Hatfields and McCoys Dinner Feud (dinner theater) in Pigeon Forge, TN; image courtesy MyPigeonForge.com
Historic Hostility In Pikeville Leads To Homespun Hilarity In Pigeon Forge
By Ria Nicholas
For most of us, the names Hatfield and McCoy call up caricatures of hatin’ hillbillies and backwoods bickering – feuding families who just couldn’t get along. In fact, they were real people, spurred on by real historical events, and we can take a peek at their shameful shenanigans in two fabulous locations.
- Pikeville, Kentucky
The mountains of eastern Kentucky undulate among shrouds of mist. They are dotted with rugged outcroppings and torn by breathtaking chasms. You may just want to get lost in the woods, engaged in the many outdoor recreational activities available there.
But if you’re just a little bit curious about the Famous Feud, then you may want to start at the Pikeville-Pike County Visitors Center for directions to a self-guided driving tour of the major sites where the Feud played out, both in Kentucky and in nearby West Virginia. The Visitor Center can also provide an audio CD or USB with narration about the families’ pitiless propensities. The Pikeville-Pike County Visitors Center is located at 831 Hambley Blvd., Pikeville, KY 41501.
While in Pikeville, also visit the Big Sandy Heritage Center Museum. It houses the largest collection of historical Hatfield and McCoy artifacts in the world! The Big Sandy Heritage Center Museum is located on the 4th floor of the Hall of Justice Building at 172 Division St., Pikeville, KY 41501.
The Hatfield-McCoy Heritage Days typically occur in Pike County, Kentucky every September over a 3-day weekend. This event brings Hatfield and McCoy descendants back to Pike County to celebrate the long-standing peace between the families. The festival includes foot races, reenactments, food, a farmers market, music, a chance to actually meet the families, and more.
2. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
If you prefer a lighthearted, fictionalized version of the story, then try the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show at 119 Music Rd., Pigeon Forge, TN 37863. The ‘All You Can Eat’ southern home-style feast is accompanied by a two-hour musical comedy based on the Feud and designed to keep you in stitches. You may want to book your reservations in advance.
Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg (its neighbor 8 miles to the south) are both veritable family playgrounds, with multiple entertainment options. These include Dollywood, mountain coasters, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, the Titanic Museum, and much, much more. And for the outdoor enthusiast, Gatlinburg also serves as a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
But wait! There’s more! Far from hijinks and hissy fits, this violent clash of clans was symptomatic of an era of systemic lawlessness that swept the nation in the wake of war. The interactions were far more complex than I had imagined, and the repercussions were much more far reaching.
Introduction to Gang Warfare:
While we associate gang warfare with contemporary urban decay, disenfranchised youth, and the scourge of drug trafficking, ‘gangs’ have actually been around since time immemorial. In our example, the suspension of the court system during the Civil War and the lack of law enforcement at that time opened the door for clans of lawless backwoodsmen to fill the void by taking the law into their own hands. Once they gained a foothold, they proliferated like a stubborn weed.
These factions frequently came into conflict with one another. The Feud between the Hatfields and McCoys was exceptionally virulent. It escalated to the point that it garnered national attention and wormed its way into the American psyche. But it was by no means unique*.
* Many American blood feuds arose during, or on the heels of, the Civil War. Another famous feud you may have heard of played out in Tombstone, Arizona between Wyatt Earp and friends and the Clanton gang.
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Introduction to the Families:
Across the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River that divides Kentucky from West Virginia, two Appalachian families once engaged in a decades-long feud. It unleashed such unrelenting violence that the families have been condemned to be chained to one another for all eternity. The mere mention of their names, the Hatfields and McCoys, calls up images of undying rancor and resentment.
The patriarch of the Hatfield Family was William Anderson Hatfield, aptly called “Devil Anse.” He officially made his income in the timber industry, but bootlegging moonshine amounted to a significant sideline.
The McCoy family, at the time, was headed by the equally cantankerous Randolph McCoy, known locally as “Old Randall.” He earned a respectable living farming the land.
The Hatfields lived mostly in West Virginia, a state firmly aligned with the Confederacy. The McCoy family lived mostly in Kentucky, technically a neutral state, though most of the McCoys also pledged their loyalty to the Southern cause. The river formed an ineffectual dividing line between them.
I say that one family lived “mostly” in one state, while the other lived “mostly” in another, not just because of the serpentine state boundary. There was just enough inter-marriage between these highly fertile, feuding families to make it difficult to keep their lineage – and their respective sides – straight.
Today, of course, the families who once nursed such a vehement grudge against one another, stand united in friendship. They look back on the sins of their fathers, shake their heads, and sigh. They invite us to visit their beautiful home states, see the relics of their families’ collective past, and walk in the footsteps of those murdering miscreants.
