Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse News
2012 International Issue

The Hatfields & The McCoys: Horses of the Feud

Many people recently learned much about the "Hatfield & McCoys" during a six-hour miniseries produced for the History Channel that premiered on the weekend of Memorial Day, 2012. The miniseries won several awards for the best series of its type, and it set a standard for quality as it was produced in a movie format for a documentary for the most well-known, contemporary venue for history. Actors including Kevin Costner, as Devil Anse Hatfield; and Bill Paxton, as Randall McCoy, (and of course, a score of horses in incorrect period tack) made it possible to bring a true story from the hills of Eastern Kentucky from the 19th century to come to the forefront of our 21st century minds. (Joseph, 2012).

Most Americans have at least some elusive idea about who the Hatfields and McCoys were—families who affianced in a long and unpleasant malevolence—and this remains the customary venue for their thoughts. Most of those who have some ideas about the events from folklore think the happenings were about a tragic romance, or a place that no longer exists. Some parts of these thoughts are correct, but most are wrong, especially about the horses they rode.

Originally called the "Grand Horse Valley," the Tug Fork Valley is currently named for the Tug River, a tributary of the Big Sandy River, 159 miles long, in southwestern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and eastern Kentucky. The border is part of the Big Sandy and Ohio rivers, and it is part of the watershed of the Mississippi River. It has a great history, which includes the "Billion Dollar Coal Field" a moniker from the early twentieth century which describes the great increase in monetary value due to richness in fossil fuels along with the increase in population during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The place is also renowned for the most infamous vendetta in American history, so-called the "Hatfield and McCoy Feud," which has a beginning from the War Between the States and an ending which was almost a war between Kentucky and West Virginia. Kentucky saddle horses played a great part of these conflicts in the feud, mountains and beyond. (Waller, 1988.)

A long held tradition and legend is that the feud between the McCoys and Hatfields arose over stolen hog(s). The antipathy that caused this great grudge match, however, was over several dramatic events which included excellent horses from inception, and the use of them in both direct and indirect means to carry out intentions of good and evil. The originating causes of the feud included both families depending upon the "saddle horse" as a mode of important passage, an asset that was valued as the most important of all ownership. Without reliable transportation in the late nineteenth century, a family was without means to accomplish anything. Most horses during this period were preordained and commissioned to carry a saddle first, pull a wagon second, and then tug a plow when needed. Like modern day trucks and automobiles, people liked to have the best that could be had, and they usually went above personal means to get them. (Alther, 2012.)

Most members of both clans lived on opposite sides of the Tug Fork Valley. The Hatfields, led by William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield, on the West Virginia side; the McCoys, headed by Randolph "Randall" McCoy, on the Kentucky side of the border, were once friends and related by marriage from both sides of the river. Both leaders fought for the Confederacy during the War Between the States, and joined forces in the same units from the area they represented. Members from both families, and the region, had the luxury of owning great horses that could traverse the terrain of mountains with ease. They called them the "Kentucky Saddlers," or just "Saddle Horses." (Millard, 2007.)

The legacy of the Civil War had much to do with the beginning of the feud. Both Hatfields and McCoys fought for the Confederacy and the Union during the war. Actually, Hatfields outnumbered McCoys on muster roles for the Federal army in Kentucky. Also, Randall McCoy’s younger brother, Asa Harmon McCoy, went against his family’s true loyalties, and joined a Union regiment from their home in Pike County, Kentucky. Discharged with a broken leg, during Christmas in 1864, he was warned by Devil Anse’s uncle, Jim Vance, that the "Logan Wildcats," (a guerilla cavalry unit on horseback) would be coming for him, and they did on January 7, 1865, just weeks before the end of the war. McCoy was murdered hiding in a cave not far from his home. Vance was the suspected leader in McCoy’s murder, but he was never tried for the crime. His nephew, Devil Anse Hatfield, was the leader of the "Logan County Wildcats" from West Virginia, and was never indicted for the crime along with many others who were members of the group of marauders. (Alther.)

