Escaping a Blood Feud With the McCoys, This Hatfield Found Peace Out West
Johnson “Johnse” Hatfield reined in his dapple-gray stallion to wonder at the immense sweep of the Great Plains. The year was 1896, and his first excursion outside Appalachia had brought him to the doorstep of the American frontier.
His father, William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, had supplied him with the horse and a hardy pack mule several weeks before, but the westward journey had been rough. The wide open grasslands contrasted sharply with the forests and rugged mountains of Logan County, West Virginia. For someone used to generating attention, Johnse felt especially small and exposed on the prairie. Yet he knew there was no turning back—no return to the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
A DEADLY DISPUTE
Ignited by an 1878 trial over ownership of a hog and inflamed by the 1880 love affair of Johnse and Roseanna (family patriarch Randolph “Ran’l” McCoy’s daughter), the blood feud between the Hatfields and McCoys—who lived along the Tug Fork tributary of the Big Sandy River, in West Virginia and Kentucky, respectively—had reached a boiling point. Relations between the families had festered through the years, and Johnse was directly involved in some of the most brutal episodes.
In 1882 three McCoy boys—Tolbert, Pharmer and Randolph “Bud” McCoy Jr., all sons of Ran’l —murdered Ellison Hatfield, a brother of Devil Anse. In retaliation the Hatfields captured the trio, tied them to pawpaw trees on the Kentucky side of the Tug Fork and riddled them with bullets. Their alleged killers included Devil Anse, eldest sons Johnse and Cap, and Ellison “Cottontop” Mounts (Ellison Hatfield’s illegitimate son).
Making matters worse, Johnse later participated in the extraordinarily brutal raid against Ran’l McCoy’s Pike County, Ky., cabin on New Year’s Day 1888. “Crazy Jim” Vance (an uncle of Devil Anse), Cap Hatfield, Charlie Mitchell (alias Charlie Gillespie), Tom Mitchell and Ellison Mounts joined him.
During the early morning assault the raiders torched the cabin and gunned down two of Ran’l’s grown children, Calvin and Alifair, in the front yard. Crazy Jim then knocked Ran’l’s wife, Sally, unconscious with the butt of his rifle. She survived but suffered considerable brain damage. It wasn’t anything that would soon be forgotten.
Pike County authorities drafted indictments and offered substantial rewards for the capture of those who participated in the atrocities, the highest bounties falling on the heads of Johnse, Cap and Devil Anse Hatfield. Bounty hunters, posses and Kentucky road detectives duly scoured the mountains of southern West Virginia for their quarry.
By 1896 Johnse and his immediate kin—those not already dead or serving time in prison—had spent more than a dozen years eluding mounted raiders and such wily road detectives as William J. “Kentucky Bill” Napier. The Hatfields lived in perpetual anxiety, concerned bounty hunters would gun them down or authorities would spirit them across the river to face the gallows in Kentucky.
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Though just 34 years old, Johnse was exhausted. He sought his father’s advice, and Devil Anse suggested he pull up stakes and head west to Washington state. Anse had kept tabs on Sam Vinson, a Logan County acquaintance who had fled to Washington’s Spokane County after being accused of killing a McCoy. He’d heard Vinson had opened a tavern in the county seat of Spokane. If Johnse could track him down, he might be able to get established in the region under a new identity.
As Johnse and his father had worked timber for decades, a new beginning in the forested Northwest made sense. By then Johnse’s wife, Nancy (Roseanna McCoy’s cousin and daughter of Union soldier Asa Harmon McCoy, whom Crazy Jim Vance had murdered after the war in 1865), had left him. Adding insult to injury, a year earlier she had married Franklin “Bad Frank” Phillips, a Pike County deputy, bounty hunter and archenemy of the Hatfield clan who days after the New Year’s 1888 raid had tracked down and killed Vance.
Keen to avoid the fate of Crazy Jim, Johnse started packing for the long trip.
A LONG RIDE
Johnse covered more than half the distance to Washington riding the horse Devil Anse had given him, sleeping on the ground beneath a wool blanket and surviving on hardtack, beans, jerky and coffee. Somewhere in Oklahoma Territory he sold his horse and mule and boarded a passenger train for the rest of the journey. Arriving in Spokane, he combed through the city ‘till drawn to a saloon with a sign outside that read Fine Kentucky Whiskey.
Johnse strolled inside to query the barkeep and discovered Sam Vinson. Relieved at having found his father’s friend, young Hatfield downed several shots of bourbon as the pair chatted about their families, past events and news from back home. Sam was even able to point Johnse to a job at a nearby logging camp. After that brief encounter, however, Johnse Hatfield disappeared from the record for more than a year.
Back in Pike County, Nancy McCoy Phillips, Johnse’s resentful ex-wife, heard a number of rumors about him, specifically that he had relocated to the Northwest and might be going by the name Jim Jacobs. She disclosed the information to her family, which promptly organized a heavily armed posse. On Ran’l’s dime, detectives Dan “Cunning” Cunningham, Alpheus “Alf” Burnett and Treve Gibson set out with several others for Washington.
After making inquiries at several timber operations en route, the band found themselves at a camp on the headwaters of the Snoqualmie River east of Seattle. There Cunningham gave the logging crew a description of Johnse—a tall, blue-eyed, light-haired man from West Virginia, possibly going by the name of Jim Jacobs.
According to Hatfield family history, Midgie Staunton McCarthy, a young woman who happened to be in camp at the time, overheard the posse talking to the timber crew. Although history doesn’t record their relationship, Midgie knew Jacobs (Hatfield) and scribbled a note to him, which she sent by a Siwash Indian. The note directed the foreman of his logging crew, “Tell Jim to look out!”
