Photo of feudist descendants Reo Hatfield and Ron McCoy.
The views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of all Hatfield/McCoy descendants, or all feud historians, but are the specific views of those being quoted.
The feuding Hatfields and McCoys have enthralled America with stories of violence, forbidden love, family strife, politics and legal battles since gaining worldwide notoriety over 120 years ago. The product of “yellow journalism”, or sensationalized news coverage, the Hatfield McCoy feud story has been told and retold in movies, news stories, books and theatre shows ever since the two families ceased hostilities in the late 1800’s.
Watch American Experience: “The Feud” here: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/feud/
PBS’s American Experience is the latest program to cover the legendary story, exploring the impact that the post-civil war industrial boom had on the Hatfields, McCoys and the Appalachian region. The documentary focuses on the economic disparity between the two feuding families, the Hatfields being “the haves”, and the McCoys being the “have nots”. And while other elements of the feud story were featured, they were presented in a seemingly abbreviated way in comparison.
So what do the descendants of the feuding Hatfields and McCoys think about PBS’s American Experience: “The Feud”? Let’s ask them.
Bob Scott, Hatfield descendant and owner of the McCoy homeplace in Hardy, Kentucky, felt like the show focused more on the West Virginia perspective than the Pike County, Kentucky perspective. “The show didn’t elaborate on many key storylines within feud history, ” Scott said. “Stories such as Johnse and RoseAnna’s out-of-wedlock affair and Ellison “Cotton Top” Mounts’ hanging in Pikeville are missing altogether.” According to Scott, the hostilities between the two families had less to do with economics and industry, and more to do with escalating tensions brought on by the behaviors (or misbehaviors) of both families. “I’m not convinced that the railroad or coal mining industries had that much of an impact on the feud itself, but rather the stealing, killing and unrelenting thirst for vengeance between the two families,” Scott said. “However, I do appreciate PBS sharing another perspective on the feud, and keeping the conversation going. We should always be open to dialogue, but just remember, no feudin’, and no fussin’.”
Reo Hatfield, feud descendant and one of the three authors of the truce that officially ended the feud, felt the show missed a crucial opportunity to acknowledge the hard fought peace between the two families. “We wrote and signed the truce to promote a message of unity, to bring together the American people and to show that even the famous Hatfields and McCoys can come together to oppose anyone wanting to harm America. That was lost in the show” Hatfield said. The signing of the truce, which took place in Pikeville, Kentucky in June of 2003, was in response to the 9-11 attacks. “Together, the Hatfields and McCoys call on America to remember 9-11, and to come together as we did, as one family, encompassed by God” Hatfield said.
Hatfield also expressed his frustration that the peaceful outcome of the feud has been omitted from most every Hatfield and McCoy program that media has produced. “The Hatfields and McCoys need to be remembered primarily for their efforts to overcome the past and enhance the future,” Hatfield said. “We are as one family, and we have lived up to that commitment since 2003.” Hatfield expresses the amazing turnaround the two families have experienced since laying down their arms over 120 years ago. “The world renown Templeton Group recognized the signing of the truce between the Hatfields and the McCoys in Pikeville as being one of the top ten greatest acts of forgiveness in world history. That, to me, is an honor that our unified family is proud of and should be known for. Not acts of violence but acts of love and forgiveness.”
Hatfields and McCoys are mentioned among The 10 Greatest Acts of Forgiveness in World History: https://www.tourpikecounty.com/hatfields-and-mccoys-a-story-of-forgiveness/
Ron McCoy, descendant of Randolph McCoy and feud truce author also expresses his desire to see the story of reconciliation be included. “For more than a century, historians have been struggling to determine the causes of the Hatfield-McCoy feud,” Ron McCoy said. “Some have suggested that external forces like the Civil War, industrialization, timbering and the introduction of the railroad were the reasons for the conflict. Others have argued that the origins of the feud were more personal, the result of long-held animosities between the families. In looking to explain the conflict, however, most historians have overlooked the fact that, at its heart, the feud is really a story about people.” Ron McCoy goes on to reiterate the Hatfields comments, that the whole story should be told. “130 years after the end of the feud, the descendants of Anderson Hatfield and Randolph McCoy get together every year to promote unity between the families. The causes of the feud may not be so important as the peaceful end result.”
