What is the significance of a name?
That’s a question I’ve been pondering recently as Hatfield and McCoy hysteria took hold in the wake of the History Channel miniseries that shattered viewing records for ad-supported cable television.
Why should the KyForward sports editor be so concerned with a 150-year-old feud and its modern retelling?
Because my middle name is Anderson, a name I got from my father, who got it from his grandfather, Anderson Hatfield.
My great grandfather Anderson Hatfield was born in Floyd County, Ky., in 1898, eight years after the hanging of Ellison Mounts, generally considered the unofficial end to the famous feud, and just less than 23 years before his namesake “Devil Anse” Hatfield died in Logan County, W. V.
My name and link to the famous feud has always been a fun icebreaker or conversational topic and even helped lead me to an Appalachian Studies minor during my undergraduate years at UK. It was with no surprise then that my phone began to fill with text messages from friends who had heard me tell that story as the History Channel’s series aired in late May.
There was just one problem: I could not bring myself to watch it.
I was initially excited at the news Kevin Costner was playing Devil Anse and set my DVR to record the miniseries two weeks before its premiere, but as the date grew closer my excitement waned. Despite generally positive early reviews of the show, I came to expect another poor depiction of Appalachia, much closer to the truly awful “Next of Kin,” starring Patrick Swayze than the classic “Matewan,” starring David Strathairn.
More than two weeks of almost non-stop conversation about the show was enough to convince me to at least give it a chance, and Saturday, armed with my copy of Altina Waller’s excellent examination of the story “Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900,” I sat down to watch the show.
Six hours later, I was left with two conclusions: that it was good television, and it was about what I expected from a Hollywood version of events.
There was plenty wrong with the miniseries — mostly involving some loose interpretation of the principle facts of the feud and the “Hollywoodization” of the main players — but there was no debating that the show made for a compelling story.
Originally I envisioned this space as a rebuttal of where the show went wrong, but Waller has already done a much better job of that than I could ever hope to in a post for the University of North Carolina Press, which published her book.
Instead, I’d like to leave you with a simple plea: If the Hatfields and McCoys miniseries sparked your interest in the feud, don’t stop with a Hollywood retelling of the story.
There are great written histories of the feud. In addition to Waller’s book, which I am personally partial to, there is the new book “Blood Feud” by Lisa Alther and the University of Kentucky-published “The Hatfields and the McCoys” by Otis K. Rice.
You could even go visit some of the feud’s most prominent sites on your own by visiting the Tug River Valley in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.
The Hatfield and McCoy feud is far from a shining moment in the history of Appalachia, but like most of the region there’s more to the story than the popular version of events. The History Channel miniseries has brought the feud into the spotlight once again, but hopefully a Hollywood version of the story won’t be the narrative we use going forward.
Jon Hale is the KyForward sports editor. He graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2009 with a bachelor’s of science in journalism and a minor in Appalachian studies. While pursuing a master’s degree at UK, he worked as the graduate assistant at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues where he focused on Appalachian reporting.
Promotional photo from A&E Networks.