Discovery of historic artifacts from Hatfield and McCoy Feud announced
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Hatfield and McCoy Feud has had no shortage of oral history associated with this most persistent of American tales. But an announcement was made Monday of some apparent actual artifacts from the feud, including bullets fired during a key battle.
"I cannot overstate how amazing this find is. We uncovered actual bullets that were fired 125 years ago during the feud. It is incredible to hold something like that in your hand," said Bill Richardson, who has been a key figure in highlighting the feud's history.
The artifacts, which also include window glass from the period of the feud, charred wood embedded with a homemade square nail, pieces of whiteware ceramics and other items, were brought to light as the result of a fall visit to the area by the National Geographic Channel show "Diggers." The show features George "KG" Wyant and Tim "Ringy" Saylor searching for historic artifacts with metal detectors.
The announcement of the find had been delayed until now, to coincide with Tuesday's date, which marks the 125th anniversary to the day that a band of Hatfields raided the McCoy cabin on New Year's Day in 1888, killing Randolph McCoy's daughter, Alifair, and son, Calvin, and burning the McCoy cabin to the ground.
The episode of "Diggers" featuring the discovery of the artifacts -- including 10 bullets and the apparent site of the cabin -- will air 10 p.m. Jan. 29 on the National Geographic Channel.
The cabin assault was a key moment in the feud. Less than three weeks later, the Hatfields were arrested and tried. Until Monday's announcement, there have been no historic artifacts arising from the locale of the feud, and the site of the cabin was unknown.
After the initial discoveries, the "Diggers" stopped their probing and called in Dr. Kim McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, to take a more careful look.
She arrived in late September with three helpers, who conducted a formal, two-day preliminary excavation of the site, located near the unincorporated area of Hardy in Pike County, Ky. (The nearest towns of any size are Williamson and Matewan, W.Va.)
Three different calibers of bullets were found on a hillside, including shotgun pellets. The bullets were four to six inches underground and spread out over an area about 30 feet wide by 20 feet high.
"Finding artifacts for the house and these bullets they found on the hillside is very significant. They would have been deposited there by the McCoys shooting out of their house in defense," McBride said.
Both McBride and Richardson, while sounding confident these are actual feud artifacts, are careful to parse the discovery by saying that more work needs to be done, but that the evidence chain seems to add up.
A chain of title searches dates the cabin site to property owned by Randall and Sarah "Sally" McCoy. A well at the locale indicates a domestic site used to be there, and machine-made nails and the handmade nail embedded in charred wood date to the period, McBride said.
In addition, shards of window glass appear to date to the feud's period, said McBride, a West Virginia native who has done archaeological work across the region.
"Window glass changes in its thickness over time, so typically the thinner the glass is, the older it is. We have two pieces that are relatively thin that most certainly date from the period of the McCoy house."
Richardson, a West Virginia University Extension associate professor who does community development work in Mingo and Logan counties, has done more than anyone to highlight the Hatfield and McCoy Feud and encourage a tourism industry around it.
He doesn't flinch when asked if he might want too much to believe these are feud artifacts. After all, actual bullets fired by McCoys at Hatfields might be considered tourism gold.
That's especially so given the work Richardson has done promoting feud tourism sites and history, which includes his own documentary, "Feud," and consulting with and promoting other documentaries and shows, such as last May's History channel series "The Hatfields and McCoys: An American Vendetta," starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton.
"That's one of the reasons we have brought in an archeologist who has done digs on a number of different sites, who also has a professional reputation just like I do," Richardson said.
"You can never be 100 percent certain. It is a very, very high probability. I put it at 85 to 90 percent," he said of the provenance of the artifacts. "As you added all these pieces up, it basically comes to if it were a case you took to a jury, a jury would say this is where the McCoy cabin was."
You cannot carbon date wood that is less than 200 years old, he said. But the nails -- of the type used in the feud's day -- and the fact one was found in a piece of charred wood are other telling signs.
"One of the things we know, once that structure was burned, nobody used the land for a number of years," he said. "The McCoys then sold it. There was another structure built on the land, but not in the same place as the cabin. So, we know there wasn't another cabin on exactly that spot and there's been no other structure burned there that we can determine."
For her part, McBride is waiting to see the reaction to the "Diggers" episode and whether it might inspire National Geographic to follow up with a more concerted archaeological effort.
"To be honest, it's just the funding," said McBride, who happened to be reached by phone on New Year's Eve while doing work on Revolutionary-era forts with her husband in West Virginia's Greenbrier Valley.
"We can't come in and just excavate without funding in place, so I am not really sure what will happen."
She said the landowner of the feud site, Bob Scott, a member of the Hatfield line, has done the right thing in preserving the property and he has talked of exhibiting the new artifacts someday to the public. "It is important to preserve these sites that have connections to local history," she said.
A more complete and accurate history of the Hatfield and McCoy Feud, artifacts and all, will add depth and nuance to its history and dispel the usual cartoony caricatures of the conflict, she said.
There was not a sole causal event, but many factors in the feud that set two backcountry families at each other's throats for the better part of the 1880s, and led to the murder of an estimated dozen people and the wounding of 10 others.
Most of the Hatfields lived in West Virginia's Mingo County along the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Across the river, the McCoys called Pike County, Ky., home and had fought for the Union.
"[The feud] has national significance because it was representative of a time when there was a lot of transition going on," McBride said. "Lumbering is heating up and railroads are about to come in and the area is starting to industrialize. And that caused a lot of political and family tensions.
"The Hatfield and McCoy Feud was wrapped up in all of that," she said. "It's more complex than a couple families not getting along."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-3017.