Guest Blogger: Dean King, on Tackling the Hatfield and McCoy Feud
Dean King is the author of The Feud. Filled with bitter quarrels, reckless affairs, treacherous betrayals, relentless mercenaries, and courageous detectives, it is the riveting story of two frontier families struggling for survival within the narrow confines of an unforgiving land.
The first great challenge in writing The Feud was gaining the trust of the families.
Even today, venturing into the heart of Hatfield and McCoy country, in southwestern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, is not for the faint of heart. Outsiders are looked at askance. A friend of mine, who sells heavy trucks to the coal industry in Charleston, West Virginia, the state capital, about an hour and a half north of there, warned me, “You’d better be careful. The people are different down there.” He promised to come with me but then found a reason not to. Later I understood why.
In 1888, three imminent New York City journalists had set out to get the Hatfield -McCoy story for their respective newspapers, all rivals. The Hatfields had burned down Randall McCoy’s house on the night of January 1 and killed two of his children. The McCoys, led by feisty Bad Frank Philips, retaliated, murdering Crazy Jim Vance, a Hatfield uncle, and illegally arresting a number of Hatfields, leading to a shootout known as the Battle of Grapevine Creek. The nation took notice.
The journalists took trains to the Appalachian Mountains, then relied on buckboards, ferries, horses and boot leather to get into the hollers—narrow, heavily forested valleys between the steep slopes. One, James Creelman, was stopped short. Having defied all those who warned him to turn back, he brushed off the ultimatum of a dark rider who approached him beside the Tug River: turn back or be shot. Creelman told him he planned to carry on. The rider disappeared into the trees. Soon a rifle cracked, and a lead slug whizzed by his head. Creelman decided to take his advice after all.
A New York Sun reporter was first threatened by a mob in Pikeville, Kentucky, and later fled on foot to escape the Hatfields in Logan, West Virginia. The New York Herald reporter made it all the way to Hatfield clan-leader Devil Anse’s stronghold but could not tolerate the rough food in the region and nearly starved to death.
On my first trip, I was led by two private forestry agents. At one point, they took me to the mouth of Thacker Creek, where Jeff McCoy was shot and killed while trying to escape the Hatfields. We had to cross train tracks and beat a path through thick reeds down to a sandbar in the river. Unlike Creelman, we were not warned before the shots rang out. They came from around a bend and sent out ripples, like skipping stones. We beat a hasty retreat.
I had learned my first vital lesson in writing The Feud: Close doesn’t count. In these parts, you have to make the right friends. And that’s what I set out to do.