Having its roots in the Civil War, the feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families took place in the Appalachian Mountains along the West Virginia-Kentucky border area between 1863 and 1891. The bitter feud attracted nationwide attention, ignited generations of bitter grudges and resentment, and not only included police intervention, but also that of governors and the Supreme Court.
The Hatfields of West Virginia were led by William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield who lived on the West Virginia side of Tug Fork, a tributary of the Big Sandy River in present-day Mingo County (formerly part of Logan County). The Hatfields were more affluent than the McCoys and were well-connected politically. Devil Anse Hatfield’s timbering operation was the source of wealth for his family, and he employed dozens of men, including some of the McCoys.
The McCoys of Kentucky were under the leadership of Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy and lived in Pike County on the other side of Tug Fork. The McCoys were a lower to middle-class family, but Randolph owned a 300-acre farm and livestock.
Both families were involved in the manufacturing and selling of illegal moonshine and both families had complex kinship and social networks. Family loyalty was often determined not only by blood but by employment and proximity. Both groups fought with the Confederates during the Civil War. However, there was one exception. Asa Harmon McCoy, Randolph’s brother, fought for the Union in Pike County Home Guards. Because of this, Asa was seen as a “traitor” by many people of the area, including members of his own family.
During the war, both William “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Randolph McCoy were part of the Confederate Home Guards called the Logan Wildcats. In the fall of 1863, multiple Union guerilla attacks were made by the Kentucky Home Guard on the West Virginia side of the Tug River that were instigated by William H. Francis, Jr. “Bill France.” As a result, the Logan Wildcats surrounded Francis’ home in Pike County, Kentucky and Devil Anse killed him. Asa H. McCoy was a friend and a neighbor of William Francis.
Asa McCoy was released early from the Army in December 1864 because he had a broken leg and returned to Kentucky. He returned home to a warning from Jim Vance, the uncle of Devil Anse Hatfield, that he could expect a visit from the Logan Wildcats. When Asa heard gunshots as he drew water from his well, he hid in a nearby cave, but the Wildcats followed him there and shot him on January 7, 1865. Devil Anse Hatfield was a suspect at first but was later confirmed to have been sick at home at the time of the murder. It was then widely believed that his uncle, Jim Vance, had committed the murder.
Afterward, relations between the two families declined. It came to a head again in 1878 when Randolph McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield, a cousin of Devil Anse, of stealing one of his pigs. When Floyd Hatfield was tried for the theft, none other than Justice of the Peace, Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield, a cousin of Devil Anse, presided. The hearing hinged on the testimony of one witness named Bill Staton, who testified in Floyd Hatfield’s favor. When the charges against Floyd were dropped, the McCoys were infuriated.
Two years later, Bill Staton was violently killed in a dispute with Sam and Paris McCoy, nephews of Randolph on June 18, 1880. Sam stood trial for the murder but was acquitted for self-defense.
Just a few months later, at a local election day gathering in 1880, Johnse Hatfield, the 18-year-old son of Devil Anse, met Roseanna McCoy, Randolph’s daughter. The pair instantly hit it off and disappeared for hours with each other in the coming months. Because her father adamantly disapproved, Roseanna fled to West Virginia to be with Johnse. She was soon followed by a McCoy posse who arrived at the Hatfield home and arrested Johnse on outstanding Kentucky bootlegging warrants. Devil Anse then gathered his own crew to cut off the McCoys and rescue his son.
Afterward, the couple remained apart, but Roseanna was pregnant. Both families refused to allow them to marry. She gave birth to a daughter, Sarah Elizabeth McCoy, in the spring of 1881. But, Johnse had already moved on and married Nancy McCoy, the daughter of Asa Harmon McCoy, and Roseanna’s cousin in May 1881.
Roseanna’s father would not accept her or the baby and refused to speak to her. Her mother then arranged for Roseanna to live with her Aunt Betty in nearby Stringville, Kentucky. Baby Sarah died at the age of eight months from measles. Afterward, Roseanna was said to have been heartbroken and never emotionally recovered. She died at the age of 29.
This affair further soured the relationship between the two families, but it was far from over. On August 5, 1882, at another election day event in Kentucky, three of Randolph McCoy’s sons, Tolbert, Pharmer, and Bud got into a violent dispute with two brothers of Devil Anse. In the melee, one of the McCoy brothers stabbed Ellison Hatfield multiple times and then shot him in the back. The McCoys then fled but were soon apprehended by the authorities. However, the Hatfields intercepted the constables and took the McCoy brothers by force before they reached Pikeville. The brothers were then taken to West Virginia, to await the fate of mortally wounded Ellison Hatfield. When Ellison died, the brothers were tied to pawpaw bushes, where each was shot numerous times with a total of 50 shots fired.
The authorities soon indicted 20 men, including Devil Anse and his sons, for the deaths of the McCoy brothers. Despite the charges, the Hatfields eluded arrest, leaving the McCoys infuriated.
Their cause was taken up by Perry Cline, an attorney who had married Martha McCoy, the widow of Randolph’s brother, Asa Harmon McCoy. In addition to being part of the McCoy family, Cline had a personal vendetta against Devil Anse, as he had lost a lawsuit against over the deed for thousands of acres of land, to him years earlier. Using his political connections, Cline announced rewards for the arrest of the Hatfields, including Devil Anse.
In 1886, Jeff McCoy killed a mail carrier named Fred Wolford, and the acting constable that went after him was Cap Hatfield. Cap and a friend named Tom Wallace shot McCoy when they found him on the banks of Tug River. Tom Wallace was found dead in the spring of 1887.