Sometime after receiving the warning, Johnse spotted seven resolute searchers riding mules along a ridge near his camp. He immediately flung down his ax and fled into the woods. A fellow crewman, a local Indian, led him to a nearby river bordered by an especially dense thicket. Johnse crawled deep into the underbrush, pushing painfully past the clawing sticks and sharp thorns, and watched from his vantage point as the trackers scoured the rugged terrain around him.
According to accounts from Coleman A. Hatfield, Cap Hatfield’s eldest son, as the detectives closed on Johnse’s hiding place, a gaggle of honking Canada geese settled around the thicket, providing a distraction. Expecting the lawmen to find him anyway, the fugitive was thankful when they moved on.
Once certain the detectives had left, Johnse dove into the river and swam to the far bank. Afraid to return to the timber camp, he decided to foot it to Seattle. From there he caught a steamer to British Columbia, where he again landed a job cutting timber. Conditions were difficult, as the trees were much larger than those in Washington, with massive exposed root systems. To get close enough to fell the trees, work crews had to raise tall scaffolds beside the trunks.
Years later Coleman A. Hatfield recorded that during the manhunt for Johnse in Washington, Sam Vinson devised a plan to fool the pursuers. The Spokane barkeep thought that if Ran’l McCoy and the bounty hunters believed Johnse was dead, they would end their search.
Sam first contacted Johnse to obtain a lock of his blond hair, then sent it to his oblivious parents, with a scrawled condolence letter explaining how Johnse had been killed in a terrible accident while felling trees. When Devil Anse and wife Levicy received the tuft of hair and read the note, they were distraught, and word quickly spread along the Tug Fork that their eldest son had died in the Pacific Northwest.
Soon afterward Cap Hatfield, then working outside Gunnison City, Colo., received a letter from his wife, Nan, advising that his brother Johnse had apparently perished in a freak logging accident.
In 1898 Cap decided to return home to West Virginia. Still unwilling to accept Johnse’s death, however, he chose first to search for answers in Washington. There Cap asked around the camps after any loggers hailing from southern Appalachia. He eventually heard of one light-haired West Virginian working in British Columbia. Venturing north, he soon found his older brother. Johnse was equally thrilled to see Cap, and they spent several days together at the camp.
Cap ultimately persuaded Johnse to return with him to Logan County. The brothers reasoned that running was no longer the answer, as Ran’l, his family and supporters seemed willing to go to the ends of the earth to capture or kill a Hatfield. That being the case, Johnse figured he stood a better chance back home under the watchful eyes of his father and kinfolk. Still, to boost the odds one or the other of them would evade capture, Johnse and Cap took separate routes home.
For nearly two years the Hatfield patriarch and matriarch had believed their eldest son to be dead in the Far West. But in early 1898 a well-dressed 36-year-old strolled up to the front gate of their Main Island Creek home. Devil Anse and Levicy couldn’t believe their eyes. With tears flowing, they raced to the gate to embrace Johnse.
BACK IN APPALACHIA
After returning home to West Virginia, Johnse still had his share of trouble. On June 18, 1898, a gang of men led by Humphrey E. “Doc” Ellis, a business rival of the Hatfields, waited in ambush along the railroad tracks outside Gilbert. Knowing Johnse’s daily routine, they waylaid him as he passed and hauled him to the Kentucky side of the Tug Fork. Pike County authorities promptly arrested Johnse, tried him for murder and ultimately sentenced him to life in the Kentucky state prison. In 1904, having served just four years, he secured a pardon after rescuing the visiting lieutenant governor from attack by a fellow inmate.
Regardless, his time in prison had sobered the once cocky Johnse Hatfield. According to Coleman A. Hatfield, he eventually married Rebecca Browning, a kind, levelheaded woman who provided the stability he had lacked in his unrestrained youth.
The couple reportedly named their first daughter, Midgie, in honor of Midgie Staunton McCarthy, the Washington acquaintance who had warned Johnse and saved his life out West. (Other Hatfield biographers dispute Coleman’s accounts, claiming that Johnse and Rebecca’s daughter Midgie had been born years earlier, in 1892, and that by the time Johnse returned from the Pacific Northwest he was already married to Roxie Browning, Rebecca’s cousin.)
Johnse’s brother Cap served honorably as a lawman and, after hitting the books and passing the bar, opened a law firm in the city of Logan with son Coleman. Cap’s stepson, Joe Glenn, also studied the law and eventually joined the practice, as did Cap’s granddaughter Aileen Hatfield.
As the era of the infamous Hatfield and McCoy feud passed and the gunfire ceased, the remaining family members found relative contentment and peace. Even patriarch Devil Anse Hatfield mellowed with the years. On Sept. 23, 1911, Uncle Dyke Garrett, a former Confederate chaplain, Appalachian circuit-riding preacher and longtime friend, baptized “the ol’ Devil” in the icy waters of Main Island Creek. Grace had come to the Tug Fork.
Anse would live another 10 years, dying of pneumonia at age 81 in his Island Creek home on Jan. 6, 1921. Johnse died of a heart attack at age 60 in his cabin at Wharncliffe, W.Va., on April 19, 1922. Brother Cap lived until the summer of 1930, dying at age 66 of a brain tumor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.WW
By F. Keith Davis
F. Keith Davis, founder and CEO of Woodland Press in Chapmanville, W.Va., appeared in the companion documentary to the History channel’s award-winning 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, starring Kevin Costner as William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield. Davis is the grandson of William “Cap” Hatfield.
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F. Keith Davis August 10, 2022 at 12:37AM
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