It is a poor, weak-spirited county in eastern Kentucky now that has not its feud and its band of thugs protected by the courts...The savages who inhabit this region are not manly enough to fight fairly, face to face. They lie in wait and shoot their enemies in the back...One can hardly believe that any part of the United States is cursed with people so lawless and degraded. New York Times, July 26, 1885
My research reveals that there was indeed an outbreak of unusual violence in Appalachia in the mid-1880s. However, it was not caused by a Civil War legacy, ancient hatreds, or family vengeance but, rather, by the advent of economic and political modernization, whether fostered by local elites or by outsiders. "Feuding in Appalachia, Evolution of a Cultural Stereotype" Altina L. Waller
The image of savage, violent mountaineers chronically engaged in feuds developed in the latter 19th century, when a series of vendetta in Kentucky counties came to be connected in the popular press with mountain locales. Before the 1880s, the popular image of feuds in the South was that of lowland genteel families - the Darnells and Watsons described in Mark Twain's 1870 Life on the Mississippi and fictionalized as the Grangerfords and Shepherds in his 1885 Huckleberry Finn - slaughtering each other in an insane variation from their normal Christian values. Altina L. Waller dates the coupling of feuding and backwards mountaineers to a July 26, 1885 New York Times article, part of which is quoted above. The article misquotes a Louisville Courier-Journal editorial as judging that idiocy was on the increase in the mountains, and that Eastern Kentucky can be redeemed, but it is clear that its redemption must come with the extension of railroads in this benighted region whose natural resources invite development.
This last gospel of salvation by economic development, dear to the heart of the editor of the Courier-Journal, led the Louisville paper to take up the characterization of hill folk as in some way defective. After 1885, the Kentucky newspaper, and with it the national press, adopted the stance that feuding was particularly a mountain phenomenon, due to the primitiveness of the hill folk, and that industrial development would not only bring economic but moral uplift to the Appalachians.
This line of thinking proved useful for not only promoters of "New South" economic development, but also for all those, North and South, who did not want attention drawn to the brutal advent of the Jim Crow South in the waning years of the 19th century. Altina Waller writes that for the Bluegrass readers of the Courier-Journal,
"It was undoubtedly a relief to focus on the suppression of violence in mountaineer culture that industrialization would soon bring about rather than confront the uncomfortable reality of increasing racial violence in their own back yard." "Feuding in Appalachia, Evolution of a Cultural Stereotype", Appalachia in the Making p. 361 Henry Shapiro, in Appalachia in Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920, makes the case that this view of backward-mountain-folk-to-be-redeemed also fit into the agenda of settlement school founders and missionaries from the lowlands seeking funding for their efforts.
This conflation of feuding and the mountains fit various agenda of outsiders and ignored lowland Kentucky feuds, but clan violence did in fact occur in the mountains. A famous feud lasted six decades in Clay County, Kentucky, with especially intense periods during 1845-49 and 1896-1900, and killed some two dozen persons. In the last years of the feud, the state militia arrived in the county to keep order. Kathleen Blee and Dwight Billings have found that this long struggle does not conform to the notions of isolated mountaineers eschewing courts and instantly resorting to guns and knives to settle accounts. The two families, the Whites and the Garrards, instigating the violence were quite wealthy from salt-making and real estate investments, with the education such wealth implies. (Indeed, the daughter of one of the White patriarchs became one of the first female University of Michigan graduates, and went on to study architecture at MIT and the Sorbonne.) Clay County violence was in addition to numerous court battles, as "economic competition fueled conflict over control of the county's political machinery, which alternated between the Whites and the Garrards through much of the nineteenth century." "Where 'Bloodshed Is a Pastime': Mountain Feuds and Appalachian Stereotyping" in Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes p. 122
Altina Waller's 1988 study of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud gives her analysis of the conflict in its title - Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900. In her view, the feud was not, as many authors would have it, the continuation of struggles going back to the Civil War, but originally an outgrowth of the jealousy of one branch of the McCoys living on the Kentucky side of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River at the relative success during the 1870s of "Devil Anse" Hatfield in organizing family and neighbors on the W.V. side of the Tug Fork in the first large-scale commercial timber operations in the isolated valley. This led to court battles and then two deaths in 1880 and 1882 of Hatfield adherents, and the extra-judicial execution by Devil Anse and his followers of those responsible for the 1882 murder. Five years of quiet followed, and Waller declares that the resuscitation of the feud in 1887 was directly connected with the interests of merchants and lawyers in the seats of the Kentucky and West Virginia counties on either side of the Tug Fork, towns separated from the Tug by mountain ridges. These middle-class folk were very interested in opportunities for profit raised by the imminent construction of a Norfolk and Western rail line along the Tug Fork.
These opportunities would be circumscribed if old folkways, in contrast with new commercial relations, were upheld by Tug Fork inhabitants, and if Devil Anse maintained control over thousands of acres of timber lands along the Tug. With the government of Kentucky and the bourgeoisie of Pike County's major settlement backing the McCoy claims in the feud, "the McCoys had become pawns in a larger struggle for economic and cultural control of the Tug Valley." (p.197) By 1891, the feud was over, with several more Hatfield and McCoy adherents dead, several Hatfields in prison, the governments of Kentucky and West Virginia having spilled much ink on arguments for and against extradition of feudists, Devil Anse having lost most of his lands, and the Tug Valley in the control of industrial investors from outside the watershed.
By the early 20th century, local color writers had seized with alacrity the myth of atavistic Anglo-Saxons/Scotch Irish mountaineers and their clan feuds. The best-selling novels and stories of John Fox, Jr. - The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1903), The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1908), A Cumberland Vendetta (1911), etc. - and the films based upon them presented to readers the vision of rough, feuding mountain clansmen and their charming daughters civilized by the coming of modern industries and their handsome surveyors, engineers, etc. The feud image of mountain life continues into this generation via cartoons, television shows, movies, and a Pulitzer-winning play ("Kentucky Cycle" 1992).