The feud between these two families covered 28 years so I won’t be able to do the story justice, but I will hit the highlights. Over these years dozens of family members, friends, and hired guns, lost their lives.
The Hatfield’s lived in West Virginia on the border of Kentucky where the McCoy’s lived. There were some land disputes between the two which involved money making from lumber and moonshine, but things weren’t getting out of hand at first. But what really got the feud started, was when one of the McCoy’s returned home on medical leave from being shot in the Civil War and was killed by a couple of the Hatfield’s. They killed him because he had fought for the Union; all the other family members on both sides, fought for the Confederacy.
The heads of both families, Randolph McCoy and William “Devil Anse" Hatfield, fought alongside each other and were friends during the war. William deserted the Confederate army sensing it a lost cause and went home to work on his lumber business and it’s something for which Randolph never forgave him. After the murder of the McCoy serving in the Union, both families hated each other but the McCoy’s didn’t retaliate mostly because Randolph, who was pretty much a religious zealot, didn’t want his family involved in any killing. That sure changed.
Then one of the McCoy’s saw his hog that was missing, in a wagon owned by the Hatfield’s. He called the Hatfield out who was driving the wagon out for being a thief while the Hatfield said he found it out wandering. The case went to court and a friend of the Hatfield’s family allegedly lied on the stand about seeing the hog wandering in the woods, so the Hatfield’s won the case. Being livid about losing the lawsuit, one of the McCoy’s killed the man who they believed lied under oath. The feud was in full swing after this because the man they killed was like family to the Hatfield’s.
The feud escalated after Johnson Hatfield secretly began courting Roseanna McCoy. Johnson was William’s son while Roseanna was Randolph’s daughter, so it was a Romeo and Juliet situation. Both leaders of the family were beyond upset. They refused to break up, so Roseanna was kicked out of her home. William allowed Roseanna to stay with them for a couple of weeks but eventually told Johnson to choose his family or her. He chose his family over Roseanna and returned her to the McCoy’s.
She was beyond upset that he gave her up and what made it worse is that she found out not long after they broke up that she was pregnant. Her father kicked her out again and sent her to live with another family member. She ended up losing the baby a few months after he was born. Johnson regretted leaving her and attempted to win her back figuring they’d run off together, but she wouldn’t have him. In a strange turn of events, he ended up marrying her cousin. The Hatfield’s didn’t like her either but being a cousin in the McCoy family on the mother’s side, wasn’t as bad as being a direct descendent of Randolph McCoy.
Not long after they were married, her brother, who was her only sibling, was killed by the Hatfield’s and she kicked Johnson out of their cabin. Her hatred for the Hatfield’s hit an all-time high and she ended up marrying the hired gunslinger (“Bad” Frank Phillips), who was leading the posse in going after the Hatfield’s. After the feud ended, “Bad,” Frank was making money off a book (well mostly a pamphlet), that provided insight into his part in the feud. It was inflated of course as to his bravery and the number of men he killed. He was in a bar one night selling his book, alongside his wife who was Johnson’s ex-wife, when a member of his posse killed him. Witnesses said it was “Bad” Frank’s fault as he had gotten drunk and started to pull his guns on the other man.
All hell broke loose when William Hatfield’s brother, Ellison, was stabbed and shot by a few of Randolph McCoy’s sons. The sheriff arrested them and was taking them to jail but William and some of his family and friends took the prisoners away from the Sherriff. William told them if his brother survived, they’d survive but Ellison didn’t last the night. William lined the McCoy boys up and executed them with a large firing squad.
This is when Randolph McCoy broke down. He began questioning God for allowing his boys to be murdered. He had only one son left. He began drinking and cursing God and was never really the same. He wanted the William’s sons killed and although they were able to kill several Hatfield’s, they couldn’t get close enough to kill William’s boys.
Knowing that Randolph put a price on his son’s heads, William wanted to stop the feud at its source and kill Randolph McCoy. What he started was known in the newspapers as: The 1888 New Year's Night Massacre. You’ll notice in a moment that it wasn’t a massacre, but they’ve got to sell papers. Various members of the Hatfield family along with some friends, snuck up to Randolph McCoy’s cabin. They told him to come out so no one would get hurt but his wife convinced him to leave out the back of the cabin figuring the Hatfield’s wouldn’t hurt any of them.
Not knowing that he had left the cabin, they threw bottles in the windows with moonshine in them hoping to get him to run out. The cabin caught fire quickly and Randolph’s only remaining son ran out the front door shooting his rifle and he was killed. Three daughters also attempted to leave out the back door and one of them was accidentally shot and killed. Randolph’s wife was struck in the head with a rifle butt and never completely recovered mentally. Randolph, his wife, and the remaining two daughters eventually caught up with one another and moved to another town. Neither Randolph nor his wife were doing well after this even as he continued drinking heavily while his wife wasn’t mentally stable because of the hit to her head.
The governors of Kentucky and West Virginia got involved in what was becoming a war and threatened to bring in the militia to end the conflict. They also engaged a more robust legal system in their area to try anyone guilty of crimes. The worst hit by these moves were the Hatfield’s as seven of them received life sentences for the killing of McCoy’s daughter (they did much more killing than this, but it was the most recent). Of course, the McCoy’s were guilty as well. The reason some of the Hatfield’s were given life sentences is because even though they didn’t pull the trigger, they were there when the murder occurred. The laws were in a state of flux and most of the time people weren’t convicted for just being at the scene of a crime, but the governors were trying to take the pieces off the board so to speak.
The person who shot Randolph’s daughter, was executed by hanging. His nickname was “Cotton Top,” due to his very blonde hair. He was only in his teens and was, as they said back then, “touched,” and by all accounts a very sweet person. Because he struggled mentally, he didn’t understand what the rules of engagement were in trying to capture Randolph McCoy. They had absolutely no intention of hurting the girls but when Cotton Top saw people leaving out the back door, he took a shot and accidentally killed Randolph’s daughter.
With all the loss of family and friends and the addition of law enforcement and a legal system, the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s backed off their feud. No one said anything officially and no handshakes took place, but both families knew after 28 years of being worried every time they left their cabins, that it was time to stop.
About 80 years after the feud ended, family members of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s took part in the game show “Family Feud,” which garnished the show their highest ratings ever. They’ve had joint family reunions every year since then and had an official ceremony in 2003, where they signed a peace treaty.
In 2011, The Hatfield’s and McCoy’s Dinner Show, a musical comedy production, opened in the resort community of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Both families work together on various charities and have formed very close, loving, bonds. It goes to show when hatred ends and love begins, that great things can be accomplished.