Family Feud in the Mountains
Family Feud in the Mountains
Date: January 1896
Source: "Family Feud in the Mountains." American Missionary. 50 [January 1896]: 92-93.
About the Author: Missionaries, such as those from the American Missionary Association, began to enter Appalachia from the North in great numbers after the Civil War in the late nineteenth century. Appalachians had a history of resisting evangelization and missionaries were not always welcomed.
In the late nineteenth century popular imagination, Appalachia was often mentioned in the same breath with violence, social conflict, and lawlessness. Commentators of the day applied the term, "feuding," to sustained incidents of localized clan violence in Appalachia.
Sensationalistic writing helped shape the image of the region as a primitive, untamed place. Legends of mountain feuds worked to cement Appalachia's poor national image. With little evidence beyond anecdotes, vague impressions, and their own stereotypes of mountain life, writers depicted Appalachian families as prone to feuding.
National newspapers reported numerous examples of violent community conflicts throughout the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, and western North Carolina in the Reconstruction era. Family feuds were often the result of local property disputes or social conflicts. Rural communities cut off from access to law enforcement and courts often turned to extended families or community leaders for conflict resolution. It was not until 1885 that some of these clashes began to be identified as Appalachian family feuds. Contemporary journalists and novelists spun the myth of the family feud, relying on regional and ethnic stereotypes to sensationalize local stories.
I have recently witnessed the result of a Kentucky riot, the first since I came here. Two desperate factions met on the night of the 25th, at eleven o'clock. Four men and a woman were engaged in it. The leader of the first faction fired and shot the leader of the second faction in his own house, and another of the first faction fired at the leader of the second faction till he fell with two balls through his left arm, one ball broke his right leg, and two balls went into his back. The leader of the second faction shot the leader of the first faction in the right leg and he fell; both men lying within a few feet of each other. The wife of the leader of the second faction took one of his pistols and started to kill the first leader, but one of his men stepped up with two revolvers and told her not to fire, that he would kill her if she did. This ended the shooting. The first faction helped to carry the leader of the second faction in the house and then took the first leader away. They used thirty-two and forty-four calibers.
The first leader lives four miles from my house. When they told him he could not live he asked them to send for me. I went and helped dress his wounds and sung and prayed with him. He said he had been a bad man, and asked me to pray for him. I heard to-day that some of his friends wanted him to send for some other minister, but he said no, he wanted no one but myself; and I expect to go and see him to-morrow if he is still living. I believe in the near future we will have a good hold in eastern Kentucky, if the American Missionary Association is successful in getting the right ministers. The minister's wife has a great deal to do with his success in this work….
In the late nineteenth century, the idea of Social Darwinism gained the support of many influential Americans. In this theory, the poor were considered mired in poverty because they were too lazy, stupid, or criminal to compete effectively. Only the strong survived, as part of the natural order. Accordingly, Appalachia was considered the poorest part of the nation because of the actions of the Appalachians. It was acceptable for outsiders to take advantage of the many natural resources of the region because it was natural for the strong to exploit the weak. At the same time that popular accounts of feuding appeared in the press, timber and mineral corporations were scrambling to get a piece of the Appalachian bounty.
The popular portrayal of feuds fed the idea of Appalachia as a quaint and bizarre region that had little in common with the rest of the country. This idea has remained popular through succeeding decades. Appalachia remains one of the poorest regions in the United States, with illiteracy and unemployment rates higher than the national average. However, the region is also a culturally rich area with a diverse population. Reality does not match the old stereotype.
Pudup, Mary Beth, Dwight B. Billings, and Altina L. Waller, eds. Appalachia in the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Waller, Altina L. Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860–1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.