During the War Between the States, Devil Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy fought for the Confederate States of America in the 45th Battalion Virginia Mounted Infantry. Records also indicate that other family members fought for units associated with battles affiliated with the Virginia and Kentucky units who sided with the southern armies. Devil Anse deserted the cause in late 1863. When the entry of West Virginia into the Union on June 20, 1863, left Confederate sympathizers within the border, various reasons would explain why Hatfield went home. Randall McCoy; however, apparently stayed with the cause and was subsequently captured, spending the last two years of the war in a Federal prisoner of war camp. (Harris, 2001.)

One of the first retaliation efforts that Randall McCoy had for the death of his brother seems to be fifteen months after Harmon McCoy’s death. In April 1866, after Randall was released from incarceration, he charged Devil Anse Hatfield with stealing a horse from his farm in 1864. During the time of the accused larceny, McCoy was serving time in a prisoner of war camp for his support of the Confederacy, and Hatfield was a deserter. "Legend has it that Devil Anse refuted this charge by claiming that he was stationed in Saltville on the date in question with the 45th Battalion Virginia Infantry. Therefore he couldn’t have stolen a horse from Ranel’s farm in Kentucky. Devil Anse also claimed that Ranel McCoy was with him" in Saltville with the 45th Battalion. (Alther, pages 35-36.) So instead of a hog being stolen at a much future date, it could be more likely that sentiments over being deserted on the battlefield, later having a murdered brother, and later having a high-quality horse stolen (all believed to have been at the hands of a once trusted friend) could have begun McCoy’s feelings of retribution and resentment. Those feelings have been historically proclaimed to cause the feud, and later the demise of many members of both families. (Alther; Wells, 2004.)

Also preceding and during the War Between the States, one has to recognize the importance of the saddle horse and the respect the horse received. The term "saddler" predates any indigenous American breed, and was used generally to refer to any horse that had a relaxing gait and was easy to ride. Kentucky became well known for the finest horses, so the developing breed became known as the "Kentucky Saddler," although horses of this kind were favored by people from bordering states, the name stuck. During the middle part of the nineteenth century, saddle horses were sought after for specific training, and it was favored for features of natural gaits including walk, trot, canter, slow gait and rack. Today’s breeds and associations of gaited horses developed as a result of the desire to have these characteristics. (Millard.)

The McCoys and Hatfields, were not the only Confederates who enjoyed these gaited horses during the War Between the States. Famous southern generals like John Hunt Morgan, Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, and many cavalry units sought after these horses for their superb abilities to travel across mountainous terrain without roads, bridges, and predesigned trails. Early in the war, the Confederacy had a distinct advantage, as mounted troops provided their own horses from the finest stock available. Legend has it that units like those of the Hatfields and McCoys used this advantage to traverse and return home sporadically and reengage in the fighting when needed with only a notice of a day or two. As a result, they fought with more units than officially assigned. However, after the war continued, the south began to lose the advantage, as Union forces bought or captured these types of horses. In 1864, they acquired over 200,000 horses from Kentucky and the accompanying Border States between the Union and Confederacy. (Millard.)

The Hatfields were notorious for crossing the state border on horseback into Kentucky and seeking vengeance for deeds against their interests as well as to control local political arenas. They did so imputatively, without proper authority and support of appropriate law. Then came the tragedy of Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy, the Romeo and Juliet of Appalachia. The son of Devil Anse and daughter of Randall McCoy met in 1880 at a spring election. Despite the enchanted attraction that developed, Hatfield would not allow them to marry, and Roseanna’s brothers decided to ride into West Virginia to seek retribution against Johnse after she ended up pregnant and jilted. When she learned of their plans, she borrowed a horse from her uncle, took a shortcut through the mountain ridges and rode to the Hatfield home to warn her lover. The story was carried by local newspapers that at the time used illustrations more than photographs to include with stories. The drawings have been used as part of a feature on the feud by sources since that time. Unfortunately, Roseanna ended up heartbroken when Johnse ultimately married one of her cousins, later she died as a young woman after the loss of her illegitimate child by Johnse. (Rice, 1982, and Waller.)

