My Family Story: The Hatfields and The McCoys

There are two parallel learning tracks with researching my family tree. First, I learn about the actual people to whom I am related – their names, occupations, where they lived, how they died, and sometimes even more details. The second track is the broader scope of historical facts that tie directly into their individual experiences. I’ve read about epidemics in the region, the impact of muckraking journalists on child labor conditions in the 1880’s Pittsburgh, and a lot of information about the waves of European immigrants whose journey to the ‘New World’ wasn’t so neat and tidy at all. Basically, when I read about the micro story, it inspires me to read about the systemic issue.

Such was the case when I figured out this interesting distant family connection – the Hatfield family of the famous Hatfield/McCoy feud (pictured below.)

Hatfield Family
Photo: Wikicommons

Here’s how the connection works. In 1828, Frances Hatfield married John Franklin Murray in Campbell, Tennessee. Frances Hatfield was the granddaughter of the Hatfield patriach, Ephraim, and first cousins with the main protagonist in the story – William “Devil Ansel” Hatfield. It seems like Frances’ father had moved his family away from the area into Tennessee and weren’t directly involved in the infamous incidents. 

John Franklin Murray and Frances were the great-grandparents of a George Earl Murray who married my relative, Gertrude Leona Remley. Gertrude was my grandmother’s first cousin. So Gertrude and Earl’s children are part of the Hatfield clan. My second great grandmother, Jennie Tarleton, also married a Murray who was a nephew of the Hatfields. So I have a step-relation through my own direct line. There is also a distant connection to some of my other Tennessee relatives so it is a comprehensive infamous family connection. You might say that I’m Hatfield-adjacent.

Of course that led me to do some research into the Hatfield-McCoy legend. Of course I learned that what I had imprinted in my head of some giant stereotypical hillbilly feud was almost completely wrong. The Hatfields were die-hard supporters of the Confederacy, but they were far from poor hill folks. They were actually an affluent lumber baron family. The McCoy’s were not so affluent, but not poor. They had hundreds of acres of farmland. Both families had political connections.

Granted, the grudges and the family feuding were atrocious. The violence was awful, including the way women were treated. The true story fleshes out the mythology of what it actually meant to be hill folk in the rural Southern Appalachian region after the Civil War and it certainly was not at all romantic. For actual poor folks to navigate this complicated dynamic during their day to day efforts to survive must have been a nightmare both white and black. And being land rich had its own set of problems as industries moved in to purchase timber and mineral rights, upsetting an ecosystem and a way of life.

It is not surprising that many historical accounts of this story gloss over the realities of slavery and racism. Huge amounts of exposition devoted to parsing the land quarrels, the legal machinations and the violence these white families inflicted on one another and almost nothing acknowledging or exploring their ownership of other human beings. Creating reigns of terror based on violence doesn’t imply a heightened moral consciousness with regard to individual autonomy and freedom. What I can see are the seeds of “Southern heritage pride” that have moved into the rural regions of Western Pennsylvania.

I don’t profess to be an expert on this specific historical incidents, but simply to state that one real benefit of research your family is to learn about the larger historical landscape. The Murray-Hatfield marriage in TN gave way to an incredibly complicated struggle to farm and lots of intermarrying as the grandsons eventually all ended up in the coal mines. That’s what brought them to Pittsburgh – work in the mines. Pittsburgh is the Paris of Appalachia after all.

Context really matters. The more I learn about the intersection of my various ancestries, the more I learn about my own life. The Hatfields were descendants of English, Swedish and ‘Scotch-Irish’ settlers which gives me reason to take a closer look at the distinction between Irish and Scotch-Irish (or Scots Irish) as well as Swedish immigration to the region. It makes me wonder about this massive diaspora of settlers in my tree who moved through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia – are there more ties?

And I cannot help but wonder what happened when these Scotch-Irish hillfolks who had settles in the Appalachian region for a hundred years met up with fiery Jennie Murray recently of Glasgow? I can only imagine.

P.S. It appears I’m also a very distant cousin by marriage to J.D. Vance, author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ through the Hatfields.

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