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The Feud Before the Famous Feud

Updated on August 4, 2017
Robert M. Baker at the grave of his ancestor, Hiram Wylie Justus, on Laurel Creek, Buchanan County, Virginia.
Robert M. Baker at the grave of his ancestor, Hiram Wylie Justus, on Laurel Creek, Buchanan County, Virginia. | Source

I Hated the Feuds

Leaving behind the place where you were born and lived your first thirty-something-odd years is hard, but it's much easier when you don't have a career or stable income to help nail your feet to the floor. My compelling reason for leaving home for Kentucky was a woman. My reason for staying is actually two women: I married the one who dragged me (willingly) from home to Kentucky. The other woman has blond hair (Lord knows where that came from) and the hazel eyes of her grandfather and uncle.

The reason why I hated the feuds is intertwined with my introduction to this first woman. I'll save the details for another day, but we managed to hit it off with a rather unusual connection: I learned that she was from the mountains of Kentucky and actually born in West Virginia. Making conversation, I'm pretty sure that I reached for the only tenuous connection that occurred to me: my Dad's family was from a forlorn little place called Hurley in Virginia. This lady knew exactly where Hurley was and had been there.

Let me now jump ahead to where my life began to intersect with those of my ancestors. Pam and I had moved to Prestonsburg, a small town (actually, the county seat) located deep in the Appalachian mountains. Since I was, again, working as an adjunct, I had more time than money on my hands. In Prestonsburg, we were an hour-and-a-half drive away from where my Grandfather was born and raised, where my Dad spent part of his childhood.

For some reason, I have always found fascination with local history; I want to know what blood was shed on that ground and why. Living within an hour or two of where my people settled at some point in the past was an added temptation. I wanted to know something about my ancestors. How did my family end up leaving Virginia for Florida? Perhaps it was a way to connect myself to my family back home.

The first thing that any visitor to far eastern Kentucky learns about is that the feuds are big business. They are the life-blood, the prime mover of tourism in the region. Pike County holds a festival called "Hillbilly Days" when people from Michigan and elsewhere come to visit and to wear overalls, straw hats, and other stereotypical affectations designed to make them look and feel like the stereotypical illiterate and dissipated hillbilly of legend and folklore. Pike County does a great deal to encourage this "role-playing", and, indeed, it always provides a major economic boost to local businesses. Ironically, Pikeville played only a very small roll in the events of the most famous of the feuds.

It's not common knowledge beyond the mountains that the Hatfields and McCoys were just one set of dysfunctional and spite-filled families in the region. Other feuds, even bloodier and nastier feuds, occurred in Rowan and Breathitt and Clay Counties among others, but Pike County's was the most famous by far. The press of the time ate up whatever they could find about the Hatfields and McCoys, and their pandering to the prurient interests of their readership all over the country served to elevate this feud above the rest. As a matter of fact, it is the image created in the national newspapers by visiting reporters with little or no connection to the region that persists in nearly every study of the feud and in nearly every mind which pays the event(s) any attention.

Here's where I admit my own ignorance and prejudice: like most people, the feuds represented something ignorant, illiterate, stubborn, foolish, backwards, and be-nighted. Only the ignorant and illiterate would engage in shooting over the fence at their neighbor for whatever slight might prompt them to do so. Worse, the numerous accounts of the feud bolster and propagate this ignorance, and, in the case of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, the stated initial cause for the conflict was, of all things, the theft of a pig. If you read further, you learn that the mountaineers of the time didn't pen their pigs. They allowed the animals to roam at will to forage for their own sustenance. If every mountaineer did the same with their swine, how did they determine whose hogs were whose? They cut notches in the ears of the animals, so, obviously, the pig which had two notches in his ear as a means of identification could easily become the property of the man who used three notches as his identifier and on down the line.

If you aren't familiar with the Hatfield-McCoy feud, then I'll tell you that many a learned college professor, newspaper reporter, local historian, and genealogist has latched on to this story of the stolen pig and recited it as if it were a mantra that this was the beginning of the bad times, the cause of all the blood-shed and hard feelings. In fact, the two families went to court over the pig and the verdict rendered did not suit the loser.

