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Book review: ‘The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys,’ by Dean King

Karina Wetherbee
Special to the Daily
"The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story," by Dean King.
Special to the Daily |

Anyone who has seen the mega-hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” (or who was lucky enough to receive a thorough education in American history) knows of the famous feud between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, which resulted in the death of the former U.S. Treasury Secretary and which led to surprisingly minimal legal or political backlash against Burr. Indeed, politics played a crucial role in shielding Burr, the vice president at the time, from punishment, just as political theatrics did in another famous duel from the annals of American history.

In a new and well-researched book, “The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story,” author Dean King digs deeply into what was arguably the most iconic American feud, a violent family rift that lasted for decades and which grew to represent something quintessential about this nation’s past.

In the heart of America lies Appalachia, a region delineated by mountainous boundaries but more notably defined by long-standing cultural myths and the tarnishing effects of time and temperament. Though the climax of the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud took place in the closing years of the 19th century, the seeds of discord took root during the tumultuous years of the Civil War, which is famous for having divided families, placing blood brothers across the battlefield from each other.

In this regard, the Hatfields and McCoys were not alone, for all along the contentious Mason-Dixon line families were forced to choose a side. The Tug River formed a natural border that ran through the remote hollows of the Appalachian Mountains between Kentucky and West Virginia, and the families that populated the wild and meandering frontier were capable and prideful Scots-Irish immigrants who were “austere, hardened to discomfort and adept at survival” and also prone to intermarrying.

The valley was isolated and behind the times, and as King says, “here in the nation’s oldest mountains, amid some of its most convoluted and confounding terrain, the war was personal and ignited rampant raiding and feuding.” No feuding was as destructive or as long lasting as that between the descendants of Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy.

For those who knew the depths to which the feelings in the Tug River Valley ran, it was understood that the offenses done during the war would not long be forgotten. The first “shot” of the feud was done by the hand of Devil Anse, himself, who was given his prophetic nickname by his own mother after he brought home a bear while out hunting squirrels as a teenager — a bear he had killed with a knife.

Randall McCoy’s son Harmon McCoy had signed up as a member of the Union home-guard — on the opposite side of war as his own father — but when Devil Anse Hatfield shot Harmon in a “skirmish,” blood ties and tallies for revenge became paramount. For a time, a mutual duel of theft — or what each side called the commandeering of items for war use — took place on both sides, and everyone was keeping score, eager for retribution, whether it came during or long after the war.

King says that isolating a single spark that was responsible for igniting the deadly feud is not possible; instead, he calls it “a bonfire lit from three different sides” that “occurred over a span of decades — and gained strength from accumulation.” King repeatedly compares the famous real-world American blood vendetta to the Shakespearean feud between the Montagues and Capulets in “Romeo and Juliet,” another tale in which reason and logic lose out to malice and vengeance.

Emotional Pressure Cooker

Though not as lyrical as Shakespeare’s prose, King’s writing pulls the reader into the narrative with vibrant language that evokes the emotional pressure cooker that persisted for decades. “A quarter century after the end of the war that scarred them all deeper than they even knew and deposited a black feud in their midst, like a miasma trapped in the hills, the blood thirst in their veins had worked on them like spring, thawing their deep inner reserve.”

With the war at an end, federal attention was shifted from Southern Reconstruction to the perpetual Indian Wars in the West, and the vulnerable poor regions of Appalachia were left to manage their own floundering recovery. With the Hatfield and McCoy unease left simmering unattended by any monitoring and unrelated authorities, it did not take much to send it boiling over. And the next spark that contributed to the conflagration was famously on account of some pigs.

The ultimate possession of the errant livestock was just one of subsequent instances of tempers rising and words, blows and even shots being fired. “The significance of these skirmishes is that while the elder generation sought strength and power through financial means, resorting to the court system to settle disputes, their anger and resentment were effectively pushed down to the next generation, which was less prone to seek peaceful solutions.”

Though scuffles and fights certainly became the norm among the young men who had been raised on war and who went about heavily armed, it was ultimately love — or, rather, love and politics — King says, that truly muddied the waters between the two sprawling and intertwined families. Election Days during that time were lively affairs, social gatherings during which people assembled for picnics and speeches and to show off their marriageable sons and daughters.

King deftly weaves the resulting rising tensions into a captivating historical telling of the looping cycle of violence that ran like an anchor’s chain between the two families. To help clarify the often confusing and repeated family names, King provides frequent updated family trees, reflecting the victims of each period of violent offensive and its subsequent retribution. Included, also, are numerous photos that contribute greatly to the tantalizing nature of the well-researched narrative.

If ever there were an argument against an “eye-for-an-eye” style of justice, then one need look no further back in history than the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud, which managed to engulf two fragile and wounded states immediately following the Civil War. The feud became a political hot potato and a gold mine for sensationalist journalists and bounty hunters. Most of all, the feud took its place in the proud and riotous history of this nation, helping to define an era and shape a cultural impression of the stubborn doggedness of frontier Americana.


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