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~ The Old Sachem ~ The Hatfields and McCoys

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By Bill Stewart


Last week we looked at the murders in Fall River, where Lizzie Borden took an axe, a historic story of murder. This week we look at another historical series of events: the feud between neighbors. I’m sure you heard about the feud, but don’t know the story.

The feud lasted almost 30 years – from 1863 to 1891 – around the Tug Fork tributary of the Big Sandy River. The Hatfields of West Virginia were mostly east of the river and the McCoys of Kentucky were mostly to the west. The Hatfields were led by William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield and the McCoys’ leader was Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy. Most families of both fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, but Asa Harmon McCoy chose to fight with the Union, and this didn’t sit well with Randolph and his brood.

When Asa McCoy returned to Logan County after the war, he was murdered by a group known as the Confederate Home Guards, and within the Guards was a unit named the Logan Wildcats, and Devil Anse was first suspected of the murder, but eventually it was said that the Wildcats were responsible; Jim Vance of the Wildcats was listed as the murderer.

The Hatfields were considered quite wealthy, while the McCoys were considered middle class. The Hatfields had political connections; “Devil Anse” had a lumbering operation that provided wealth for the Hatfields, and both families indulged in producing and selling illegal moonshine, which was very popular in the region during these times and produced cash to both families.

Asa McCoy enlisted in the Union Army, 45th Kentucky Infantry on October 20, 1863, and was captured by the southerners on December 5, 1863; he was suffering from gunshot wounds. He was released by the rebels four months later. He was then sent to a hospital in Maryland.

Asa served in a Kentucky unit known as the Pike County Home Guards under the command of Uriah Runyon and was wounded while a member of a unit, commanded by William Francis, which attacked and shot Mose Christian Cline, a close friend of “Devil Anse.” Cline survived his wounds, but “Devil Anse” vowed to retaliate against the troopers who were part of the attack. Early in 1863, a unit of the Confederate Home Guards ambushed and killed Francis just as he was leaving his house, and Anse took credit for the killing.

Union muster rolls have Asa on May 6, 1864, at a Lexington Hospital suffering from a leg fracture. In December 1864, Asa’s unit, the 45th Kentucky Infantry, began the mustering out of the companies – Asa’s Company E on December 24, 1864. Asa was shot and killed near his home on January 7, 1864, only 13 days after he was discharged by the Union Army. A group of Confederate guerrillas took credit for the killing, and the wife of Asa entered a pension application stating he was “killed by rebels.” There are no existing records pertaining to his death and no issue of a warrant for the murder. McCoy family tradition names Jim Vance, an uncle of Anse McCoy, a member of a West Virginia militia group, as the murderer.

Thirteen years later, in 1878, another act of violence brought out the feud again when the families disputed the ownership of a hog. Anse’s cousin Floyd Hatfield claimed ownership, but Randolph McCoy also claimed ownership, stating that notches on the pig’s ear were McCoy markers, not Hatfields. When the case was brought before the local Justice of the Peace, Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield ruled in favor of the Hatfields by the testimony of Bill Stanton, who was a relative of both families. Stanton was killed in June 1880 by brothers Sam and Paris McCoy, both later requited by a judge who ruled the killing was an act of self-defense.

The feud escalated when Roseanna McCoy entered a relationship with Devil Anse’s son, Johnse, leaving her family to live with the Hatfields in West Virginia. She returned to the McCoys, and the couple later tried to resume their relationship. Johnse was arrested by the McCoys on outstanding Kentucky bootleg warrants. He was freed from McCoy custody when Roseanna made a desperate ride to warn Anse, and he organized a rescue party. The Hatfields surrounded the McCoys and took Johnse away. Despite Roseanna’s attempt to free Johnse, and her family considered her action a betrayal, Johnse abandoned the pregnant Roseanna and married her cousin Nancy McCoy in 1881.

