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.
By Guest Contributor Ryan Hardesty, Creator of “The Real Hatfield, Real McCoy, Real Feud, Real Matewan Facebook Group”
EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS IS PART 3 OF A 3-PART POST
We know one more fact about Betty Vance that makes her involvement in the Horton affair unlikely. DNA research on the part of various Vance descendants, coupled with local knowledge passed down through the families, has shown conclusively that some, perhaps all, of Betty Vance's children were fathered by John Ferrell. John Ferrell was an early settler in the Tug Valley (his family was closely connected with the Hatfield family). He owned a mill near the current town of Matewan, West Virginia, and it was he, not her father Abner, who apparently bought (or helped buy) land for Betty and their children on the Kentucky side of the river (we've seen copies of the deeds). So it was John Ferrell who brought Betty and her children to the Tug Valley, who set them up on land just up the river from his own home, and who continued to take care of her, as far as we can tell, until her death.
So if Devil Anse, on visiting his grandmother in her home on the banks of the Tug River, heard stories about his great grandfather Abner, they were very different stories than the ones Dean King and Lisa Alther think he heard. The story of Abner Vance would more likely have been told as a cautionary tale, the story of a man who let passion destroy his family. For whatever reason, in a moment of rage he killed a man, left his wife a widow, left his children fatherless, and left them all adrift in a difficult and sometimes dangerous world to make their way as best they could. He valued his own outrage more than the safety and security of his family, and they suffered for his act of taking justice into his own hands. And for a final irony, Abner killed the wrong man!
I simply cannot imagine as this story was told there along the Tug River, with the young Devil Anse listening, perhaps leaning forward in the darkness to hear his grandmother more clearly, that it was a tale about the need to take up arms against the law, to take the law into one's own hands. On the contrary, it was almost certainly a tale about the danger of such an action and the devastating consequences of letting passion control one's life. As my grandmother, herself a Hatfield (with McCoy ancestry as well) often said, you don't cut off your nose to spite your face. That was the kind of lesson I heard as a child, told by the oldest people in the community, some of whom were alive as the feud was winding down. You don't let passion destroy your life or anger wreck your family. Abner's rash act, punished in full by the civil authorities, placed him outside the bonds of community, beyond the reach of women and men.
And when Devil Anse had the McCoy boys tied to those infamous paw paw bushes, he was not, as King and Alther would have you believe, acting out the lessons he learned from the tale of Abner Vance, he was acting against them. In this case, the stories he learned as a boy were unable to cool his head and stay his hand. Sometimes the stories that we tell cannot save us from ourselves. We tell them anyway, and hope for the best. What else can we do?
Coda: I first heard this story a couple of years ago. It is not, really, a common story among people in the Tug Valley. In fact, I found a mention of it in an old book of musicology, and in this book, a local man, D.K. Vance, a Tug Valley resident and direct descendant of Betty and Abner Vance, told the story in a way that hewed very close to the truth. He didn't seem to know anything about Abner coming to the Tug Valley, buying land, hiding out from the law. A second person, a lawyer from the Abingdon area, told it like the legend. So perhaps the legend of Abner Vance was born on the Virginia side of the mountain, and was created by other parties altogether. On the Kentucky side of the mountain, in the home of Betty Vance and in the homes of her descendants, another, truer tale was told.
One interesting note. Helen Hatfield Harmon, a descendant of the river Hatfields, two of whom (Valentine and Ephraim) married daughters of Betty Vance, once used the phrase, in passing, “Sneaky as a Horton.” I don't know whether or not she knew the Abner Vance story to which it referred, but I do know that she remembered hearing the phrase when she was growing up along the river, not two miles from where we now think Betty lived. For me, that one phrase, held within the family for nearly two hundred years, is worth more than the legend. It connects the present with the past in a vital, almost mysterious way. It shows that the past runs through the present like an underground stream, clear and cold and strong, surfacing here or there, unpredictably, to make a spring.