The Hatfield-McCoy feud has been called “the most famous family conflict in American history.” Yet most of what we think we know about that Appalachian family fracas comes from vintage films and TV shows, featuring dentally and mentally-challenged Appalachian hillbillies plugging each other with buckshot.
Filmmaker Randall MacLowry sets the record straight in his latest documentary, produced for WGBH Boston’s Award-winning American Experience series. The Feud debuts on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App tonight, Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.)
The Hatfields and McCoys were among the earliest settlers in pre-Civil War Tug Fork River Valley, a mountainous remote region in Central Appalachia bordering the states of Kentucky and Virginia (what would become West Virginia). Peace and tranquility in the Valley came to a screeching halt during the Civil War and its aftermath when Eastern industrialists and entrepreneurs set their sights on the region’s extensive coal and timber resources.
Caught in this postwar influx of opportunists were the Hatfields, led by savvy patriarch William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, who initially jumped on the logging bandwagon, and the McCoys, whose patriarch, Randolph McCoy, continued to struggle to make ends meet as a subsistence farmer. Inter-family jealousies soon triggered revenge-fueled encounters, culminating in a horrific 1888 New Year’s Day bloodbath. The escalating Hatfield-McCoy family drama would become a sensationalized attention-grabber in the national media of the day.
Intrigued by this long forgotten chapter in American history, I was anxious to connect with filmmaker Randall MacLowry to explore in more detail the feud and the film’s backstory. My Q&A with Randall MacLowry (conducted via email) is reprinted below.
Judith Trojan: During the opening moments of The Feud, you include a clip of the vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon, Hillbilly Hare. An individual, who I assumed to be you because he was not identified at that point in my press screener, recalled briefly his childhood memory of that cartoon’s unsettling depiction of feuding hillbillies. Did that cartoon actually trigger your fascination with the Hatfield-McCoy family feud and Appalachian culture? Did you grow up in Appalachia?
Randall MacLowry: I am sure I saw that cartoon at some point growing up, but the anecdote recounted in the film is not mine. The story is from Chuck Keeney, a historian from West Virginia. When we first talked about the project, Chuck told me this memory of his, and I thought that it could be a great way to get into the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. As for myself, I did not grow up in Appalachia, but I spent a good amount of time in West Virginia working as the editor of a series on the history of the state, as well as producing and editing several other programs while I lived in West Virginia.
Trojan: This is more than a story about two warring families. Why did you think the time was right to focus on the Hatfield-McCoy feud and, in the process, pinpoint the press’s role in mythologizing and stereotyping Appalachians? The press’s bad behavior in the late 19th century–a practice that soon thereafter became known as ‘yellow journalism’–seems timely given the abundance of character assassinating Tweets and rants of ‘Fake News’ that we have become accustomed to of late.
MacLowry: I agree that the story is timely, but the timing of the film was not an outgrowth of any current events. I was familiar with the story of the feud having worked on the aforementioned film about the history of West Virginia about 25 years ago. When I was approached by American Experience to do a more in-depth exploration of the story, I was excited by the opportunity to revisit this iconic piece of American history. The story takes place during a period of rapid urbanization in the nation, and this shift to a more urban and industrial society gave rise to a sharp distinction between the rural and the urban in America. The feud played a pivotal role in the creation of the negative stereotypes of Appalachia that still have repercussions today.
Trojan: I found myself wondering about the backstories of the two families. They apparently lived harmoniously for years as neighbors in the Tug Fork Valley region, pre-Civil War, and even intermarried. Where did their forebears originate?
MacLowry: The Hatfields were of English descent, and the McCoys were of Scots-Irish roots. Both families were in America several generations prior to their moving to the Tug Fork Valley, bordering Kentucky and Virginia (later West Virginia), where they joined German settlers, some French Huguenot refugees and others in the area.
Trojan: It was clear to me from your film that the fires of animosity in the region were not only sparked by the Civil War itself, but fanned by postwar industrialization. Allegiances to the Confederacy and the Union caused rifts between families in the Valley but also fractured them from within. Urban entrepreneurs and investors, in turn, saw dollar signs when they laid eyes and capital on the region’s rich coal and lumber resources.
