They squared off, these ancient rivals, on a stark and dusty battlefield in Pikeville, Ky. "Wielding heavy sticks and scowling fiercely, they were determined to finally settle their bloody feud as, in the distance, a stirring war cry echoed:

"McCoys are kicking butt!"

So cheered Susan Tanner, a Florida-based McCoy on her mother's side, from the stands of the Pikeville College baseball field, where on June 10 the McCoys, in blue pinstripes, took an early 11-0 lead against the Hat-fields, wearing red, in a most unlikely softball game. The contest was just one of the friendly events that took place at Hatfield and McCoy 2000, the biggest-ever joint reunion of America's most famous feuding clans. Some 1,100 descendants of the West Virginia Hatfields and Kentucky McCoys gathered on either side of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, which forms the boundary between the two states, both to revel in the history of the conflict and to rail against the popular perception of the families. "We feel that the feud has helped stereotype Appalachia," says Sonya Hatfield Hall, 40, who organized the Hatfield activities for the weeklong reunion. "There's even a Scooby Doo episode about Hatfields fighting McCoys. But we aren't ignorant, illiterate hillbillies who killed each other and go around toothless."

Well, actually they did kill each other. Over a 12-year period a dozen people died as a direct result of the feud. "It permeated our family conversations," says Hatfield descendant Jane Geniesse, 64, a former journalist who flew from Washington, D.C., for the festivities. "It's not a pretty story. And just simmering under the surface there's lots of emotion still."

One legend traces the feud's origin to 1878, when Randolph "Old Ranel" McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing one of his hogs. Another has a Confederate Hatfield killing a Union loyalist McCoy in the Civil War. Some believe the flames were fanned by Johnse Hatfield, a dashing rogue who impregnated and then abandoned Old Ranel's beautiful daughter Roseanna in 1881. But the feud was actually "a struggle over land and power," says Altina L. Waller, head of the history department at the University of Connecticut and author of Feud, a definitive book on the subject. As the timber, coal and railroad industries transformed the economy of Appalachia in the late 1800s, the Hatfields and McCoys, prominent land-owning families in the area, clashed on a number of matters. The most notorious dispute followed the 1882 stabbing and shooting death of Ellison Hatfield—brother of the infamous Hatfield patriarch William Anderson, nicknamed Devil Anse—by three McCoy boys in an argument over a fiddle. The fiery Devil and his men later tied the three to pawpaw bushes and shot them to death, the first of several murders of McCoys—characterized at the time as the good guys in the feud—by Hatfields, who were generally viewed as the aggressors. "Did we lose the feud? Oh, sure we did," says Clyde "Bo" McCoy, 31, the affable Georgia minister who organized much of the reunion. "They smoked us, we're 0 and 1. But we're going to get them back at the softball game."

Not that the modern-day Hatfields and McCoys needed uniforms to tell each other apart. "The Hatfields have hook noses, and we tend to be taller," says photographer Jerry Hatfield, 66, of Texas. Adds Ed McCoy, 50, an Ohio mill builder: ""We've got larger ears, and we're heavier. I don't think a McCoy has ever missed a meal." No matter their differences, the Hatfields and McCoys put them aside on Sunday to celebrate the theme of reconciliation; more than 100 met to symbolically toss the sins of their forebears into the Tug Fork. "We're formally putting an end to the feud," says Wisconsin truck driver Billy Jack McCoy, 24, who helped organize the reunion. "This is stuff that happened 100 years ago, and we're over it. Well, most of us are."

In fact, not even sleeping with the enemy—and there have been hundreds of marriages over the years between the two families—can fully eradicate clan loyalty. Consider the case of entrepreneur David Hatfield 30, and executive assistant Paula McCoy-Hatfield, 30, married last year but still separated by their bloodlines. Paula didn't attend the reunion's climactic tug-of-war across the Tug Fork but later admitted—out of her husband's earshot—that "I would've cheered for the McCoys. I'll always be a McCoy." Despite efforts to encourage the families to mingle at the opening banquets—one on either side of the river—only 40 Hatfields were among the 400 guests at the McCoy dinner in Pikeville and even fewer McCoys showed up for the Hatfield banquet in Williamson, W. Va.

All of which set the stage for the big Saturday softball game. Sadly for the Hatfields, it turned into a laugher, with the McCoys prevailing 14-1. But it was at the tug-of-war that the McCoys enjoyed their greatest glory, winning handily and yanking 15 Hatfields into the muddy waters. "Hey," said Texas school bus driver and McCoy descendant Natalie Anderson, 34, "payback's a bitch."

Alex Tresniowski
Kate Klise and Robin Reid in West Virginia and Kentucky

  • Contributors:
  • Kate Klise,
  • Robin Reid.