In American folklore, there are two families whose names are recognized as being part of what is arguably the longest running feud to have ever taken place in the United States. The Hatfields and the McCoys have become ingrained in the American experience and the alleged feud between the two families has been re-told through films, documentaries, websites and books. In 2012, the History Channel released a multi-part miniseries about the feud starring Kevin Costner as William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield (1839-1921) and the late Bill Paxton (1955-2017) as Randolph “Ran’l” McCoy (1825-1914). The series is highly rated but just how accurate was it? And were the Tug Valley in West Virginia and Pike County in Kentucky, really that deadly in the late 1800s? Thomas E. Dotson is a descendant of both families and here he rescues history and sets the record straight about what really did happen between the years of 1882 and 1888. And what he reveals will undoubtedly change the way you view the “feud” between the two famous families.
Dotson takes a different approach here and instead of re-telling the story, he examines other sources of information that have been published or released that have contributed to the often repeated “official” story about the conflict. There is no official narrative here, the purpose of the book is correct information that is simply inaccurate. Urban legends and published works have led many of us to believe that the conflict began over the issue of a stolen hog from Randolph McCoy and that as a result, blood was shed in large numbers, turning the Tug Valley into a shooting gallery. Admittedly, the story is sensational and its seductiveness has allowed many to fall victim to misinformatio. However, through hindsight, Dotson’s work allows us to go back in time and take another look at the “deadly” conflict.
The amount of research that went into this book is nothing short of staggering. Dotson means business here and has had enough of the lies and omissions that have persisted for more than one hundred years. I have seen the reviews of some readers on Amazon, who complained that the author did not tell the story as it happened. However, Dotson does tell the story, just not in the conventional format. By going back and breaking down the myths, the story is re-told, one section at a time. And by halfway through the book, a clear picture of the origin of the tensions between the two families is clearly evident. The death of Ellison Hatfield on August 1, 1882 in Pike County, Kentucky, is widely accepted as the beginning of the conflict. But as Dotson shows us, the seeds of discord were sown many years before, going all the way back to the Civil War. Further, the tensions between the two were only a part of a much larger battle being waged between many high-powered figures over land, money and the settling of old grudges.
Surely, some secrets of the conflict have been lost over time as those who were alive at the time have long been deceased. But their heirs and official records that have survived, give us a clearer picture of the mindset of both families during the time and refute myths about the events that were supposed to have taken place. Dotson rectifies those long held beliefs, dissecting them like an expert surgeon. For more than a century, the alleged theft of a hog has been the referred to as the start of the troubles. But what Dotson shows is that there was far more to the story than any of us could have imagined. To the Hatfields and the McCoys that are now deceased, any notion of a feud probably would have been seen as ridiculous. To be sure, the families did have their tensions but a feud in the sense that we think of might have seemed bizarre to them.
As I read the book, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the surreal amount of misinformation that has been propagated many forms of media. Hollywood has always been known to take certain liberties with stories and Costner, while a great actor, was not responsible for every part of the production. However, I do believe that with the story of the Hatfield and the McCoys, the truth has been sacrificed for too many years while those responsible have profited greatly. And the full story of what did happen has remained hidden until now. Dotson is proud of his heritage and does an incredible job of presenting the truth while completely demolishing any perceptions that people from the Tug Valley are hillbillies obsessed with violence and illiterate. In fact, as can be seen in the book, it was the exact opposite in many places and the full story reveals a long running chest match that eventually did see a checkmate take place.
Perhaps one day, a film will be made that tells the story of the Hatfields and McCoys as it did happen, removing the fanfare and eliminating the tendencies of storytellers to embellish their accounts to be more appealing. But until then, we can rely on this phenomenal compendium that tells the truth about what may be the greatest “non-feud” in history.