What a Historic Family Feud Can Teach Leaders About Conflict Resolution

(West Virginia Division of Culture and History | © iStockphoto/darkbird77 )

Although cameras from the National Geographic Channel's Diggers show were rolling that November day of 2014, Billy Hatfield and Ron McCoy shared an intensely personal moment as they knelt together at the site of a historic tragedy. Nearly 127 years earlier, a band of Hatfields had killed two McCoys and burned down the McCoys' family cabin.

"I'm really sorry all this happened," said Billy, great-grandson of Devil Anse Hatfield. His family had slain two adult children of Randolph McCoy (aka Randall McCoy) and severely beaten his wife in a New Year's Day attack in 1888.

In return, Ron—great-great-great grandson of Randolph McCoy—shrugged off the apology, saying his family had done bad things to the Hatfields as well. Yet as Ron reflected on the gesture, its significance overwhelmed him.

"It was a few days later before I realized how profound that was, that Devil Anse's great-grandson had apologized to me," says McCoy, a financial officer for the state of North Carolina.

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"It showed how far we had come. It meant so much for Billy to do that. It was no accident that we were kneeling on the ground. That painted a real picture of where we've come the last 18 years."

Since Ron McCoy awakened to his family's heritage in 1998, the Hatfields and McCoys have come to a further blending of the two clans from southern West Virginia (Hatfields) and eastern Kentucky (McCoys), families whose hatred for each other had led to lawsuits, beatings and murders.

Even though there were other feuds—some bloodier—in the region, none stirred the national imagination quite as much. That included a host of newspaper reporters chronicling the carnage, the governors of their respective states getting involved and the feud becoming a staple of history books and stage productions.

May marked the fifth anniversary of two daily productions of a drama at the Hatfields and McCoys Dinner Theater in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The Jenny Wiley Theater in Pikeville, Kentucky, hosts a version of the story every summer, as does the Hatfields and McCoys Heritage Council in nearby Phelps, Kentucky.

Since a History Channel miniseries starring Kevin Costner (Devil Anse Hatfield) and Bill Paxton (Randall McCoy) aired in 2012, tourists have come from across the world to visit battle sites and historical markers in the region bordering southeastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. The curious see and hear about the Civil War-era conflict that arose between patriarchs William Anderson (Devil Anse) Hatfield and Randolph McCoy and their respective families.

Both fought for the South in the Civil War and lived in relative peace on both sides of the Tug River that separated the two states. But that changed after the war ended and McCoy filed a lawsuit alleging that Devil Anse had stolen his horse.

Though Hatfield insisted on his innocence, when Asa Harmon McCoy, Randolph's brother—who fought for the Union—was found shot to death, the family suspected a Hatfield.

What followed in the ensuing years can only be described as disastrous. In one incident in 1882, members of the McCoy clan stabbed Devil Anse's brother, Ellison, 26 times before shooting him. After Ellison died, the Hatfields retaliated by killing the McCoys alleged to have committed the act.

Although bench warrants were issued in Kentucky for the arrest of several of the Hatfields, they were never executed. Years of skirmishes followed until the Hatfields attacked the McCoys' homeplace about 25 miles east of Pikeville at the dawn of 1888.

The death of Randolph McCoy's children inspired him to move his remaining family members to Pikeville. Meanwhile, Devil Anse sold his land and moved farther away from Williamson, West Virginia, with both moves symbolizing the division that lived on for years.

Miracle of Salvation

Not nearly as well-known is how the feud began to dissipate more than a century ago, when the longtime efforts of a circuit-riding preacher bore fruit. Dyke Garrett, a farmer known as "The Mountain Preacher," led Devil Anse to faith in Christ at a revival meeting in September 1911.

In addition to Garrett's faithful witnessing, another key event spurred Devil Anse's decision, says Pikeville historian Reed Potter. Two of Devil Anse's sons were killed in a shootout in Wheeling, West Virginia—most likely in a dispute over liquor rights since the Hatfields were major moonshine dealers.

"For the first time at their funeral, Devil Anse went to his uncle and said, 'I'm ready to come to church,'" Potter recalls. "In every (previous) photo I could find of Devil Anse, he had a gun in his hand. From that point forward, I can't find any photos of him with a gun in his hand.

"That was a sea change. His sons, who had killed several people, got converted. One became a lawyer, and his nephew later became the governor of West Virginia. I think Devil Anse was truly converted."

It is that redemption and the reconciliations that followed that Billy Hatfield and Ron McCoy hope will attract more attention from the public.

After his conversion, then-71-year-old Devil Anse became as peaceful a neighbor as anyone could want, says Billy Hatfield, pastor of Charity Baptist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, noting that photos of Devil Anse's baptism still exist.

Pastor Hatfield recalls that his grandmother lived with Devil Anse after she married Devil Anse's son, Tennyson, known as "Tennis." Revealing how much her father-in-law had changed, she described him as a "kind gentleman."

