1880s.

People remembered that in the Tug Valley, sliced by the Tug Fork river, the pugnacious Cap and other Hatfields living in Logan County, W.Va., had done battle with McCoys of Pike County, Ky. The officially recorded death toll after a decade of fighting was less than 20, although some talked loosely of hundreds of casualties.

"No count was ever made of the men who went into the hills after their enemies and never came back," Virgil Carrington Jones wrote in his 1948 book, "The Hatfields and the McCoys." It was the kind of writing that helped embellish the legend.

Cap Hatfield, son of timber dealer William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield, was once "an ardent feudist" and "the troublemaker of the family," given blame or credit for several shootings, Jones wrote.

The Evening Sun's detailed obituary reported that his demise "had no connection with his feudal injuries" suffered in battles that "involved whole communities, bringing death to scores." The New York Times rejoiced that the days of families shooting at each other were past: "American civilization has at least this much to its credit."

The legend of the Hatfields and McCoys shows signs of reviving, according to David Reynolds, executive director of the Matewan Development Center in Matewan, W.Va.

"People are getting more interested and asking about the feud," he says. "Some think Disney created it and are amazed it happened. Robert Duvall is talking about making a movie. Good scholarship is being done. Altina L. Waller of the University of Connecticut has written an excellent book, 'Feud' [1988], debunking many myths." The book explains the trouble in economic and social terms, rather than in hillbilly stereotyping.

An ambitious economic development project, a 2,000-mile, multimillion-dollar system of trails, has been named after the feud: the Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Project. It will follow old mining and lumber roads in southwestern West Virginia, the first 300 miles opening in 2000.

"The name is such a recognition factor," Reynolds says. "There's little for tourists who come looking now. I can only send them to the cemeteries, since Cap Hatfield's old house collapsed under the snow last winter in Island Creek. We think a trail byproduct will mean more heritage tourism."

This year, the Williamson (W.Va.) Daily News published five sections on Hatfield-McCoy with 70 pages of pictures, memories and ads. "Over 100 years after the first shot was fired, the legend lives on," said the first headline.

"People love it," says editor Terri Richardson. "The ill-fated romance, the fighting over the pig, the human stories. Most of the buyers are from out of town. The hillbilly image attracts them, which is unfair. If you look back at any family, you find problems."

Hatfields and McCoys of today are business people, doctors, lawyers and politicians, Richardson says. "Many are friends. They don't talk much about what happened. They have given back to the community."

Henry D. Hatfield, a grandson of Devil Anse Hatfield, told reporter Charlotte Sanders: "I have been raised among members of both families. I can only say the feud did happen, but the descendants of the feudists now live peacefully, often side by side."

Opinions vary on the trouble's origins. Historical markers cite Civil War conflicts, romantic entanglements, family-oriented discord, property and election disputes -- and "mountain pride."

The story is not simple. The two families had lived and intermarried for scores of years with no publicized trouble. Some Hatfields aligned with McCoys and some McCoys with Hatfields. Timber-trade competition played a key role in animosities.

Mountain feuds elsewhere were more deadly, Reynolds says, but Tug Valley became famous because it involved two states and angered the governors of both. It eventually landed in the Supreme Court and attracted the New York press.

Some say it all began in 1873 with the pig.

One day, Randolph McCoy, the patriarch of the McCoys known as "Ran'l," visited his brother-in-law Floyd Hatfield's place. One of the pigs looked familiar to McCoy. He took Hatfield to court, accusing him of swine theft. A jury of six Hatfields and six McCoys decided that the pig was indeed Hatfield's when Selkirk McCoy, married to a Hatfield, voted for acquittal.

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