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March 2023
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Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900

By Altina L Waller; University of North Carolina Press; 313 pages.

Of historic family fights, brawls, and feuds, the long-running struggle between two Appalachian clans, the Hatfields and the McCoys, occupies the most prominent place in the American popular imagination. In comic strips, songs, movies, and television, the unruly and ignorant hill folk have succeeded in becoming such a part of America’s mythic past that many readers will no doubt be surprised to discover that the combatants were real people.

The feud began in the late 187Os when Old Ranel McCoy, something of a patriarchal figure in the backward and impoverished Tug Valley of Kentucky and West Virginia, became convinced that Floyd Hatfield, cousin to a rival clan leader, Devil Anse Hatfield, had stolen one of his hogs. At first the feud resembled a spat: instead of pulling out the guns, Old Ranel complained to the justice of the peace. A jury trial followed, and Old Ranel lost the case. Memories were long, however, and a year and a half later, still incensed at the trial’s outcome, two of Old Ranel’s nephews, Sam and Paris McCoy, beat up one of the witnesses against their uncle, a fight that ended in the witness’s death. Spurred on by an interclan romance between Johnse Hatfield, the handsome, fun-loving son of Devil Anse, and Roseanna McCoy, the two families continued to do battle in a war that reached its height in 1888. In that year the Hatfields attacked the McCoy house and burned it to the ground, killing two of Old Ranel’s children. The house burning and the murder created a national sensation. The governors of West Virginia and Kentucky sent emissaries to investigate. In the following year a number of the Hatfields and their supporters were tried and convicted of murder. The public hanging in February 1890 of Ellison Mount, one of the defendants, marked the feud’s end.

Waller describes this long-drawn-out battle between two families but also sets out to show how the feud was not, as is ordinarily assumed, simply the product of the backwardness and isolation of Appalachian culture. She does allow that the Hatfields and the McCoys were cut off from civilizing institutions; even at the start of the twentieth century, the region resembled the frontier of an earlier generation, and there was a good deal of brawling and rowdiness. Waller argues, however, that it was the economic and social dislocation produced by the arrival of commercial life, including the timber mills and the Norfolk and Western railway, laid down in the late 1880s, that prodded the rival groups into violent confrontation.

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