Reviewed by Suzanne M. Hall
Vol. 12, No. 4, 1990, pp. 18-19
A local, essentially family-based dispute arose after Ranel McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield, who was “Devil” Anse Hatfield’s cousin, of stealing a hog. The two families, however, did not resort at once to the bloody vengeance for which they are famed. Like other good citizens of the Tug Valley community in nineteenth century Appalachia,
they took their grievances to county court. When the jury reached a decision, both Hatfields and McCoys obeyed. The violence popularly associated with the Hatfield-McCoy feud legend did later occur, but the reasons for the violence stem from deeper economic and social changes in the region than the myth suggests.
People often prefer myths to historical explanations. Myths do many things. They obscure contradictions and disturbing aspects of the past, and depict events as people wish they had happened. After the passage of time and the telling and re-telling of the myths, recall of the “real” events of the past becomes almost impossible. Can the historian determine what is historical fact or truth and what is myth? Moreover, are not myths as well as histories to be understood as strategies people devise to comprehend and survive the past?
Altina L. Waller does a fine job of extracting the history and meaning from the notorious late nineteenth century Hatfield-McCoy feud myth. The story compellingly reveals the complexities of Appalachian life at a time of great change from what Waller calls a pre-modern traditional culture to a modern class society tied to national and world economies. Her analysis is not a mere simplified description of poor, backward mountain folk railing against the forces of modern, industrial exploiters. Rather, it is a careful explanation that shows the varied facets of change in the Tug Valley of adjoining Kentucky and West Virginia.
The Hatfield-McCoy conflict was not one interminable, violent exchange between two families but a feud with two major, and contrasting, phases. The first phase, 1878-1882, began before industrial capitalism exerted its power in the region and involved a conflict between local citizens. The second phase, 1887-1891, was within the context of and characterized by the encroachment of the timber and railroad industries. Waller’s second level of analysis focuses on the traditional community and its relation to the state, nation, and world. Besides the gracefully written narrative, Waller provides a photographic essay which adds another dimension, dramatically showing the growing contrasts between the rural traditional culture of the Tug Valley dwellers and the rising middle class town people.
Waller challenges the view that mountaineers were inherently prone to violence. She shows that the feudists did not have an ancient heritage of violent behavior. Instead, she argues that economic and social exploitation by both industrialists and townspeople initiated cultural disruptions that forced the feudists to violent action as a last resort during the second phase of the feud. Previously, in the first phase, both sides had used the court system to adjudicate their disputes. They had also respected the court decisions and abided by them. The mountaineers, such as “Devil” Anse Hatfield, turned to violence only when the legal system, as they understood it, changed to support the interests of the industrialists and their town boosters.
The South has a strong violent tradition, one which includes numerous manifestations from dueling to Iynching to wife-beating to capital punishment. These varied forms of violence undoubtedly require different analyses and explanations. It seems probable that a violent South must be so from some cultural underpinnings that historians can discover. From where, then, does the Southern–and not only Southern mountain people’s–proclivity for violent behavior stem? Does it arise solely from the upheavals of cultural transformation or does it come from a deeper source?
Waller exposes the social conflicts within the Tug Valley. For instance, she finds that Anderson Hatfield, former Confederate and leader of the Tug Valley home guard, began to threaten traditional ways when he entered the timber business. People considered that enterprise “risky, speculative, and conducive to dishonesty,” and a challenge to the value system and way of life. “Devil” Anse forged an economic niche for himself and his family while he alienated many of his neighbors. He used the legal system to acquire timber land, thus making enemies of such men as Perry Cline from whom he won thousands of acres in a law suit. Later, in the second phase of the feud, the cantankerous Ranel McCoy no longer led the attack on the Hatfields. The vengeful foe was none other than Cline and his new powerful allies.
Cline’s personal vendetta against Hatfield could only be successfully waged during the second phase of the feud when he could ally with Pikeville merchants, who sought outside investors and catered to the timber and coal interests, and the governor of Kentucky who planned to attract capitalists to the eastern mountain country. In fact, Waller argues, “Cline and the governor literally recreated the feud in order to suppress it.” By doing so, Kentucky would be seen as a strong law and order state that could suppress the violent tendencies of its inhabitants and thereby attract capitalists.
Hatfield, ironically, becomes a symbol as preserver of the independent mountain culture, even though he had been a pioneer of industry himself. Cline and the Pikeville townspeople represented the Republican, pro-industrial order with their middle class values buttressed with evangelical religion. Ranel McCoy hung onto the old feud with its themes of honor and revenge. Waller tells a complex story in a captivating style which satisfies the needs of scholars and the general reading public. Her account of the feud is vastly more thought-provoking and entertaining than the Hatfield-McCoy myth. K
Suzanne Hall is a member of the History faculty at Kennesaw State College in Marietta, Georgia.