Bad blood

You don’t have to be a serious student of American history to have heard of the Hatfield and McCoy feud, that took place in a corner of Kentucky and West Virginia called the Tug Valley. The Hatfields were on the West Virginia side of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, and the McCoys on the Kentucky side.

Well, it’s a long and complicated story. From what we can tell, the recent TV mini-series starring Kevin Costner did it justice – according to most folks in these parts, and from what we are able to gather by being here. I never thought about taking sides, but it seems to us that the McCoys were sorely used. As the signs will say, there were a lot of reasons, and one unfolded like Romeo and Juliet, Appalachia-style.

We started our day in Pikesville KY, which houses several key sites in the story, including a court-house where both sides frequently confronted each other. One of their struggles went all the way to the Supreme Court, so this feud was prime-time fodder for newspapers around the country. Even the length of the fight is up for argument, but it was from about 1864 to 1891.

Having watched the series this week, we were primed for today, and had shivers seeing many of the sites that figure prominently in the tale.

But the best part was meeting two people more than eager to tell us their side of the story.

We went to the site of family leader Randolph (“Ole Ran’l”) McCoy’s home, which the Hatfields burned one night, killing his son and daughter. Their well remains, and the outline of the house is staked out on what might have been a beautiful site in a narrow and steep hollow. Now on what was McCoy land, there are three suburban-type homes, so incongruous in this area. But in one of them, an entrepreneur came out to greet us from his garage’s McCoy exhibit, and bend our ears about the whole story – with a binder packed with laminated pages of documents and photos. Yes, he accepted tips, but mostly, he just wanted to talk.

He was neither a Hatfield or a McCoy, but he acknowledged that living on McCoy land has inclined him to support their side of the story. And boy, could he tell the story, as well as provide a micro-analysis of the TV series and where it might have erred from the truth. He has also shared this information with the director, who has visited that spot several times. We got the inside story!

The pig that is referenced is important, and caused the first court case, heard down the road. Unfortunately, the Hatfield judge did not adopt the wisdom of Solomon and split the pig in half. That might have helped. But the McCoys lost, and the feud gained fuel.

We went down the road a bit to the reconstructed courthouse where the infamous Hog Trial was held, and got a very different story. Here we met an actual Hatfield, and she is still fuming about all the lies told about her family and its leader during the feud – Devil Anse (Anderson) Hatfield. (His nickname alone might give you pause, but our guide would have none of the conventionally accepted story line. She was passionate to the point of frightening in her rush to give us all the “true facts,” and we had to back away very carefully. I didn’t think she was armed, but I was hoping that she wouldn’t take offense when we didn’t buy the tee-shirt or her uncle’s book.

Nearby were more sad spots in the story – where one or the other of the families killed their sworn enemies. And if a McCoy dared to marry a Hatfield, why then, that unfortunate soul was no longer a “real McCoy.”

I’m glad we aren’t staying in the area for the evening. The past is all too close and too real here!


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