"She adored him and went horseback riding with him," says Pastor Hatfield, an avid family historian. "Devil Anse's son, Cap, gave up his guns and got a law degree. Author and historian F. Keith Davis says it helped end the feud and impacted generations of Hatfields. What happened in 1911 is still going on today."

McCoy says the thawing of relations between the two sides sounds impossible. Echoing several other family members, Ron says the point is that if God can do this kind of work among their families, He can do the same in any family, church or organization grappling with longstanding animosity.

"Anybody can embrace their enemies," McCoy says. "Anyone can forgive those who have wronged them. We forgive because Christ has forgiven us. The Lord commands us to love our enemies, but that's impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit."

Long-Term Work

That the Hatfields and McCoys are still working to repair the breach demonstrates the long-term nature of achieving lasting peace.

Billy Hatfield says the first effort occurred nearly 90 years ago, when Tennis Hatfield—then sheriff of Logan County, West Virginia—visited Pikeville. As Tennis sat on a friend's front porch, Randolph's son Jim came walking up the street. Jim was a small boy when the Hatfields attacked his family's cabin in 1888.

After learning of Jim's identity, Tennis walked over, introduced himself and grasped his hand warmly. Word quickly spread, and a photo of the pair and three other friends appeared in newspapers nationwide.

Fifty years later, in 1978, Billy Hatfield's Uncle Willis, Grandmother Sadie and Sadie's husband called a reconciliatory meeting with the McCoys.

That eventually led to Ron and his cousin Bo launching a Hatfield-McCoy Reunion in 2000, featuring softball games, a tug of war, plays, dinners and other events. The thawing of the atmosphere continues, with annual reunions held in June in Matewan, West Virginia, and in September in Pikeville, Kentucky.

In addition to Billy and Ron's apology that took place on the Diggers set in 2014, descendants of both families formed the Hatfields & McCoys Foundation in January 2016. The group's goal is to purchase the property where the McCoy cabin was set on fire and rebuild the cabin, add public restrooms and incorporate historical materials into the exhibit.

In regard to multiple reconciliations, Billy Hatfield says as each generation matures and becomes aware of the terrible things their ancestors did to each other, they are drawn closer together.

"Ron McCoy is like a real brother to me," Billy says. "Here we are today, brothers in Christ and far removed (from the conflict). We have a tremendous bond now in the love and reconciliation of Christ."

Ron says he has become close to a number of Hatfields, such as Jerry and Joann of Texarkana, Texas, whom he calls his aunt and uncle; Reo, a Waynesboro, Virginia, businessman who was a key figure in the signing of an official truce between the families in 2003; and Bob Scott, who owns the site where the McCoy cabin once stood.

"I'm very proud to call them friends," Ron says. "They're more than friends. We're this hyphenated family: Hatfields-McCoys. You can't have one without the other."
Still, this doesn't mean achieving such positive relationships came easily. Billy Hatfield's sister, Heather Vaillancourt, recalls the painful emotions that rose to the surface when she watched the History Channel miniseries and realized the full nature of what her family had done to the McCoys.

When she called Billy at the conclusion of the broadcast, both struggled for words. The TV series was a key reason she and Billy apologized to Ron two years later.

"I don't know if that would have happened without the miniseries," Vaillancourt says. "Knowing Devil Anse later accepted the Lord means the world to me. I'm looking forward to meeting him (in heaven)."

Conflict Resolution

As a pastor for four decades, Billy Hatfield has considerable experience in conflict resolution. He says it starts with focusing on the nature of a conflict, which typically belongs in one of three primary categories:

  • Natural—the kind that originate with normal differences of opinion, such as music styles or sanctuary colors.
  • Unnatural—the source of serious trouble, arising from personality disorders, selfishness, past abuse or people harboring resentment and bitterness.
  • Evil—the most serious type, which involves people who are intentionally malicious and use lies, exaggerations or false accusations to get their own way.

The Civil War represented a conflict that divided many families. Since people are still arguing over whether the Confederate cause was just, Pastor Hatfield says it is natural to assume the Civil War stirred heated debate in Kentucky and Virginia prior to and during the war. (The state of West Virginia didn't form until 1863.)

But it was evil for neighbors to return from fighting and use the breakdown of law and order that occurred during the war as an excuse to raid their neighbors' farms. It was also evil for the Hatfields to allegedly kill a McCoy as he hid in a cave after returning from action with the Union army, Billy says.

The conflict that reigned for decades is what made Devil Anse's salvation so crucial to reorienting history. Likewise, anyone who has experienced conversion to Christ should take their responsibility as a peacemaker seriously.

"Spirit-filled believers are healthy people who really listen, forgive, love, have patience, are humble and are willing to submit to authority," the pastor says. "They will confess and ask forgiveness when they are in the wrong. They will not pridefully forge ahead with selfish goals, destroying all in their paths. Randolph and Devil Anse were none of this."