Meet the Hatfields:
Meet the McCoys:
Many historians consider the first unholy skirmishes between members of these two rancorous clans as separate from the Feud – motivated more by political loyalties than by family ties, and occurring under the auspices of war. But the players are the same, so the events could be seen as the opening salvo of the barrage of violence to come.
Other historians view the Feud as an unintended result of the Civil War. As stated, with court systems and law enforcement effectively suspended between 1861 and 1865, backwoods families grew accustomed to enforcing their own rules. By the end of the War, some of these family clans had grown stronger than law enforcement agencies. In many cases, the distinction between outlaw and lawman had become blurred, as in the case of Wyatt Earp out West. Once these individuals or families attained power, they frequently refused to back down.
1861: The Civil War was on! William Anderson (“Devil Anse”) Hatfield served two years in the Confederate army, but returned home to West Virginia where he joined a local Confederate militia, known as the “Logan Wildcats,” in order to protect his home turf.
1862: The Pike County Home Guards, a Union militia outfit out of Kentucky, busied itself spying on and stealing horses from the Logan Wildcats. In the process, one unit of the Pike County Home Guards, Commanded by William Francis, shot a friend of Devil Anse. Although the friend survived the attack, a rumor circulated that Devil Anse vowed revenge.
Uriah Runyon commanded another unit of the Pike County Home Guards. Among the members of that unit we find Asa Harmon McCoy, a Union veteran and brother of Randolph “Old Randall” McCoy.
1863: In a tit-for-tat move, the Confederate Home Guards killed William Francis, and Devil Anse Hatfield took credit for the deed.
That same year, Randolph McCoy, who also fought on the side of the Confederacy, was captured in Pike County, Kentucky and sent to a Union prison camp. He languished as a POW for the remainder of the war. Records are unclear about whether Randolph McCoy and Devil Anse served in the same unit.
1864: ‘Rebels’ killed Uriah Runyon.
1865: Union veteran Asa Harmon McCoy (the brother of Randolph McCoy) suffered an injury. His return home to Confederate territory was met with distrust. The Logan Wildcats, now headed by Confederate veteran Devil Anse Hatfield and his uncle, James Vance, hedged their bets by killing Asa Harmon McCoy. No charges were brought.
(The Union Army continued to fight home guards – both Union and Confederate home guards – long after the War ended.)
The Timber Dispute:
1870: Perry Cline (more about him below) and Devil Anse were neighbors. Cline cut some timber on his own land; however Devil Anse claimed it was his. To avoid confrontation with the formidable Devil Anse, Cline sold him his 5,000 acres and moved to Pike County.
The Hog Trial Incident:
After an intermission of over a decade, the Feud ignited in earnest- over a pig!
1878: Floyd Hatfield (cousin to Devil Anse) was in possession of a hog. Old Randall claimed that Floyd had stolen the hog from him. The two took their dispute to Justice of the Peace “Preacher Anse” Hatfield (not to be confused with Devil Anse) and a jury of six Hatfields and six McCoys . Bill Staton, a relative of both families, earned the animosity of the McCoy family when he testified in favor of Floyd Hatfield. In any event, evidence showed that the hog had not been stolen, and the jury ruled in favor of Floyd Hatfield.
1880: Paris and his uncle, Sam McCoy, encountered Bill Staton while hunting in the woods. Staton shot Paris, and Sam shot Staton. (Could it have been because of lingering animosity over the hog incident?) The McCoys were acquitted on grounds of self defense.
The Love Triangle:
1881: In a move straight from a Shakespearean drama, Roseanna McCoy, the daughter of Old Randall, entered into a romantic relationship with Johnse Hatfield, the son of Devil Anse. Around this time, the Sheriff of Pike County appointed Randall’s son Tolbert McCoy to execute arrest warrants on Johnse Hatfield on a weapons charge and charges of bootlegging. Apparently Roseanna hurried to Devil Anse under cover of darkness to alert him to the arrest. Never one to miss out on a confrontation, Devil Anse organized an armed rescue mission to surround the McCoys and recover Johnse. Johnse, in return, demonstrated his love and undying gratitude by abandoning the pregnant Rosanna in order to marry her cousin, “Hellcat” Nancy McCoy (daughter of the late Asa Harmon McCoy).
The Election Day Fight:
1882: In August of 1882, several Hatfields crossed over into Kentucky to impose themselves on the election there. During the event, an argument ensued between the large and powerful “Big” Ellison Hatfield, and Tolbert McCoy, who was a man of small stature. The argument escalated into a physical fight, and Tolbert quickly found himself outmatched, even after he wielded a knife. One of Tolbert’s brothers rushed to his aid. They stabbed Ellison 26 times and shot him once for good measure. While the shot ended his rampage, Ellison didn’t die immediately and was taken back to his home.
