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COMMENTARY: The Hatfields and McCoys: an American success story?

FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The self-reliant Hatfield clan was photographed in 1897 at a logging camp in southern West Virginia.

RICHMOND—They were two fiercely self-reliant mountain-frontier families intertwined in love and conflict. From the Civil War to the Gilded Age, the Hatfields and McCoys or their agents argued, ambushed, house-burned, kidnapped and killed each other and sometimes carried their disputes to court. They married, jilted, cheated on and divorced each other.

Their legendary struggles along the Tug Fork, between Kentucky and West Virginia, produced national headlines, attracted battalions of bounty hunters to the area, nearly returned the two Civil War-border states to arms against each other, and even produced a Supreme Court decision. In short, they explored all avenues of conflict resolution, and, for the most part, taught us how not to go about it.

To be sure, as I try to point out in my book “The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys: The True Story,” the families exhibited many acts of bravery, loyalty, self-sacrifice and industry during the period. They had aspirations and goals. Despite being isolated, self-educated and having limited resources, they were going places. In fact, I like to joke that the best parts of the book are the coda and the epilogue. They are the most hopeful at least, evidence of the transforming power of America.

The former tells of the inauguration of West Virginia’s 14th governor, which took place 100 years ago this past March. That governor was Henry D. Hatfield, the nephew of Devil Anse, the patriarch of the feuding Hatfields. Henry’s father, Eliot, known as Good ’Lias, was an illiterate Confederate veteran and feudist. On the day of Henry’s inauguration, West Virginia was in crisis. In the Kanawha coalfields, not 20 miles away, a state of war existed, and martial law had been imposed.

Though he had been born on lowly Mate Creek, at the epicenter of the nation’s most notorious feud, Henry Hatfield had been educated at some of the nation’s best public institutions and had become a doctor. Then he had risen through the halls of government to become the president of the state senate. It was a combination that was right for the task ahead of him.

In the coal-rich gorges of Cabin Creek and Paint Creek, thousands of desperate miners and their families, driven from company-owned houses, had fought mine guards in a yearlong struggle between organized labor and management. For the union miners out on strike, it had been months of hunger, illness and violence. The turmoil had crippled the energy industry and cost the state more than $2 million and many lives.

The collective wisdom of Henry’s family’s experience—the courage, conviction and self-reliance of the mountaineer—was evident in the inaugural address of this eloquent yet humble statesman with a progressive vision. An advocate of women’s suffrage, he wished to extend the “progressive principles” inspired by Lincoln. He wanted to put an end to corrupt voting practices and to ensure that poor rural school districts received as much funding as wealthy ones. Among his achievements would be progressive health care legislation and the nation’s first workers’ compensation laws.

On the day of his inauguration, the 37-year-old new governor announced that he planned to go into the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek areas to investigate conditions. His advisers warned him that his life would be in danger. Nevertheless, at daybreak the next morning, Henry packed his black medical bag and headed alone into the strike zone. When asked later why he went, he replied simply, “They needed a doctor.” This time, the family name stood for peace.

The epilogue tells the story of a McCoy peacemaker. In 1998, Bo McCoy, a Georgia minister, set the wheels in motion to bring the two families together in a joint family reunion. It went over so well that it is now an annual event. In the aftermath of 9/11, the two families signed a peace pact to show that in face of an attack on the U.S., even the Hatfields and McCoys would stand united. Lessons learned.

Dean King is the nationally best-selling author of “The Feud” and “Skeletons on the Zahara.” He writes for Outside and Garden & Gun magazines and is a contributing editor of Virginia Living.

 

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