America has always loved colorful characters and even splashier stories. Deep in the rural expanse making up the Tug River Valley, which splits portions of Kentucky and West Virginia, two prominent families, each with legions of kin and friends intertwined throughout the region, made history when a bitter feud arose between them, resulting in property damage, defamation, and shocking bloodshed. In the late 19th century, a simple dislike and business disagreements would escalate quickly and tragically, leaving a wake of destruction and heartbreak that echoes to this day.
Who Were the Hatfields and McCoys?
Born in 1839, William Anderson Hatfield, known as “Devil Anse,” was an ambitious West Virginian who owned a thriving timber business. There are several rumors as to how he earned his nickname, but one of the most popular claims that he was so strong and fierce he could “take on the devil himself.” Hatfield and his wife, Levicy, had thirteen children and were close with his uncle, Jim Vance. The Hatfields were fairly affluent, popular in their community, and well-connected socially and politically.
On the other side of the river lived Randolph, “Ran’l” McCoy, slightly older than Devil Anse, with a birth date of 1825. A Kentucky native, Ran’l married Sarah, known as “Sally,” and together they had 16 children (though some sources say 13). McCoy had grown up in poverty. He and Sally farmed 300 acres and got by, though they were not nearly as successful as the Hatfields.
Civil War History
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Devil Anse and Ran’l had both served in the Civil War, which had concluded before the beginning of the feud in the 1880s. Both had served on the Confederate side. However, Ran’l’s brother, Asa, had served on the Union side, which deeply angered many of the locals, particularly Hatfield’s uncle, Jim Vance, who led a local militia called the Logan Wildcats. Devil Anse was part of this group, and it is believed that Ran’l was too, at least at one time. When Asa McCoy returned home after his discharge in 1864, he faced many threats, including from the Logan Wildcats. He attempted to hide in a cave near his home but was eventually discovered and murdered. Though his murder was never officially solved, many believed that Jim Vance was the one who pulled the trigger. Though Ran’l certainly wasn’t a Union sympathizer, he did not want to see his brother murdered, either.
The Feud Begins
While some historians disagree on the official starting point for the feud, most agree that the major beginning event had to do with, believe it or not, a hog. In 1878, McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield, Devil Anse’s cousin, of stealing a pig from his farm. The matter even went to court. However, the presiding judge was Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield, another cousin of Devil Anse, and the only witness called to testify was a friend and distant relative of the Hatfield family. Charges were dismissed, the McCoy family lost their hog, and their anger at the entire Hatfield clan skyrocketed. This acrimony was intensified by existing tensions that the two families had between them regarding Asa McCoy and perhaps jealousy over the Hatfield’s affluence.
Romeo & Juliet
Two years after the conclusion of the court case, Devil Anse’s eighteen-year-old son, Johnse, met Ran’l’s twenty-one-year-old daughter, Roseanna, at an election day party. In those days, election day was treated as a national holiday, with the community gathering to feast, dance, and enjoy one another’s company at local polling places. The two quickly became smitten with one another, but their fathers made it clear that they disapproved of the relationship. After several months of sneaking around, Roseanna fled her family home and went to West Virginia to be with Johnse and live at the Hatfield family compound.
In an attempt to get her back, a posse of McCoys rode to West Virginia and arrested Johnse on a handful of outstanding bootlegging warrants from Kentucky. Worried her family meant to kill her beloved, Roseanna quickly found Devil Anse and told him about the capture, and a group of Hatfields located Johnse and set him free. Despite her love for him, Roseanna eventually realized that Johnse would never marry her and decided to give in to her family’s urgings to return home.
Soon after, she found out she was pregnant. Even after learning this fact, both fathers forbade their children from marrying, and Roseanna was sent to live with an aunt, as her father wanted nothing to do with her. She gave birth to her daughter, Sarah, there.
Johnse never saw Roseanna again and quickly moved on to another girl his father frowned upon, Nancy McCoy. Nancy was Roseanna’s cousin and the daughter of Asa McCoy, the murdered Union soldier. Despite this, Johnse and Nancy married in 1881.
Baby Sarah passed away at the tender age of 8 months from measles. Despondent, Roseanna never fully recovered from her grief over losing her daughter, contact with much of her family, and Johnse. She died at age 29, an indirect casualty of the feud.
