By Christopher John Farley
Almost 150 years after their famous feud began, the Hatfields and the McCoys are trending.
The History channel miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” has sparked new interest in the battling families. The show, which began last night and will air segments tonight and tomorrow, co-stars Kevin Costner (as Devil Anse Hatfield) and Bill Paxton (as Randall McCoy). Costner also worked as a producer on the project.
The miniseries was greeted with mostly warm reviews, but how realistic is it? We put the question to historian Altina Waller, professor emerita at the University of Connecticut, and the author of “Feud: Hatfields, McCoys and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900″ (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988). She spent ten years studying the Hatfield-McCoy conflict; she also was interviewed for a documentary that accompanies the History channel movie on DVD. She answered Speakeasy’s questions via email.
How realistic is the miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys”? What has it gotten right so far? What has it gotten wrong?
Realistic or Accurate? In some ways the portrayal of mountain people in the post Civil War era is realistic in that it was a rural culture where everyone knew each other on a face to face basis. But this movie makes Appalachian culture more like the wild west without cowboys and Indians. For example, the town of Matewan did not become a town at all until after railroads and other industrial development. No saloon. People did not congregate in a saloon but mostly at the yearly election day festivities held in an open field. The film perpetuates the myth that the Hatfields and McCoys were two different entities, very clearly defined. In reality, there was a LOT of intermarriage – Roseanna and Johnse were not unusual in that regard.
Was the Hatfield and McCoy feud more about clan culture, or more about friction brought about by industrialization? What were the underlying economic forces behind the Hatfield and McCoy feud?
Since family relationships were not clearly defined, there must be some other explanation for who was loyal to Devil Anse and who was loyal to Randall McCoy when push came to shove. That explanation lies in the economic conflict brought to the region first by the opportunity to market timber and second by railroads and coal. Devil Anse was the first local, successful timber entrepreneur in the Tug Valley, employing 35-40 men to cut timber and float in downriver to Cincinnati. Many of the men on his timber crew were related to the McCoys and thus identified as “Hatfields.” Examples are Selkirk McCoy and his two sons. Randall McCoy and his father had been involved in the timber business but had failed dismally thus setting up Randall to resent the success of Devil Anse. This is a far more realistic explanation for feud hostilities than irrational family hatreds. What the film does seem to get right is Randall’s obsession with Anse Hatfield’s success and his willingness to reject his daughter for her involvement with a Hatfield. Randall was a quarrelsome and vindictive person though it is understandable why he would be so. Later, in the second phase of the feud, the building of a railroad and the development of coal mines intensify the conflict although it is not Randall McCoy who is responsible but rather Perry Cline. Cline is another example of the economic conflict. What the film does not show is that Cline grew up as a neighbor of Devil Anse and that he was deprived of his 5,000 acres of land by a court case which is briefly mentioned in the film. Cline was forced to leave West Virginia and move to Pikeville, KY where he became friends with powerful politicians. Later he was able to use those connections to restart the feud (which in 1888 had been over for 5 years) and take revenge on Devil Anse. As far as I know there is no evidence for his interest in marrying Roseanna as the film claims.
How close do Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton come to capturing the historical details of the men they’re playing? Are there any actors in the series whose performances stand out in terms of accuracy?
Costner seems pretty good at portraying the combination of arrogance and reasonableness of Devil Anse. Anse was swift in taking violent action when he had come to a decision but he also tried to prevent violent conflict whenever he could. Paxton, although portrayed as younger than he actually was at the time of the feud, is good at showing his obsession with Devil Anse and the irrationality he had in regard to the pig incident and his daughter’s affair with Johnse. Roseanna is well portrayed although she was a stronger person than you might think. In fact, she made the decision to leave Johnse when she discovered his affairs with other women and Johnse was certainly not a devoted or faithful lover/spouse.
How accurate is the portrayal of the story of the ill-fated lovers, Roseanna McCoy and Johnse Hatfield? Are there any interesting anecdotes about the couple that haven’t been shown in the miniseries so far?
Part of the answer is above. But the main point is that this story is a minor part of the story – it has been built up to loom much larger than it actually was. The only really strange part of the story is Randall’s refusal to take his daughter back when she wanted to come home after leaving Johnse. Most Appalachian fathers would have welcomed her home.
Why does the Hatfield and McCoy feud continue to capture the public imagination?
Wow! Difficult question to answer. Perhaps because at the time of the feud, Cline had enough influence to get the attention of the Governors of both states and thus get the feud into national newspapers where it was luridly portrayed. Coal and railroad developers wanted to show the mountain people as uncivilized and barbaric so that they would not stand in the way of economic development. Anse Hatfield, for example, did not want to sell his land to outsiders. But once the feud made the national press, then most Americans who knew nothing about the economic conflicts in the region saw in the feud their own anxieties about family cohesion and family violence.
Anything you’d like to add?
I have been thinking more about this and want to reiterate that the feud was not caused by Civil War rivalries. Indeed, most of the McCoys as well as the Hatfields were Confederates. The exception was Harmon McCoy who fought for the Union. Thus, when he was killed no one in the Tug Valley, not even Randall, seemed much bothered by it. The conflict came later with the Cline Hatfield timber court case in which Cline lost his 5000 acres. However, that case did eventually lead to the second phase of the feud in which Cline was the leader, not Randall McCoy. When Cline revived the feud and the legal pursuit of Anse Hatfield, he was able to draw on Republicans and Union supporters who lived in Pikeville, KY and who had, indeed, resented Tug Valley confederate supporters. Thus, in reality, old Civil War loyalties did come into play but not in the manner portrayed in the film. The key thing to remember is the second phase of the feud was really the Cline-Hatfield Feud, not the Hatfield-McCoy Feud. We’ll see how well the Costner movie deals with this in subsequent episodes!
Also, checking some dates, I was reminded that Perry Cline was married long before the romance between Johnse & Roseanna. Why the filmmakers decided to make him Roseanna’s suitor is beyond me.
Yet another point – the judge in the pig trial was Preacher Anse Hatfield, not Devil Anse’s older brother Wall (Valentine is his real name). Preacher Anse lived on the Kentucky side of the river and was trusted by Randal McCoy and his family. He was a cousin of Devil Anse but also related to the McCoys. Yet another example of how intertwined the two families were.