Another key to achieving reconciliation is understanding the dysfunctional history of members of congregations and organizational teams. Hatfield says the clannishness, litigious nature and "mountain man" mentality of relying on yourself instead of on civil authority would have made ministering to his family or the McCoys in the past a truly monumental challenge.

The same problems exist today. People hold grudges, divide into factions and vent emotions in unhealthy ways. Pastors or leaders working in this kind of environment must encourage their people to air grievances, let each side speak and seek to resolve the differences, Billy says.

"Leaders need to stay good-natured, loving and kind as they go through this," Billy Hatfield says. "They need to have conflict resolution skills and empathize with both sides.

"A lot of people tend to be chronically unhappy. What they're directing toward you is not really toward you. It's far better to get them alone and say, 'I sense something here. You seem to have a lot of anger. What is really bothering you?' Then speak the truth in love."

Pastors and leaders should also remember that reconciliation can open the same kind of doors it has for Ron McCoy, who is often asked to speak about the feud at churches, Rotary Clubs and other venues.

While people in the church often understand how Christ's death reconciles us with God, the concept is less familiar in secular environments. That is why Christians should recognize why mending fences can speak so powerfully to the world, Ron says.

"Outside of the Holy Spirit and God's influence, this reconciliation never would have happened," McCoy says. "We have felt the move of the Holy Spirit.

"I've seen total strangers embrace in tears. Hatfields and McCoys who never knew each other have embraced and become lifelong friends. When Bo and I started the annual reunions (in 2000), we didn't know God had a grander plan."

Vaillancourt says such a remarkable feat should inspire pastors, church members and others to strive for a similar understanding in the midst of conflict.

"If Christians would live their lives like that, always putting others first and loving God, all the pieces would fall into place," she says. "There's so much beauty and grace in forgiveness."

Ken Walker is a freelance writer and book editor based in Huntington, West Virginia. He wrote his first story about the Hatfield-and -McCoy feud as a newspaper editor nearly 40 years ago.

Changing the Family Tree

When it comes to reconciling deep-seated divisions in a church or in an organization, it may help to call on outside consultants to resolve the tension. But for years, no one in Pikeville, Kentucky, or surrounding towns wanted to discuss the Hatfields-and-McCoys feud that plagued the region in the late 1800s, says historian Reed Potter.

At first, many newspapers in West Virginia reflected the same sentiment. Once the feud achieved greater recognition, however, the state's tourism authority warmed to discussing the Hatfields, says Potter, director of the Big Sandy Heritage Center, which houses the Hatfields and McCoys Museum.

"In the Pikeville area, people didn't want to talk about it," Potter says. "There is still that feeling here."

That's where the efforts of family members from outside the area paid off. Their initiative led to a 2003 ceremony where sides of both families signed a truce marking the end of the feud.

Held during the fourth annual Hatfield-McCoy Reunion, the event was broadcast on The Early Show, CBS' morning program at the time. It was initiated by Reo Hatfield, Ron McCoy, Bo McCoy and other family members, Potter says.

This outside intervention was key in spurring the continuing efforts to bridge the historic gap, Potter says. The director of a nondenominational ministry at the University of Pikeville, Potter sees a key lesson emerging from the reconciliation: It takes the power of the Holy Spirit to bring lasting change.

"You couldn't have had a much worse situation in the Hatfield family, and yet Devil Anse (Hatfield) gave his life to the Lord and the whole family changes for generations," Potter says. "Look at what (Pastor) Bill is doing now, and you can see what that decision meant from that day forward." - Ken Walker

Demonstrating the Power of Reconciliation

Heather Vaillancourt, great-granddaughter of Devil Anse Hatfield, thinks reconciliation can have a tremendous impact when demonstrated by men.

"People naturally expect women to be softer and forgiving, but when you see men like my brother (Billy Hatfield) and Ron McCoy down in the dirt that day, kneeling and forgiving each other, it's very moving," Vaillancourt says.

Although Vaillancourt has family roots in the region where the famous feud took place, she grew up in Detroit and later moved to Arkansas. She had never met a McCoy until she returned for the first reunion in Pikeville, Kentucky, in 2000.

The Hatfields and McCoys played softball together and ostensibly got along, but Vaillancourt saw little mingling between them that day. Even after attending several more festivals—including one in nearby Matewan, West Virginia—riding in parades and meeting residents, her pessimism remained. But her expectations changed in November 2014 when she came to an archeological dig at Randolph and Sarah McCoy's homestead in Hardy, Kentucky.

After Billy dropped to his knees and asked Ron for forgiveness, Vaillancourt followed suit.

"I apologized to Ron and told him how horrible we felt for what our family had done to his," she says. "Ron was gracious. They felt bad, too, for the part their family played in the feud. Now we feel like cousins. The (McCoys) are great men and want their legacy (to) go forward in a totally different direction than it has in the past."

Billy and Ron's step of courage to bring together their families shows how reconciliation can have a significant impact well beyond a single moment in time. - Ken Walker

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