Kentucky mountain blood feuds started around the end of the Civil War and raged on, basically unchecked until around 1915, when organized law and justice finally started to gain control in the rough and tumble mountains of Eastern Kentucky. These ferocious, and dreadful inter-family wars constitute a chapter of American history that is completely astounding, and surprisingly swept under the rug. Sure, we hear about the most famous and probably bloodiest feud, the Hatfield & McCoys (my step-Dad is actually a “McCoy” descended from Randolph’s clan) but few know that we had several bloody battles, and downright wars right here in Hazard, and bordering counties.
What was the cause of these ‘feuds’ and why were they so completely brutal, and out of control? A combination of lawlessness, large families with unpaid debts,and of course, the end of the Civil War, with Kentucky being caught in the cross hairs of all the fighting as a “neutral border state.”
The Civil War proved to be a ‘brother against brother’ war, as well as ‘neighbor against neighbor’. Families who had farmed, went to church together, and known one another their entire lives, all of sudden found themselves on opposing ends of the cause.
Hard times befell those whose husbands, brothers, uncles, and fathers were off at war, and they were trapped in a nation with two armies willing to steal, pilfer, ravage and leave destitute defenseless widows, and fatherless children.
Many lost their homes, their lands, and their lives. Many widows would carry harsh feelings and ill will towards those who they felt had wronged them during the war. Many children would grow up to be vengeful, full of prejudice and hatred, with only retaliation on their minds, and justifying the deaths of their fallen kinsmen. Whatever the reason, Eastern Kentucky, during this period of time was a very wild and dangerous place, fill with rage, murder, thievery, and outlaws.
Harry M. Caudill described this era in the mountains of Kentucky best.
“After Appamatox it was as though mortal enemies had been locked in the same prison without taking away the deadly weapons they knew so well how to use.
Perhaps in no other region of the United States, except the Southern mountains were the lives and property of a great number of pro-Union civilians lost in the war. In Pennsylvania, Kansas, and a few other border areas the people were subjected to occasional Confederate forays, but those areas were comparatively rich and the losses were soon restored. But in the highlands of the modest and slowly built-up accumulations of three generations were destroyed, impoverishing virtually the entire population.
Thus, the curtain rose upon one of the most fantastic dramas in American history….the ferocious Kentucky mountain feuds. Their story has gone largely unchronicled, but in savagery and stark horror they dwarf the cattle wars of the Great Plains and, in contrast, make the vendettas of Sicily look like children’s parlor games.”
During the half-century above mentioned, the nineteen counties of the plateau achieved a maximum average population of 15,000.
Research indicates that one of the counties disclosed between 1856 and 1915, nearly one thousand murder indictments were returned by the local juries.
Nearly 20 homicides per year occurred and many killings must have taken place in which for one reason or another, indictments were never made.
The French-Eversole War
The French Eversole War in Hazard, the county seat of Perry County, involved entire armies, and before long, the two sides were locked in mortal combat over control of the courthouse, and it’s records. The feud nearly caused a total suspension of law courts in the county.
The Eversole clan holed up inside the court house the structure, and the most numerous French were outside, firing at them from doors and windows of various other buildings.
The battle only ended with the arrival of a company of militiamen who forced the besiegers to flee.
Knott County Kentucky
The Terrible ‘Knott County’ War
This war lasted for many years and included the followers of Cap Hayes, and Clabe Jones. Hays was a cavalry Captain in the Confederate army, and Jones, a pro Union guerrilla leader. When these two strong willed men resumed the war in Knott county, most of the population enlisted in one faction or the other, and in a pitched battle at McPhereson Post Office (later Hindman) a half dozen men were shot to death.
When Cap Hayes was not fighting with Jones, he was warring with Bad John Wright, his neighbor in Letcher County. Wright was in the confederate army, captured in the war and imprisoned in Ohio. He escaped, and built his fortune by enlisting in the Union army for the bounties which were paid. With his roll of “Yankee” greenbacks, he returned to his rebel unit , where he remained until the war ended.
He and Hayes eventually ended to war by decimated the Jones clan.
Breathitt county shocked the entire world with how brutal those years were. It was not unheard of for a murder sentencing to be interrupted by a band of belligerent outlaws, the gavel snatched form the Judge’s hand and the court room to be forcefully adjourned at the behest of gun whirling kinsfolk and wild mountain men. Many Judges were not only ran out of town, but shot, on the spot, along with attorneys, sheriffs and even jurors.
A war of attrition where countless men died in gun fights on the dusty streets of Manchester.
Hardly a county in Eastern Kentucky was without a war, or a feud. After the Civil War, a struggle for political power waged within each and every county. Union and rebel forces fought for ascendancy by seeking to capture local offices, and in no more than four counties were the discredited Confederates able to succeed.
Former Unionists, then, would elect their comrades to fill the court houses, and election posts and would set out to charge and convict many an old foe for every crime imaginable, including those committed during war time. Dockets would grow to be full, and even though charges were vast, many soon learned that to convict would also mean putting themselves at risk. Many a Judge and Juror alike subjected themselves to target in handing down indictments.
In a number of counties, the law sought to protect the lives of the sworn Judges by installing steel boxes by the judicial bench. Many were simply too afraid to convict and either resigned or left the area outright. Jurors would become terrified, and shy away from handing down an unfavorable decision, even if all evidence pointed directly at the defendant. Thus brewed an atmosphere of more and more prejudice and hatred than ever before, and blood feuds ran rampant among every county in Eastern Kentucky, and most of the southern highlands.
I touched on only a number of the notable feuds in Eastern Kentucky, with the exception of one. The Hatfield-McCoy feud.
It is interesting, to me, to look back and really try to understand and analyze the reason for these things that happened so many years ago. When you think of Kentucky during the Civil War, you think mostly of it being a “border” state, but do we really ever stop and think what that really meant for the people who lived here during that tumultuous time? Picking a side. Shouldering a cause. Brother to brother combat, the loss of life and land, and frustration with poverty, destitution and lawlessness were all contributing factors brought on by the outcome and the Civil War, and geographical location itself.
Sometimes an enemy does not need to belong to army, or carry a bayonet. Sometimes the greatest enemy lives right next door.