By Lenny C. Lepola
Sunbury Mayor Tommy Hatfield has family ties to the legendary Hatfield and McCoy feud of the 19th century.
Tommy, whose family hails from Blackberry Creek, Ky., is the great-great grandson of Anderson “Preacher Anse” Hatfield, a preacher and a judge. Anse was considered a peacemaker and not directly involved in the conflict, but he was there. However, Anderson’s cousin, Devil Anse Hatfield, was in the thick of the feud.
To make a decades-long story short, the Hatfield-McCoy feud involved two families on the West Virginia and Kentucky border and lasted from 1861 to 1891. The Hatfields were English immigrants, the McCoys Irish. The Hatfields were more prosperous, the McCoys less so.
Both Hatfields and McCoys fought during the Civil War, mostly for the Confederacy. There was a brief Hatfield and McCoy skirmish following the war in 1865, when Asa Harmon McCoy was shot and killed by a local militia with Hatfield connections, supposedly because he had been a Union soldier.
The feud escalated 13 years later during the famous Hog Trial.
“The start of the feud had to do with a pig,” Tommy Hatfield said. “Back in those days pigs, ran free on hillsides, but their ears were marked so you knew who owned the pigs. It was believed a McCoy pig got mixed in with the Hatfield pigs, and they were accused of stealing the McCoy pig.”
It was 1873 and what became known as the Hog Trial was presided over by Preacher Anse, who was Justice of the Peace at the time. Floyd Hatfield had the hog, and Randolph McCoy said it was his. There were six Hatfields and six McCoys on the jury. Witness William Staton said he saw the pig and it had a McCoy marker on its ear, but Floyd was acquitted.
“Things settled down for a few years, but they elevated on Election Day in 1882,” Tommy Hatfield said. “In those days, elections were a big day when everybody came into town and celebrated. There was a violent brawl and Ellison Hatfield was stabbed by three of the McCoy boys.”
Hatfield constables arrested Tolbert, Pharmer, and Bud McCoy. They were taking them to Pike County in Kentucky for trial, an all-day journey back then.
“Devil Anse, Jim Vance, and some other Hatfields stopped them and took the three McCoy boys and held them to see if Ellison would live, but he died,” Hatfield said. “They then tied the three McCoys to pawpaw bushes and shot them.”
There was a further escalation in 1888 with the New Year’s Night Massacre when the Hatfields surrounded and set fire to a McCoy cabin. The target of the attack, Randolph McCoy, escaped, but two of his children died and his wife was beaten and left for dead. There were eight arrests and convictions from the New Year’s Massacre trial, seven imprisonments and one execution by hanging.
The last Hatfield and McCoy feud trial was in 1901, but fighting between the families had ceased a decade earlier. From 1861 to 1891, four Hatfields and seven McCoys were killed, and one sheriff’s deputy died in the feud.
“My grandfather shared stories about the feud with his family that he heard in the early 1900s from his father and his grandfather,” Hatfield said. “We went home at least every other weekend, stayed summers at my grandmother’s house. Those tales were part of my growing up.”
Although there were similar family feuds across the country during that era, Tommy said the Hatfield-McCoy feud likely became legendary because it continued for three decades.
“There’s also the whole Appalachian aspect of it,” Hatfield said. “I was never comfortable with the hateful part of the feud. I was more aware that they were basically very kind people, but something allowed it to be played up. There are still Hatfields and McCoys living in the area, and they’ve intermarried. I don’t believe there’s one iota of animosity either way.”
Hatfield said after his children were born, they only returned to Kentucky one or two times each year. It was the History Chanel mini-series about the feud that got his children interested in Hatfield family history.
“After the movie came out about the Hatfields and McCoys and my kids seeing it played out, it meant something to them,” Hatfield said. “We took them to where the three McCoy boys are buried. We took them to Randall McCoy’s home, and to Anderson’s — that’s where they had the Hog Trial – and to Devil Anse’s grave.”
Hatfield said the region where the feud took place was a thriving community when coal was king. Mining is still a major industry, but by today’s standards the area is depressed, so residents use the feud’s notoriety to boost tourism. There are Hatfield-McCoy tours, moonshine, a 500-mile ATV Trail, and an annual Reunion Festival and Marathon that goes through both states. Tommy Hatfield has run in the marathon.
Knowing the hardships the feud caused on both families, Hatfield didn’t miss a beat when asked if he was proud of his family’s history.
“Proud? Absolutely. Everybody in our family is proud of our ancestors,” Hatfield said. “Like any family, there were good and bad. I’m proud of being a Hatfield and that my family’s from Kentucky. I’ve always tried to instill that pride in my family.
“Growing up, on Memorial Day we always had a church service in the cemetery where Preacher Anse is buried,” Hatfield continued. “We’ll have over 100 to 200 people at my grandmother’s, with tables full of every kind of food you ever wanted. There are times when we visit that I wish my parents had stayed. There’s a different way of life there.”
Tommy Hatfield’s great-great grandparents are Anderson and Polly Hatfield, his great-grandparents are Jeff and Polly Hatfield, his grandparents are Guy and Lily Hatfield, and his parents are Tom and Neva Jeanne Hatfield.