The nation-at-large first awoke to the notion of Appalachian feuding thanks to this 1885 New York Times article (PDF). Entitled “The Kentucky Vendetta,” the piece recounted a Rowan County spat that arose over a charge of horse thievery. The writer contended that when the courts were unable to provide appropriate redress, the Underwood and Holbrook families picked up their rifles and pitchforks:
I believe some 30 were “picked off” in the Underwood-Holbrook feud. It lasted over two years, and culminated in the most inhuman and treacherous affair of all. “Old Underwood’s gang” had lived in a log house “fort like” for two years in a state of siege almost constantly. Now an “outsider” would be picked of, and then an insider would bite the dust. I mean by insider an Underwood, and by outsider a Holbrook. One night a shot or two hit Jesse Underwood. He died. Thus was the father childless; all the boys were gone. He sat alone with a grandchild and his old wife, the dead body of his pet boy lying at their feet.
Such tales would become a staple of the Times over the ensuing decade, as the urban middle-class developed a curious fascination with Appalachia’s ostensible culture of honor and violence.
But was it all a malicious distortion? Several recent scholars of 19th-century Appalachia claim that the feuds existed only in East Coast imaginations, and that the region’s violence amounted to little more than drunken young men foolishly trying to establish their bona fides. Check out Altina L. Waller’s “Feuding in Appalachia” for a contrarian take; the UConn professor says that economic hardship, rather than genuine familial hatred, was at the root of these supposed blood feuds. Her paper also includes a highly entertaining list of feuds reported in both the Times and the Louisville Courier-Journal. Bet that Sizemore-Garrison feud in Clay County was all sorts of crazy.
The Hatfields and McCoys, by the way, now settle their differences on the softball field.
(h/t Libby’s Genealogy)