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Feudin', Fussin', Forgivin'

June 21, 2003

If you ain't heared of the Hatfields and McCoys, then you ain't from these here parts. The McCoys were a clan in Kentucky and the Hatfields were in West Virginia, their timber and grazing lands separated only by the Tug Fork River, actually a creek. Oh, and members of the two clans fought in the Civil War on, you guessed it, opposite sides.

Anyway, some 19th century misunderstandings over pigs, a modicum of thievery, plenty of guns, a seduced daughter and a lot of homemade liquor and knives merged with house fires, crooked juries, family traitors, unintelligible mountain insults and not a whole danged lot of schooling to create an enduring family feud that helped colorize the English language -- and hold down the clans' populations. The feudal feud, which saw more than two dozen deaths, though none since 1896, has now formally ended.

Some 60 surviving descendants of the two rawboned, domineering, bushy-chinned patriarchs -- William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield and Randolph "Ran'l" McCoy -- signed the peace treaty. It declared "an official end to all hostilities, implied, inferred and real between the families now and forevermore."

For the record, the treaty was a Hatfield idea. Reo Hatfield doesn't cotton to terrorists and reckoned another message about American unity couldn't hurt, especially if the Hatfields and McCoys joined in.

Truth is, most countries have seen family feuds. Italy, Scotland and Japan come to mind. In frontier America, many families feuded. But after a McCoy ambush on Grapevine Creek reduced the Hatfield population by 14 one afternoon, stories of the feud were circulated -- and exaggerated -- by the popular press, a sort of 1880s reality TV. The Hatfields and McCoys then joined the American vernacular as symbols of endless, senseless fighting.

What may take longer to sink in is how the symbolic truce was signed -- at what has become an annual Hatfield-McCoy festival. No, really. It seems that members of the two families get together annually to barbecue, swim and play softball together. They even sell Hatfield or McCoy T-shirts to spectators choosing sides.

This solution probably makes way too much sense for intractable disputes elsewhere. Everyone surely takes a shine to one less feud in the world. But how are we going to describe long-running disputes now, when "like the Hatfields and McCoys" means picnicking and coed tug of war?

Not to start another feud, but why did the Hatfields always get first billing? Why wasn't it ever the McCoys and Hatfields? Just asking.

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