The feud started again in 1882 when Anse’s brother, Ellison Hatfield, was killed by three of Roseanna’s brothers: Talbert, Pharmer and Bud. On an election day in Kentucky, the three McCoy brothers killed Elison Hatfield and one of his brothers. Elison was stabbed 26 times and also suffered a gunshot. The McCoy brothers were arrested by Hatfield constables and taken to Pikeville for trial. Anse recruited a band of McCoy vigilantes, and they intercepted the constables and took the brothers to West Virginia. Elison died from his injuries then the Hatfields killed all three McCoy brothers. The Hatfields killed another McCoy, Larkin, the second son of Asa.

The Hatfields and their friends believed the two killings were revenges. Anse and about 20 friends were indicted, but they all eluded arrest, which didn’t bode well with the McCoys. Anse sent gunmen to kill Randolph and his son, Calvin, but they mistakenly killed Randolph’s nephews, John and Henderson Scott.

The McCoys took their case to Perry Cline, who used political connections to restate the charges and announced rewards for the capture of the Hatfields. A few years earlier, Cline had lost a lawsuit against Anse over the deed of thousands of acres of land, which continued the hostilities among the families. Acting Constable “Cap” Hatfield and a friend, Tom Wallace, broke into the house of Bruce Daniels and attacked his wife, Mary, a sister of Jeff McCoy. Jeff McCoy learned of the attack in 1886 while he was running from authorities for the murder of a mail carrier, Fred Walford. Jeff was shot and killed by Cap Hatfield on the banks of Tug Fork. Jake and Larkin McCoy arrested Tom Wallace for the beating of Mary Daniels, but he escaped from the jail.

The feud continued and reached a peak by the 1888 New Year’s Night Massacre when Cap and a group of Hatfields surrounded the Randolph McCoy cabin and began shooting at it. The McCoys awoke and began firing back, then the Hatfields burned the cabin, forcing the McCoys to battle outside. Most of the McCoy family were able to get away, but two of Randolph’s sons were killed by the Hatfields.

In the decade between 1880 and 1891, more than a dozen members between the two families were killed. The Governors of the two states threatened to gather militias and capture the opposing families, but it never happened.

After the massacre, the Pike County Deputy Sheriff, Frank Philipps, rode with a posse across the state line into West Virginia to catch Anse’s group. The first killed by the deputy was Lance Hatfield. Philipps continued raids on Hatfield houses and their supporters, capturing many and killing three Hatfield supporters.

The families faced each other in the battle of Grapevine Creek and the Hatfields were apprehended. On August 23, 1888, eight of the Hatfields and friends were indicted for the murder of Randolph’s young daughter.

The United States Supreme Court became involved on the issues of due process and illegal extradition in the case of Mahon v. Justice, 127 U.S. 700, 1888. The decision of the Court was in favor of Kentucky, 7-2, holding that even if a fugitive is returned from the asylum state illegally instead of through lawful extradition procedure no federal law prevents him from being tried. The men were tried in Kentucky and all were found guilty. Seven received life imprisonment, and of the eight Ellison Mounts was hanged.

After the hanging of Mounts, fighting between the families eased, but trials continued into 1901 when Johnse Hatfield was sentenced to life imprisonment for involvement in the New Year’s Massacre.

The families finally got together in 1979 for competing in the TV game show Family Feud. They played for a cash prize and a pig that was onstage during the game. The McCoy family won the week-long series, three games to two. The Hatfields made the most money, $11,272, while the McCoys captured $8,459. A decision was made to give the McCoy family $11,273 for their winnings.

The area of Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River has become a tourist attraction. Great-great-great-grandsons Bo McCoy and Ron McCoy – of Randolph McCoy – organized a joint family reunion of the Hatfield and McCoy families in 2000, which became a national event of more than 5,000 people in attendance.


  (Editor’s Note: Bill Stewart, better known to Saugus Advocate readers as “The Old Sachem,” writes a weekly column about sports – and sometimes he opines on current or historical events or famous people.)

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