What Started America's Most Famous Family Feud

Find out why this bloody 19th-century Appalachian family tussle is still the stuff of American legend today—and exactly what started it all.

My little sister is staying with me when I write this piece. She hears "Hatfields and McCoys" leans over my shoulder,  and says, "Oh, I've heard of them." Confession: before this episode of the Stuff You Should Know podcast, I hadn't. It turns out my sister has heard of the famous warring families via some crime drama—importantly, a crime drama set today. In it, a murder gets blamed on the descendants of one of the families, because of this same fight. For a squabble from the 1850s to still be referenced in TV scripts in the 21st century says something to me. Mainly, that it must have been a pretty big fight. The podcast guys decide to find out more, in their appropriately-named episode "What Was the Deal With the Hatfields and the McCoys?"

To sum up, in their words: "all the murder."

The two families both worked timber businesses and had coexisted for decades in the same area: working together, marrying, supporting each other etc. Both tribes were fairly squarely on the Confederate side in the Civil War—except Asa Harmon McCoy, who went off and joined the Union. For long and complicated reasons involving stolen horses and shot friends, Asa got on the wring side of the Hatfields after the war, so he went and hung out in a cave for a while. His slave brought him food—and if that makes you wonder why he was fighting for the Union, well, search me.

After literally years, he came out of the cave and was shot dead by a vengeful Hatfield. For ages, everyone (e.g. historians) thought this was the start of the feud, but apparently the other McCoys at this point were pretty chill. Like, "You brought it on yourself by joining the Union" (Or maybe we should give them more credit: "You brought it on yourself by being hypocritical and fighting with the Union but also making some poor guy bring you food in a cave.") So Asa's death was actually a bit of a non-event.

Where things got rough was when Floyd Hatfield apparently stole not one but several McCoy pigs. It all spiraled out from there (I guess you can't eat a Union man in winter, so who cares about Asa, right?) Shoots, fights, rock-throwing. And the mythology grew and grew, along with the violence.

The podcast tracks a whole bunch of incidents, and inevitably both families take justice into their own hands. The feud hits national press, and descends into more and more bloodiness and mayhem. If this is your jam, it's all definitely worth a listen. Death sentences, possible false confessions, spurned romances, the works. Over 11 years, almost 24, people were killed in both families. Very True Grit, and very ridiculous because pigs.

Bonus info: Apparently some of the McCoys had an actual illness "that led them to be violent." Von Hippel-Lindau disease is still studied today in the family's descendants, and sounds terrifying.