Pike County authorities arrested the McCoy boys. But when Devil Anse received news of the assault on his brother, he dispatched his men to intercept the constables. Hatfield’s gang took the McCoy brothers by force and held them captive. When Ellison Hatfield succumbed to his injuries two or three days later, the Hatfield clan tied Tolbert, and his brothers, Pharmer, and Randolph “Bud” McCoy, Jr., to some paw-paw trees and shot them full of holes. An estimated 50 bullets were expended in exacting their revenge. One of the McCoy boys, who was only 14 years old at the time, hadn’t been directly involved in the election day fight.
Twenty-three of Hatfield’s men were indicted for the brutal murders, but the Hatfields were sufficiently numerous and powerful to evade and resist arrest for the next five years.
1886: Jeff McCoy killed a mail carrier by the name of Fred Wolford.
Constable Cap Hatfield (Devil Anse’s son) and his friend, Tom Wallace, apparently felt professionally compelled to kill Jeff McCoy while he was on the run.
1887: Tom Wallace was found dead.
Angry that no arrests had been made in the murder case of the three McCoy boys, the McCoy family took their cause to Perry Cline. (Remember him from The Timber Dispute?) Cline was the brother of Asa Harmon McCoy’s widow. He used his political connections to renew the charges and offered a reward for the capture of the Hatfields. Cline also caused “Bad” Frank Phillips and other bounty hunters to be brought into the pursuit. They captured, arrested, and jailed Devil Anse’s brother Valentine “Wall” Hatfield and two others.
The New Year’s Day Massacre:
1888: Outraged by the arrests, Devil Anse hatched a plan to rid himself of the McCoy problem once and for all: Johnse and Cap Hatfield and James Vance (Devil Anse’s uncle, whose resume includes having killed Asa Harmon McCoy back in 1865) led several members of the Hatfield clan to surround, shoot up, and set fire to the McCoy cabin as the family slept inside.
Their motive was to drive Old Randall into the open. Old Randall’s son Calvin McCoy and daughter Alifair McCoy were killed during the raid. His wife Sally was badly injured. The rest of the family escaped into the woods.
After the attack, Old Randall moved his family to Pikeville, Kentucky to avoid further raids.
Pike County Deputy Sheriff, “Bad” Frank Philips, formed a posse, including “Bud” McCoy and Old Randall’s son, James McCoy. They set off to track down Devil Anse’s men. But Devil Anse was ready, and a gun battle ensued. The posse killed James Vance and three other Hatfield supporters and returned eight members of the Hatfield clan to Kentucky, where they were indicted for murder.
A Measure Of Justice:
1889: Because of questions of due process and proper extradition, the case made its way all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The ruling was 7 to 2 in favor of Kentucky, and the case went to trial. Seven of the eight Hatfield clan members captured received life sentences for the murders of Tolbert, Pharmer, Randolph “Bud”, Calvin and Alifair McCoy. One, Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts, received the death sentence, possibly because he was mentally challenged and could serve as a handy scapegoat, possibly because he confessed.
1890: Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts was hanged. His last words were, “They made me do it! The Hatfields made me do it!”
What In the Sam Hill Was Going On?:
At one point, the governors of both Kentucky and West Virginia were drawn into the conflict, threatening to invade each other’s states with their respective militias. Kentucky Governor S. B. Buckner sent Adjutant General Sam Hill to investigate and report on the Feud. So next time you hear someone exclaim, “What in the Sam Hill is going on?!,” you’ll know where that expression originated.
Johnse Hatfield fled to the Pacific Northwest, abandoning his wife, Nancy. “Bad” Frank Phillips moved from Pikeville to Peter Creek when the McCoys blamed him for two murders. Nancy McCoy Hatfield moved in with “Bad” Frank, and after both she and Frank were indicted for adultery, she was able to obtain a divorce from Johnse to marry Frank.
According to family history, “Bad” Frank Phillips had once ridden with the James-Younger Gang. The rumor is supported by the fact that he and Nancy named one of their sons ‘Jesse James’ Phillips. It is also supported by Frank’s tough and relentless nature. In the end, he died of complications after being shot through the hips during a quarrel. He was only 36.
Frank’s wife, known as “Hellcat” Nancy, died of tuberculosis three years later. She, too, was only 36.
Johnse Hatfield returned home, but was apprehended, tried and convicted of the murder of Alifair McCoy in 1900. He received a life sentence but was freed six years later when he saved the life of a prison guard.
Old Randall died in 1914 from injuries sustained when he fell into a cooking fire. He was 89.
Devil Anse Hatfield died in 1921 of natural causes at the age of 81.
The Hatfields and McCoys Today:
June 14, 2003: Bo and Ron McCoy and Reo Hatfield signed an official truce between the two families, and subsequently the Governors of Kentucky and West Virginia signed proclamations declaring June 14th Hatfield and McCoy Reconciliation Day.
This excellent Video features three descendants of the Hatfields and McCoys as they explain the cause, evolution, and resolution to the Feud and the legacy of love and forgiveness that they represent today.
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