Greenbrier family details fact/fiction in Hatfield-McCoy Feud

by Renee Hunter

The Hatfield-McCoy Feud captured the public imagination, resulting in newspaper stories, books and movies.

All of these treatments have been inaccurate, sometimes intentionally, much to the dismay of the Hatfield descendents.

A 1975 television movie had the feuders “chasing each other around in the bushes of Southern California; it was so fake,” said William Hatfield Sr. of Greenbrier, grandson of William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield. An interview with Sadie, who was married to Anse’s youngest son, Tennyson, was supposed to be aired in conjunction with the film, but wasn’t because of the Super Bowl. 

William Hatfield Jr. has seen the trailer for an upcoming History Channel show about the feud, and he is afraid this, too, will be filled with inaccuracies. The program will be aired over three nights on Memorial Day weekend. Kevin Costner will play Anse. 

“It looked to me like he’s going to be a ruthless, heartless fellow, but we’ll see how he gets that way,” William Jr. said. “I don’t know who they used as a consultant.”

Anse’s great-granddaughter, Heather Vaillancourt of Greenbrier, says Anse was not ruthless, but was a gentle man who once wrote the president a letter asking for help to end the feud. The letter is now in the National Archives. Anse’s nickname was not for meanness, but rather was because he had the ability to suddenly disappear after an engagement with Union soldiers who said “only the devil could get away that fast.”

“We make him out to be a gentle soul; very hospitable,” William, Sr. said.

“So often, they play up the backward, hillbilly aspect,” said William Jr. One New York Times reporter deliberately posed Anse and his brothers in front of their log hunting cabin, dressed down and with guns in their hands to emphasize this aspect.

In truth, William,Jr. says, the Hatfields were wealthy, owning “over 5,000 acres of good hardwood timber.” 

“They had a house that for that day was a mansion,” he added, and their hunting cabin “was finer than most people’s houses. They were like the Kennedys of West Virginia.” 

The feud began at the end of the Civil War, in which the Hatfields fought for the Confederacy, when a returning Union soldier, Harmon McCoy, was killed by an ex-Confederate home guard called the “Logan County (WV) Wildcats.” Because Anse was the group’s leader, he was blamed for the murder, although he was not there at the time. 

The feud escalated, including incidents over a pig, star-crossed lovers and an election-day killing, in which Anse’s brother, Ellison, was stabbed 26 times and then shot, resulting in a retaliatory multiple shooting. The climax was the burning of a cabin by the Hatfields to smoke out a McCoy who had killed one of theirs, which resulted in several deaths. This last incident caused Kentucky to ask for U.S. Supreme Court intervention to allow the state to extradite and try the offenders. One Hatfield relative was hung, seven received life in prison and the feud abated. The last trial was held in 1901. 

In 2000, the “feud” took a different, more friendly turn when the descendents of the original feuders held a reunion and took the rivalry to a softball field. William Jr.’s photo holding the ball from that game is in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

“They just killed us because they brought ringers in from Pikesville,” Heather said.

There was also a tug-of-war that the Hatfields lost because they were on the uphill side of Tug Fork, across which the rope was stretched. Heather was pulled into the fork and got drenched.

This time it was all in good fun. The reunions lasted through 2006, and the family has several souvenirs and many fond memories.

William Sr. was born in West Virginia early in the Depression. He and his wife, Marquita, moved to Detroit after their marriage seeking work. For many years, William Sr. worked for the Ford Motor Company as a test driver, and the couple’s two children grew up there. Heather married Bill Vaillancourt, and the couple eventually moved to Greenbrier when Bill took a job with Acxiom. After retirement, Heather’s parents came for a visit on the way back to West Virginia, where they planned to retire. They never made it, but instead settled in Greenbrier to be near their daughter and their son, who lives in Tulsa. 

Today, the feud story draws tourists to the Kentucky-West Virginia area with a museum, a marathon and other related attractions. There is even a 500-plus-mile Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, one of the largest off-highway vehicle trail systems in the world.

“We’re not proud of what happened in the feud,” Heather said, but added that “because they were infamous, we have gotten to know them the way we couldn’t have gotten to know them otherwise.”

And the world has a fascinating – if not always accurate – story.