The Hatfields and McCoys are one of the most famous feuding families in American history. This infamous feud began in the late nineteenth century in the rugged mountains of eastern Kentucky, along the border of southern West Virginia. These two infamous families engaged each other in a bitter struggle of betrayal, jealousy, and revenge. The Hatfield and McCoy feud has been the subject of countless books, movies, and television shows and continues to fascinate people even today.

Introduction to the Hatfields and McCoys

The Hatfield and McCoy feud began in the late 1800s, and there exist many origin stories for the feud. The family names have become synonymous with hatred and violence, but there is much more to the story than just a simple rivalry. The roots of the conflict date back to the American Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction period.

The Hatfields were a family of Appalachian frontiersmen living in the Tug Fork region of West Virginia. The family was led by William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, a Confederate veteran and prominent local figure. The McCoys were a family of Scottish-Irish immigrants who had settled in the same region of Kentucky. The family was headed by Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy, also a Confederate veteran, who, according to legend, was captured by the Union and kept in a prison camp.

The two families had a history of animosity, which many believe began during the Civil War when Devil Anse Hatfield allegedly deserted the Confederacy while Ole Ran’l McCoy continued the fight, resulting in his capture. This animosity continued to simmer over the years, with several notable events occurring, building on the tension. In 1888, these tensions culminated in a violent confrontation between the two families in Hardy, Kentucky, the McCoy homeplace. This confrontation would later become known as the 1888 New Year’s Day Massacre.

Overview of the Feud

The tensions between the Hatfields and McCoys had been slowly escalating for years prior to the 1888 massacre. As mentioned before, several origin stories exist, with popular narratives involving a dispute over the ownership of a hog in 1878, and the execution of Asa Harmon McCoy (Ole Ran’l’s brother) years before. The Romeo and Juliet-esque story of Johnse Hatfield (Devil Anse’s son) and Roseanna McCoy (Ole Ran’l’s daughter) is also widely believed to have set off this violent feud. Some believe most of these legends to be blown out of proportion, and the feud was more of a “trouble” between two families. One thing is for certain, the remains of the McCoy cabin that was uncovered by National Geographic in collaboration with Pike County Tourism CVB, and the University of Kentucky tell quite a story.

The Hatfields Attack the McCoy Cabin

On January 1, 1888, the Hatfields engaged in their worst atrocity during their long-running disputes with the McCoys. On New Year’s Day, 1888, Devil Anse Hatfield allegedly planned a stunt that he hoped would end the family feud for good. Hatfield relative Jim Vance led the Hatfield posse to the McCoy homeplace to burn down the McCoy cabin, while the family was inside. This possee allegedly included Devil Anse Hatfield’s son Johnse Hatfield, along with his nephew Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts (whose father was slain by McCoys in a scuffle, only to be executed by the Hatfields later on). It is said that Devil Anse Hatfield was not present for the attack. 

That fateful evening, the Hatfields approached Randolph McCoy’s cabin, setting it ablaze, and commenced committing further violent acts. It is believed that Randolph McCoy was not present, or somehow escaped, yet two of his grown children were killed, a son named Calvin and a daughter named Alifair. Sarah McCoy, his wife, was bludgeoned and left for dead. She survived the incident but was never the same (mentally). Because of this incident, the Hatfields were put on the defensive. 

Repercussions of the Massacre

The 1888 New Year’s Day Massacre had serious repercussions for both the Hatfields and McCoys. The incident resulted in a flurry of lawsuits, arrests, and convictions. The McCoys were outraged by the deaths of their family members and sought justice. They filed a civil suit against the Hatfields, alleging that they were responsible for the deaths of their family members.

The Hatfields, on the other hand, were outraged by the accusations and sought to protect themselves. The Hatfields were also hunted by Kentucky law enforcement and were arrested outside of their jurisdiction, which was controversial. A McCoy posse also later murdered Jim Vance, and Devil Anse’s nephew was hanged in Pikeville—the only participant of the feud to be executed in accordance with the law. Eventual peace was made between the two families, yet the stigma of the feud remains, to some degree, until this day. 

Descendants Ron McCoy and William Keith Hatfield at the McCoy Homeplace – Hatfield McCoy Heritage Days 2022

The Hatfields and McCoys Today

The Hatfield and McCoy feud has become an iconic part of American folklore. The feud has been immortalized in books, movies, and television shows, and it continues to fascinate people even today. The story of the Hatfields and McCoys has become a symbol of unforgiveness, hatred, and bitter grudges. Yet this is a symbol that members of both families have dedicated their lives to changing. Each year, descendants of both families make a pilgrimage to Pikeville-Pike County, Kentucky for Hatfield McCoy Heritage Days, a celebration of the friendship between these once bitter enemies, and a commemoration of the peace they made so many years ago. The public is invited to attend Hatfield McCoy Heritage Days, which takes place September 15-17 of 2023, and will feature a multitude of entertaining and educational events with the descendants of both families. The event culminates at the McCoy Well in Hardy, Kentucky, where the massacre took place, with a memorial service and show of unity by representatives of both families. 

While the feud serves as a reminder of the dangers of unchecked hatred and violence, these two families also want to show the unity that can grow from friendship and forgiveness, a unity that our country sorely needs in today’s political climate.

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