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Photos courtesy of Pike County KY Tourism Commission ("Devil Anse" Hatfield photo courtesy West Virginia State Archives)
Pictured from left to right: Randolph "Ole Ran'l" McCoy, Johnse Hatfield, Roseanna McCoy and Capt. William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield.
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Courtesy of Barbara Vance Cherup
The American Beacon and Commercial Diary
The American Beacon and Commercial Diary Norfolk, Tuesday Morning June 18, 1818 mentioning the execution of Abner Vance
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Courtesy of Larry Hurley
Looking across the Tug River from the Kentucky side to the West Virginia side.
This area, now called Lover's Lane, was where Betty Vance and her children lived in the mid-1800s. This property was later owned by Betty's daughter Phoebe Easter Vance and her husband Ephraim Hatfield.
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Courtesy of Larry Hurley
Another view of the Tug River from the old homeplace of Ephraim Hatfield and his wife Phoebe.
This is the view a young Devil Anse Hatfield would have had when he visited his grandmother Betty in Kentucky.
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Courtesy of Larry Hurley
The Kentucky side of the river.
This property is very near to the property once owned by Betty Vance.
By Guest Contributor Ryan Hardesty, Creator of “The Real Hatfield, Real McCoy, Real Feud, Real Matewan Facebook Group”
EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS IS PART 1 OF A 3-PART POST ABOUT ABNER VANCE
Let me tell you a story. It's a story of betrayal and revenge, a tragedy that claimed the lives of two men and destroyed the lives of many others. I am going to tell you the legend of Abner Vance, which begins in 1817 near Abingdon, Virginia.
According to the legend, Abner Vance was a Baptist preacher who had a daughter named Betty. Betty eloped with one Daniel Horton. Horton was a Virginia doctor and he took Betty off to Baltimore, had his way with her for two weeks, then brought her back to her father's house and dumped her unceremoniously in the front yard, saying something to the effect of “Here's your heifer back.”
In a fit of rage, Abner Vance pulled down his shotgun and killed Lewis Horton, Daniel's brother, though he may have been aiming at Daniel, as he tried to cross the Clinch River. Abner, now a murderer, fled into the wilds of Virginia, away from the habitations of men, and came into the Tug Valley. He stayed there for two years, in the process procuring land for his children, some say thousands of acres. At the end of two years, however, Abner tired of living alone in the wilderness and came back to Abingdon to meet his fate, whatever it might be.
While in jail awaiting trial, Abner composed a song, which has been preserved to us as “The Abner Vance Song” and which is considered by musicologists to be the first song written west of the Allegheny Mountains. Eventually, in 1819, Abner Vance was tried, found guilty and sentenced to hang. On the day of his hanging, he reputedly sang his song and delivered a final speech that lasted nearly two hours, captivating the gathered crowd. In a final note of irony, soon after his hanging a message arrived saying that he had been given a pardon by the governor. Betty, still unmarried, and now without a father, came to the Tug Valley in later years, where she lived with her children, I assume on some of the land purchased by her father. Her daughter Nancy was the mother of Devil Anse Hatfield. Her son James Vance is a central figure in many feud tales.
I'll grant that this is an excellent tale. It's so good, in fact, that almost no writer about the feud can fail to make use of it. Two of the most recent best selling books on the feud, Dean King's “The Feud: The Hatfield and McCoys: The True Story” and Lisa Alther's “Blood Feud” write about Abner Vance, repeating the basic elements of the tale and then drawing conclusions about the people of the Tug Valley based upon their reading of it.
For Lisa Alther, the story of Abner Vance gives her insight into the character of Devil Anse Hatfield. Since Betty Vance was his grandmother, Alther assumes, probably correctly, that Devil Anse must have heard the tale of his great grandfather Abner throughout his childhood. She is certain that “this story haunted Devil Anse throughout his life and influenced some of his more unfortunate decisions during the feud. The lesson for him may have well have been that when the government gets involved, injustice occurs, and that a man should seek his own justice, unaided and unhindered by legal institutions.”
For Dean King, the Abner Vance story is but the opening act in a long cycle of violence and retribution worthy of Greek tragedy. King finds his irony in the notion that Vance, who bought land in the Tug Valley, hoped to send his children to a more peaceful place. King writes: “Vance, a violent man who hoped for better for his family, had thus directed them to a place where...peace did not dwell. In fact, it was a place of reduction and abstraction, and violence was as much a part of life as childbirth and homemade spirits.”
For both King and Alther, the story of Abner Vance sets into play themes that will become increasingly important in their respective books. For both writers, the Vance legend points to an essential element of violence in the nature of the Tug Valley people, something they carried with them into the wilderness like original sin. Something dark lurked in the hearts of those mountaineers, and from time to time it just had to come out until it was tamed by the calm, reasonable violence of the legal system and the men who killed not for primitive passion but for cold hard cash.
Here's the problem with the assessments of both of these writers: the Abner Vance story, as both of them persist in telling it, just isn't true!
A five second Google search will, if you are interested, lead you to the amazing work of Vance family researcher Barbara Vance Cherup and the true story, based on documentary evidence, of Abner Vance. I'll tell you the true story of Abner Vance, as well as the story of what happened to his daughter Betty, in my next post.