Hatfields and McCoys Make Peace

American Icons, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on January 14, 2001

The Hatfields and McCoys, whose feud filled a page in American history and helped paint an unflattering picture of Appalachian Mountain families for generations to come, are officially friends again.

More than a century after the feud ended, both families celebrated peace last June with a weeklong reunion and reconciliation in Pikeville, Ky., the town where it all began. They came from across America, 2,000 strong, to explore family histories, say hello to cousins theyd never met, and eat endless helpings of pork barbecue. The once-warring clans had such a good time they agreed to hold the event in Pikeville every year (this year, June 7-10).

Weve been hearing about the story all of our lives, but coming here where it all happened makes us appreciate our heritage even more, says Virginia Patterson, of Walla Walla, Wash., who attended the inaugural reunion with her sister, Nancy Gamboa of Redondo Beach, Calif.

Weve counted at least 100 people from our branch on the (McCoy) family tree. Its been interesting to meet everyone, Gamboa says.

This wouldnt have been the case in 1878.

Both families were early settlers of the Tug Valley, where the Tug Fork River serves as the border between Kentucky and West Virginiathe McCoys settling in Pikeville and the Hatfields across the river. In the mid-1800s this was an unspoiled frontier. The patriarchs of each family, William Anderson Hatfield and Randolph McCoy, were men of tough, pioneer constitution.

Both families were farmers and later amassed large tracts of timberland.

Origins of the feud are murky, but historians believe the fighting was caused by an accumulation of events, not a single incident.

I think thats a fair assessment. It just didnt start with one thing, says Jim Pritchard, research room supervisor at the Kentucky State Archives.

Animosity surfaced in 1878 on the Kentucky side when Randolph McCoy accused a Hatfield of stealing a hog. McCoy filed a complaint, and a judge organized a jury which, to promote fairness, was evenly divided between male representatives of the two families.

The Hatfields won the hog war when a McCoy cousin sided with the opposing clan. Feelings festered and other incidents occurred that finally resulted in the shooting death of Ellison Hatfield in 1882. Retaliation begat retaliation until the feud claimed 11 more family members over the next 10 years or so.

By the early 1890s, the feuding was over. More settlers had moved into the area, and with them, more lawmen. The family patriarchs, having seen enough family die, went their separate ways.

But the feud had already set in motion tales of Tug Valley that soon became almost comic book caricatures of real events and peoplemuch like the fanciful exaggerations coming out of the American West.

This area became known for the dumb, hillbilly stereotype, and that has been hard to overcome, says Terry L. May, director of special publications at the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville. Weve got plenty of the descendants of the Hatfields and McCoys who get along just fine. Were over the fighting.

In fact, Pikevillethe county seat for Pike Countyhas become a cultural and educational force in the region. The town is home to Pikeville College, a 112-year-old institution with programs including the Pikeville College School of Osteopathic Medicine.

The Pikeville Concert Association hosts an annual season of well-attended events, including ballet and musical performances. And citizens note with pride that Kentucky Gov. Paul E. Patton hails from Pike County.

And now, more than a century distant from the feuding, Pikeville and Pike County are embracing their checkered heritage with open arms.

Ken Hatfield, of Chicago, also attended the reunion.

I heard the stories all the time, but I left them a long time ago when I left this area, he says.

Hatfield says he never harbored any animosity toward the McCoys. My best friends at the University of Kentucky were McCoys, he says. Great people.