MacLowry: I wouldn’t describe the Civil War as the straw that broke the camel’s back as that implies there were growing tensions between the families that were exacerbated by the Civil War. But the atrocities that occurred in that borderland region were very disruptive to the tight-knit agrarian community that had been living there since the early 1800’s.
Trojan: Families like the Hatfields and McCoys who, prior to the war, lived off the land soon faced No Trespassing signs on turf they once owned. Parallels to current EPA rollbacks favoring business interests over the health and well-being of our nature preserves and environment come to mind.
MacLowry: The tension between capitalism and exploitation of the environment has a long history in our country. Mountain families lost their land and their livelihoods in the face of this enormous pressure.
Trojan: Your narrative is straight out of the Ken Burns playbook. Who do you credit with inspiring the focus and narrative approach of your work?
MacLowry: Ken Burns is a major figure in the creation of historical documentaries and has brought many powerful stories to life. But early in my career, I had the good fortune to work with Academy Award®-winning documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. I trace much of my inspiration in this field to him and numerous other important and generous mentors that have helped guide me along the way.
Trojan: Kimberly McCoy is the sole Hatfield-McCoy descendant featured in the film. Who is she descended from? Why not include additional Hatfield-McCoy descendants?
MacLowry: We contacted many descendants of the Hatfield and McCoy families as we researched the film, and I appreciate all of the time and insights they shared with us. Kim grew up along the Tug Fork and still lives in the area. She has been involved with preserving the history of the area for many years–not just the story of the feud but also the rich history of the coal mine wars that took place in the first two decades of the 20th century in southern West Virginia as miners fought to unionize the coal mines.
She is actually related to both the Hatfields and McCoys. She is a direct descendant of William Anderson Hatfield’s older brother, Valentine Hatfield, and she is married to a direct descendant–Randolph McCoy’s younger brother, Asa Harmon McCoy.
Trojan: You thread a wonderful selection of photos, artwork, and vintage newspaper and film clips throughout The Feud. The clips from silent dramatic films and more contemporary TV favorites like “The Beverly Hillbillies” underscore how popular culture throughout the 20th century was saturated with negative Appalachian stereotypes.
MacLowry: I feel we were very successful in finding images to provide a picture of the people and the place, which in the end is what our story is really about. It is about the massive transformation of the region brought about by rapid industrialization, which upended the agrarian subsistence economy in the area and led to widespread displacement of the local people.
We got almost all of our imagery in the film from archives. There are some images that we had heard about that at one time were with family members, but we were unable to track them down. We were excited that we were able to locate a good number of images of Anderson Hatfield and his family from archives — many that I had not seen when we did the history of West Virginia film a couple decades ago. Unfortunately, we found only one image of Randolph McCoy, and very few of his family from the time of the feud. We had hoped to unearth others, but none surfaced.
Trojan: For me, your film is a timely wake-up call about the long-term consequences of stereotyping and what incites individuals to violence when they fear that their everyday lives and traditions are being upended by the ‘new kids on the block’—whether they are rogue family members; politically, racially or ethnically diverse neighbors; immigrants; or big business interests.
MacLowry: I think the importance of the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud is that it became part of how Americans, and even the world, looked at Appalachia. Mountaineers became viewed as violent, backward savages who needed to be reformed and civilized. And that negative ‘hillbilly’ stereotype still remains today.
But what happened was not unique. These attitudes towards Appalachia were happening at the same time, for instance, as efforts at spreading imperialism in Africa and fighting Native Americans in the Indian wars of the West. Mountain folk become marginalized as a group, and this is similar with the representation of non-whites throughout the country and the world. Fighting against the marginalizing and otherizing of people is an important issue that we still grapple with as a nation. Ω
American Experience: The Feud, written, directed and produced by Randall MacLowry and executive produced by Mark Samels, debuts on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App tonight, Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.) –Judith Trojan