Two years after the ill-fated romance, in 1882, during a spring election, three of Roseanna’s brothers, Tolbert, Pharmer, and Bud, got into an altercation with Ellison Hatfield, Devil Anse’s brother. The McCoy brothers surrendered to the Kentucky law enforcement, but on their way to jail, the deputies and the accused were taken over by a Hatfield entourage on horseback. The McCoy brothers were taken into West Virginia and held prisoner. When Ellison died three days later, the brothers were tied to papaw bushes and shot numerous times in spite of their parent’s earlier pleas for mercy. (Joseph.)

In hopes to silence witnesses to charges for the murders, the feud reached a climax in 1888 with what was called the "New Year’s Massacre." In the middle of the night, the Hatfield clan rode their horses into the backwoods area near the McCoy cabin, hid the horses, and launched a dismounted bloodbath as the family slept inside. Trying to drive Randall outside of the cabin, they set fire to the cabin. Though Randall managed to escape, the raiders murdered two of his children and beat his wife nearly to death. When the realized their failed plans lead to even further charges, they rode back into West Virginia as fugitives for some time to come.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud ended after the McCoys won a significant victory in the Supreme Court of the United States which allowed them, along with their associate posse on horseback, to cross state boundaries and capture the felons who had been outlawed for years. Although many of the Hatfields were captured and tried in Kentucky for their misdeeds, Devil Anse Hatfield never returned to Kentucky and remained a fugitive for the rest of his life. Though the families had been at peace for a century, the events of September 11, 2001 impressed upon members of both families to produce a public record for a symbol of peace and unity. The families of the Hatfields and McCoys wanted their names associated with reconciliation rather than the feud.

In the popular imagination, the Hatfield-McCoy feud became a curiosity, a proverb, and even a joke. Imagine that you grew up stereotyped and prejudged as "illiterate, ignorant, inbred, and unable to become a sophisticated person" by people from other places, who might make fun of you and your family’s history for generations. They might use terms like "hillbilly," or "mountain trash," and, of course, this would not be because of your family’s race, but upon their reasoning that where you were born (and your family’s history associated with the place where you were raised) was unable to meet the standards from where your judges came. Due to your evaluators’ upbringing, they would be most able, in their thoughts, to critique your background. Therefore, you might be "from the mountains" and not from a noble class, worthy of the superiority of other "breeds." This mode of thought is done so conversely, therefore, we need to imagine these people might be defective in discussing a breed of a human or a horse.

Some Kentucky horses (like humans) share a common thread of genetic material that makes them better than other breeds of horses (or humans) for particular jobs and matters. This is just a thought from a human who thinks that those who pigeonhole us as something they imagine. They could be surprised about "beings" from "the mountains." Kentucky mountain horses are the best! (Needless to say, the people are the finest.)



Alther, L., Blood Feud: the Hatfields and the McCoys: the Epic Story of Murder and Revenge. Lyons Press, 2012, ISBN #978-0-7627-7918-5.

Harris, Bernard C., Sons of Confederate Veterans Membership Directory. Bernard C. Harris Publishing Company, Inc., 2001. White Plains, New York.

Joseph, D., Cowboys & Indians, "Kevin Costner On His Role in Hatfields and McCoys and His Music with Modern West. July 2012, pp. 90-97.

Millard, J. K., Images of America Kentucky’s Saddlebred Heritage. Arcadia Publishing, 2007, ISBN #978-0-7385-4440-3.

Rice, O. K., The Hatfields and the McCoys. The University of Kentucky Press, 1982, ISBN #0-8131-1459-0.

Waller, A. L., Feud: Hatfields, McCoys and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860—1900. The University of North Carolina Press, 1988, ISBN #0-8078-1770-8.

Wells, J. B. and Prichard, J. M., 10th Kentucky Cavalry, C.S.A. May’s – Trimble – Diamond’s "Yankee Chasers". Gateway Press, Inc., 2004, Baltimore, MD. LCC #96-76550.