Book review: “The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys, the True Story,” by Dean King
April 15, 2017
Anyone who has seen the mega hit Broadway musical, "Hamilton" — or was lucky enough to receive a thorough education in American History — knows of the feud between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, which resulted in the death of the former U.S Treasury Secretary and led to surprising minimal legal or political backlash against Burr. Indeed, politics played a crucial role in shielding Burr, 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 into one of the most iconic American feuds, a violent rift between families that lasted for decades and represents something quintessential about this nation's past.
In the heart of America lies Appalachia, a region delineated by mountainous boundaries and defined by long-standing cultural myths and the tarnishing effects of time and temperament. Though the infamous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys reached a climax in the closing years of the 19th century, the seeds of discord took root in the Civil War, known for dividing families and pitting brothers against brother on the battlefield.
In this regard, the Hatfields and McCoys were not alone, for all along the contentious Mason-Dixon line, families were forced to choose sides. The Tug River formed a natural border running 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, prideful Scots-Irish immigrants, who were "austere, hardened to discomfort, and adept at survival," in addition to being prone to intermarrying.
The valley was isolated and behind the times, or 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 long-lasting as the one between the descendants of Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy.
For those who know how deep feelings along the Tug River Valley ran, it was understood that the offenses done during the war would not be forgotten. The first "shot" of the feud came from the hand of Devil Anse, who was given his prophetic nickname by his mother when he brought home a bear after going out hunting squirrels as a teenager — a bear he killed with a knife.
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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 father — but when Devil Anse Hatfield shot Harmon in a "skirmish," blood ties and tallies for revenge became paramount.
For a time, a duel of theft — 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 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," which "occurred over a span of decades — and gained strength from accumulation."
King repeatedly compares the 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.
Not as lyrical as Shakespeare's prose, King's writing pulls the reader into the narrative with vibrant language that evokes an emotional pressure cooker. "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 recovery. With the uneasiness of the Hatfields and McCoys left simmering, unattended by any 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 gunshots. "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, 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 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 family trees with updates. Included, also, are numerous photos that contribute greatly to the well-researched narrative.
If ever there were an argument against eye-for-an-eye justice, one need look no further than the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, which managed to engulf two fragile and wounded states 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 define an era and shape a cultural impression of the stubborn doggedness of frontier Americana.
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