The Real McCoy (My Southern Heritage)

In my family, I’m the city girl, the one who grew up surrounded by concrete and art and good shopping malls (You’d be surprised how much the caliber of your shopping malls increases when you move to the state’s metropolises, and how much this matters as an adolescent girl). I had cousins in small towns in Eastern Kentucky and suburban Oklahoma. To them, I was different. I didn’t talk like them, I didn’t dress like them, I didn’t go to church like them. But my Southern story is part of theirs, and theirs is part of mine, and they all start over a century and a half ago in the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky. The history of my family is the copper still in which my own Southern identity was brewed. So, a little history lesson.

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The flood wall welcoming me to my mom’s hometown of Pineville

My mother’s family are McCoys, as in those McCoys, of the Hatfields and McCoys…and recently Kevin Costner. Back in the day, the McCoys lived mostly on the Kentucky side of the Big Sandy river, while the Hatfields lived mostly on the West Virginia side (The perfect set-up for a bitter rivalry, water dividing them and all — a terrestrial dividing line is never a good way to put a kibosh on tension).

The History Channel series is actually a fairly accurate retelling of the feud, though if you ask my family it’s slightly skewed towards the Hatfields, but I suppose we’re biased. The feud has all the makings of the greatest of tragedies — murder, star-crossed lovers, local government corruption, swine ownership disputes (ok, maybe that last one’s a little out there) — but it ends up reading a bit like a Post-Bellum Appalachian Soap Opera.

It begins with a murder. In 1863, Asa Harmon McCoy was discharged from the Union Army due to a broken leg. Many of his neighbors, and some of his own family, saw Asa’s military service as treason. His detractors included one Jim Vance, the uncle of the Hatfield Patriarch: William Anderson ‘Devil Anse’ Hatfield. On January 7, 1865, Asa was murdered by a group called the Logan County Wildcats, believed to include both Vance and Devil Anse Hatfield. In historical hindsight, this event is actually seen as separate from the feud itself, but still, it’s important in setting up the dramatic tensions between the two families.

Chapter Two: Dispute over the Ownership of a Hog. Things really kicked off in 1878 when Randolph McCoy claimed that a pig in the possession of Floyd Hatfield was rightfully his. The dispute was taken to the Justice of the Peace (a Hatfield) who ruled in favor of his kinsmen. Two McCoys retaliated by murdering the main witness (a relative of both families—every family has a black sheep, but sometime they have to share). The murderers were later acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.

Next, we come to the star-crossed lovers. Roseanna McCoy entered into a courtship with Johnse Hatfield, leaving her family and running away with him to West Virginia. She eventually returned (they were on a break), but when the couple tried to rekindle their relationship, the McCoys had Johnse arrested for outstanding bootlegging warrants. Overhearing her family’s plot, Roseanna rode through the night, Paul Revere style, to warn the Hatfields of her lover’s impending doom. Johnse’s family rescued him before he could be charged, and he repaid Roseanna for her troubles by abandoning her, pregnant, to marry her cousin Nancy in 1881 (told you it was a soap opera).

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The story gets convoluted from here, with the two families going back and forth for another decade of beatings, firing squads, pawpaw trees, arson, betrayal, and revenge. A dozen people were killed and several injured. Eventually, the violence grew extreme, and the McCoys fled to Pikeville to escape the Hatfield raids that were terrorizing men, women, and children alike. The law intervened, several Hatfields were hung, and the two clans ultimately decided to call it a draw and moved on with their lives. The last official trial was held in 1901, but a formal truce wasn’t declared until 2003, signed by the governors of Kentucky and West Virginia and officially putting the bloody episode to rest.

So why is this important? I think we cling to history for two reasons: to remember the things we did wrong, the things that shouldn’t happen again, and to remind us that we come from somewhere, from something larger than our own individual experiences.

I didn’t grow up in the same small towns as the rest of my family. I had posh boutiques and hip restaurants and 600,000 neighbors instead of 1,600. But the roots of our stories are the same. There’s beauty in being from something, in being one tiny speck in a larger constellation of historical events and cultural touchstones. And to me, that’s what this blog is about: We’re all Southern, even if we all got there differently. My Southernness is different from my mother’s, or my grandmother’s, or my cousins’, but that doesn’t make any of them any less valid or valuable. An identity isn’t just one specific thing: whether it’s a person or a region or a family story, everything has multiple sides. The McCoy part of me is just one ingredient in the cocktail of my identity. When I was younger, it was the bit that was hard to swallow, but as I age, it goes down smooth.

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