Election Day Violence
Election day would once again play a role in the feud as 1882 rolled around. At the local festivities, Ran’l’s son, Tolbert McCoy, got into a dispute with Ellison Hatfield, Devil Anse’s brother. The disagreement, the topic of which is unclear today, escalated, and soon, Tolbert’s brothers Pharmer and Randolph Jr. got involved. Soon, a physical fight broke out. Ellison was stabbed over two dozen times and shot once with a revolver. He survived, but his condition was critical. A justice of the peace immediately ordered the three brothers brought to the Pikeville jail, knowing that vigilante justice would be likely if quick action was not taken. Despite this, Devil Anse found out about the incident and got a posse together immediately. They intercepted the boys before they reached the jail and easily captured them from the peace officers. Hatfield ferried them to West Virginia and told them their fate was now linked to his brother’s: if Ellison lived, they would live. If he died, they would die.
Ellison struggled to survive but succumbed to his injuries a day later. Sarah McCoy pleaded for the lives of her children, but her cries were ignored. Hatfield and his posse brought Tolbert, Pharmer, and Randolph Jr. back to the Kentucky side of the river, tied them to pawpaw trees, and executed them by makeshift firing squad.
This event escalated the feud, and from that point, Hatfields and McCoys skirmished back and forth multiple times. Several deaths resulted from some of these incidents. The Hatfields were indicted for the murders but managed to evade arrest.
New Year’s Massacre
Perhaps hoping to eliminate the McCoys once and for all and make the ongoing calls for their arrest go away, the Hatfields decided to put a malicious plan into motion several years later on New Year’s Day of 1888. Led by Devil Anse’s son Cap and Uncle Jim Vance, a group of Hatfields attacked the McCoy cabin under the cover of darkness, unleashing a hail of bullets upon the family and setting the home on fire. The primary target was Ran’l himself, but he managed to escape. His twenty-six-year-old son Calvin and thirty-year-old daughter Alifair were both killed in the firefight. Sally McCoy was bludgeoned by Jim Vance, her skull cracked by a rifle butt, but she survived. The now-homeless McCoys moved to Pikeville, Kentucky.
Kentucky’s governor sent law enforcement after the Hatfields, with nearly twenty arrest warrants and rewards if found. Bounty hunters also jumped on the opportunity to make some cash from these lucrative rewards, and the chase was on for the Hatfield family. On January 10th, a confrontation with law enforcement led to the death of Jim Vance, and after the raids were complete, nine men were arrested and taken to Kentucky. The governor of West Virginia sued for unlawful arrest, as the men had been taken by Kentucky law enforcement in his jurisdiction, and took his case to the Supreme Court in April. However, the court found in favor of Kentucky, and trials for the nine Hatfields proceeded.
Ending with an Execution
In 1889, the trials of the nine Hatfield (or Hatfield adjacent) men finally began. The trials focused mainly on crimes that had occurred during what had become known as the New Year’s Massacre, or the revenge murders of the three McCoy brothers five years prior.
After the affair, eight of the men were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment for their roles in the events. The ninth man, Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts, illegitimate son of Ellison Hatfield, was sentenced to death for killing Alifair McCoy. Cottontop earned his nickname from the low level of intelligence he exhibited; he would be considered mentally challenged by today’s standards. He was considered by many, even then, to be a scapegoat. Public hangings were illegal at that point in Kentucky, but still, a crowd gathered to watch Cottontop meet his end.
This would be one of the last hangings in this area of Kentucky, and though there would be some small flare-ups after the fact, it is considered by most to be the final crescendo of the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
The Legacy of the Feud & Its Place in Americana
America’s obsession with the Hatfields and McCoys continues over one hundred years later to this day. A 2012 TV miniseries starring Hollywood behemoths Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton as Devil Anse and Ran’l was critically acclaimed. Novels, movies, television shows, folk songs, and podcasts abound about the legends and tragedies surrounding the two families.
The story goes that the classic game show “Family Feud” was inspired by the Hatfield and McCoy saga, and in 1979, descendants of the two groups played against one another live on national television, with cash and a live pig as prizes. While the stories, as they are recalled by current media, are wildly entertaining, what they often overlook are the destruction and heartbreak the two families suffered as a result of their hatred for one another.