The war between the Hatfields and McCoys is one of the most brutal family feuds in American history, distinguished by its absurd escalation of violence. The moonshine-soaked, romance-fueled family feud took place between 1865 and 1890, in a bloody brother-on-brother, neighbor-on-neighbor wave of violence with ties to the recently ended Civil War. The barbaric battle between the two families became a national legend and was even made into a miniseries on the History Channel.
The Hatfields & McCoys were large families on opposite sides of the Tug River, which separates Kentucky and West Virginia. The McCoys lived on the Kentucky side, the Hatfields on the West Virginia side. The families were run by two powerful patriarchs: William Anderson Hatfield, known as Devil Anse, and Randolph "Old Ranel" McCoy. While these men were in charge of their respective families and are largely credited with leading the troops on either side of the river, the feud involved many different members of each clan.
History experts disagree on when exactly the feud started. The violence either kicked off in 1865, with the murder of Asa Harmon McCoy, or in 1878, with a deadly dispute over a hog. Regardless, the feud was perpetuated by thefts and increasingly vicious acts of violence, which escalated to all out war. The grand finale of the feud came in 1889, when several members of the Hatfield clan were put on trial for murder.
It Might Have Started With The Murder Of A Wounded War VeteranPhoto: Winslow Homer / Public Domain
Some experts consider the murder of Asa Harmon McCoy in 1865 as the first event in the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Asa, the brother of McCoy patriarch Randolph, fought for the Union during the Civil War, where he was wounded in battle. He came home to recuperate, and while incapacitated during recovery, was murdered. No one is certain who committed the murder, but rumor had it Devil Anse Hatfield and his Confederate militia (aka the Logan Wildcats) were responsible.
Strangely enough, though this event may have kicked off the feud, it's possible the murder isn't at all connected to the ridiculous feud. Because Asa McCoy joined the Union Army, he was seen as a traitor, even by members of his own family. There was no immediately retaliation against the Hatfields for Asa's murder, and historians see this as a standalone event that set the stage for the feud to follow.
A Stolen Pig Leads To MurderPhoto: George Morland / Public Domain
In 1878, Old Ranel accused Floyd Hatfield, Devil Anse's cousin, of stealing one of his pigs. Whether or not Floyd stole the pig remains unclear, but it's a hefty accusation, given an international conflict between the US and Canada ignited over something similar 20 years earlier.
While one pig might not seem like much, pigs were an extremely valuable resource in a poor region like Appalachia at the time. Floyd Hatfield was prosecuted for the crime and found not guilty, thanks to the testimony of Bill Staton, a blood relative of the McCoys who was married to a Hatfield, in the ultimate conflict of interest. Staton was later murdered by two of Randolph McCoy's nephews, who were acquitted of the crime through some tried and true self-defense testimony. It didn't matter that Staton was a blood relative; snitches get stitches.
The Old Unwed Pregnancy ProblemPhoto: Catherine Wiley / Public Domain
In 1880, Devil Anse’s 18-year-old son, Johnse Hatfield, started an affair with Roseanna, Randolph McCoy’s daughter in one of the most daring and dangerous encounters in history.
When Roseanna got pregnant, she moved in with the Hatfields, but soon realized Johnse had no thoughts of marriage. She sought refuge in her family home, but her father banished her. Roseanna was forced to move in with her aunt where she later watched her baby die of measles at eight months old.
As if Roseanna’s sad story didn't add enough fuel to the feud between the families, Johnse went on to marry Roseanna’s cousin, Nancy McCoy.
A McCoy Stabbed Ellison Hatfield 27 Times And Shot Him In The BackPhoto: Juan Manuel Blanes / Public Domain
The Hatfield-McCoy feud really heated up on election day 1882, when three of Randolph McCoy's sons got into a violent argument with two of Devil Anse Hatfield's brothers. It's unclear what the fight was about, but the outcome was brutal: one of the McCoys stabbed Ellison Hatfield 27 times before shooting him in the back. Ellison eventually died of his injuries. The war was on.