Ron McCoy was also taken back by the program’s emphasis on industry and capitalism’s influence on the feud. “Given that the feud was essentially over by the time that coal mining and the railroad was introduced to the region, I fail to understand how either had anything at all to do with the feud. It was an element of the documentary that seemed out of place.” Ron McCoy goes on to comment on the feud’s socioeconomic narrative. “The whole idea that the McCoys were unsuccessful business people, and were jealous of the Hatfield’s success, is all news to us,” Ron McCoy said. “Randolph McCoy was a prosperous farmer, owning over 300 acres of land, and did pretty well. Overall, I felt that the true components of the feud, the stories between these real people, and the horrible things they did to one another was minimalized in exchange for a commentary on economics and the evils of industry that has always been absent from the discussion as far back as the feud days itself.”
Eddie McCoy, triple great grandson of Randall McCoy, also doubts that the Industrial Revolution played a role in the feud. “I’ve never agreed with the idea that the Industrial Revolution was a major reason for the feud,” said Eddie McCoy. “To me, the Waller book completely rewrote an accepted story about the feud which stood for 100 years, and now it’s always referenced as an absolute, instead of a theory, which is exactly what it is. These were just ordinary people who got on each other’s nerve during the Civil War, and the problems continued afterwards. How could and area such as the Tug Valley not be affected by the war? These were border states that were torn apart.”
Eddie McCoy also questions the show’s characterization of Randolph. “To say Randall was angry and jealous of the Hatfields about the timber business is pure conjecture. His father was sued by John Lawson who had nothing to do with the Hatfields. Why wasn’t there a Lawson-McCoy feud?” Eddie McCoy did agree with the show’s portrayal of lawyer Perry Cline, however. “No doubt Perry Cline was a big player in the feud, so I was glad to see him featured, though I don’t fault him for taking the actions he did after getting swindled out of 5,000 acres of land. I also do not blame him for sucking the McCoys into his own personal feud with Anse. Perry was closely tied to the McCoys in many levels and it’s been really egregious to show him portrayed as he was in the Costner movie.”
Eddie McCoy also notes the absence of major characters from feud lore, such as RoseAnna McCoy, Johnse Hatfield and Jim Vance. “There were crucial parts of the story that was left out, most importantly the Romeo and Juliet part of the story, involving the love affair between Johnse and Roseanna” Eddie McCoy said. “Jim Vance wasn’t even mentioned by name, which also caught my eye. I spoke in my interview (with the producers of the show) about how my family always was so proud of how my great great grandfather Jim McCoy stood up in defiance to Devil Anse. That the story was passed down through each generation and yet the only mention of that event was how Tolbert was humiliated by being made to kneel.”
Eddie McCoy did concede that the documentary’s time restriction may have prevented a deeper exploration of the story. “In fairness, 50 minutes is hardly enough time to really sink your teeth into the feud storyline. Given perhaps 90 minutes, it would have allowed expansion into all the possibilities without sticking to one theory.”
As with the other descendants, Eddie McCoy also expressed his desire to include the Hatfields and McCoys’ reconciliation story. “The perfect bookend to the show would have certainly been the annual reunions and truce between the families,” Eddie McCoy said. “One of the proudest moments of my life was sitting in the place of my great-great grandfather Jim, to reenact a photo he had made with the Hatfields. The Hatfields were represented in the re-enactment by Anse’s great grandson Billy (Hatfield). Ron (McCoy), Clifford (New) and Tony (Tackett) took part in that photo as well. I’m not sure anyone who doesn’t share direct Hatfield or McCoy blood could ever understand just how special that moment was.”
McCoy concludes by admitting the details of the feud story will never truly be discovered. “Unfortunately no one will ever know the absolute truth about what and why the feud happened because everyone who played a part in it is long dead. Sometimes we have to believe what has been passed down to us. Maybe our ancestors got it right?”