Image source: Flickr - Keeny's Creek Waterfalls
For nearly 150 years, the Hatfields & McCoys have been the definition of drunken, ignorant hillbillies; a laughing stock in American culture. Their very real family feud is legendary, made even more famous by the 2012 History Channel mini-series starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton as Devil Anse Hatfield and Randal McCoy, respectively.
Bill Richardson hopes that visitors to the West Virginia/Kentucky border watch that television show with a keen eye.
"In reality, there were more legal proceedings and court trials during the feud than there were murders," says Richardson, a West Virginia University professor and expert in the Hatfield/McCoy feud who believes the show was fairly accurate in portraying a complex story.
Richardson was a leading force in developing self-guided driving tours and step-on bus tours of the region. Get all the maps and information you need at the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce in Williamson, West Virginia before heading out to explore the region’s history.
Your tour will wind back and forth between Kentucky and West Virginia, along country roads and hillsides, over rivers and creeks that remain home to real life Hatfields and McCoys. In the autumn months, you’ll be treated to an autumnal show as you meander through the world’s second largest hard wood forest.
One of your first stops should be the Hog Trial Cabin. It seems rather silly to us in the 21st century that people would sue one another over the theft of a hog. But in the 1880s, a hog butchered in the fall would keep a family fed all winter. Stealing a hog was literally stealing food from the family’s mouth and that’s what Randal McCoy accused the Hatfields of doing.
The Cabin, where you’ll have a chance to talk with a Hatfield descendent, emphasizes the point that legal actions were the first actions taken in this feud.
The Hatfields won the Hog Trial, but the McCoys didn’t easily forget, complaining about the outcome to anyone who would listen. That leads you to the next stop, the Randal McCoy homestead where, on New Year’s Day 1888, the Hatfields got tired of their good name being smeared by the McCoys. They opened fire on the McCoy cabin killing two children and badly beating Sally McCoy, portrayed in the TV mini-series by Mare Winningham.
If you’re on the tour with Bill Richardson, he will throw himself on the ground by the well, demonstrating where Sally ran to aid her daughter who was trying to draw water to put out the fire, which was started by the Hatfields. He really gets into his story.
Look up on the hillside for the red flags. These mark the places where bullet fragments and shell casings were found, indicating where the Hatfields positioned themselves to ambush the McCoys.
Down the road you’ll cross Grapevine Creek on a footbridge to reach the Hatfield Family Cemetery. They say the creek water boiled the day Devil Anse Hatfield was baptized here late in life.
It’s a bit of a climb up the hill to the final resting spot of the Hatfield patriarch, but you should make it anyway. The gravesite is marked by a life-sized statue of the Devil himself.
But, if you’re hoping to pay your respects to Randal McCoy, don’t count on it. The land that surrounds the McCoy Family Cemetery is owned by a Hatfield who is apparently not too welcoming to visitors, particularly if you are a McCoy.
There are a half dozen more stops, each helping shed light on a story that Bill Richardson says is badly misunderstood.
"This story has painted this region in an ignorant light for 150 years, but the fact is they were not hillbillies," he said. "They were human beings with families, emotions, ambitions and difficult decisions to make."
Your souvenir may be the best part of this history tour – a bottle of moonshine from the Hatfield & McCoy Distillery in Gilbert, West Virginia, operated by a descendant of Devil Anse Hatfield himself.
What historical tours have you been on?