Something in this story did not sit right with me. What is reported of the parties to the original events just didn't ring true or it defied what I knew about human nature. Now, I'm not saying that these events didn't happen or that they played no part in the feud. It just seemed to me that the copious blood-letting which followed could not have been triggered by the theft of a hog and a trial for that theft.

I hated the feuds for glorifying the backwardness of the participants, for creating the stereotypes which still persist, for making mountaineers look like ignorant fools, country bumpkins incapable of education or a moral existence. I knew many mountaineers and they were always some of the brightest, most industrious people I have ever known.

With only a feeling that something was not right, that something in the feuds looked contrived, I began my military history researches with the attitude that I was going to avoid dipping into that moral, cultural, and intellectual cesspool. Little did I realize at the time that my research into the region's history would bring me right back to the Hatfield-McCoy feud, and it would uncover the existence of at least two other feuds and a very long list of military and para-military organizations comprised of the local men.

Grandpa Fought for Both Sides!

My initial trip to the library in Grundy, the county seat in Buchanan County, was like a push from behind, a hard shove in a direction I would never have chosen on my own. I drifted in and found my way over to the "special collections" and began looking at the books on the shelves. I might have continued to stand there for a while with a dumb and puzzled look on my face had not a gentleman come over to ask if I needed any help. I explained that I was just looking for something that might mention my people. I wanted to know what they were like and what they had done. This gentleman, his name was Ed (last name omitted to protect the guilty), asked me what I knew about my people. I could have walked in and talked to any of the librarians in the building, but Providence lent me this gentleman who was married into the Justices on Guesses Fork and who had been compiling a database for the Justices and related families.

I told Ed the names of my ancestors as far back as I could recall. There is one man in that list who was locally famous, Sam Baker who was murdered in front of his wife and son on Christmas Eve in 1909, so it was actually an easy thing for Ed to connect me to my line. Once my lineage was established, Ed began rattling off names. "Sam Baker was the son of Andy Baker and Andy was the son of Eligha." For me, this was an epiphany as I had never heard these names before, but Ed wasn't done yet. He went over to one of the shelves and pulled out a slim, gray, cloth-bound volume and proceeded to tell me that Andy had served with a regiment during the Civil War and that regiment had a history written right here in this book.

Growing up in Florida, the Civil War is not something that is often talked about. Perhaps its the nature of the region: South Florida (the Miami and Fort Lauderdale region) is one of the most cosmopolitan locations in the world. While this is positive in many ways (I enjoyed nearly all of them), it also contributes to a lack of regional and local memory and to a lack of appreciation for the history of the area because few who live there have any ties to that region and history: the residents of South Florida rarely have South Florida roots.

Further, when you are talking about the American Civil War, there is a complicated set of beliefs and opinions that is wrapped up in any throughtful consideration of the topic. Since there are so many of foreign birth in South Florida, they have little attachment to any aspect of American and Floridian history, and, since many citizens are transplants from somewhere else, usually from up north, there is no understanding or appreciation for Southern history and culture. When these circumstances do combine, you have a matrix which can only be described as "living in the moment and don't internalize the history and the shame" of what Florida once was: a Southern state and an early advocate of secession, thus a SLAVE STATE. It's sad but true. All that most people know about the Civil War and how it affected Florida is very limited and terribly biased: one aspect has subsumed all others.

Now, you may think me to be an "un-Reconstructed" or something like that. Actually, I am nothing of the sort. As a matter of fact, my interests fall pretty squarely on the other side, but I believe that a huge, vital, and revelatory chunk of our shared history and heritage has been stomped into the dust for reasons that our grandfathers would laugh at. They would say we have thin skin and that we need to accept it for what it is and what it was.  It was an undeniable part of our history and a crucible that created something, for better or for worse, that makes the whole world take notice. If we deny one part of our history for another, we are lying to ourselves and we lose sight of what makes us unique and worthy as a nation and a distinct culture.

Now, why did I get off on that tangent? I didn't learn much about Florida history, though I was interested, in my thirty-some-odd years as a native and resident. It wasn't until my last day there as a resident that I learned about a massacre which happened at a site on the New River in 1835. None of this was talked about in school as far as I remember despite the fact that every school I attended from first grade on up was located in Fort Lauderdale. Despite my love of my hometown, I knew little about its establishment or history. What I have learned since is absolutely fascinating.  This lack of historical and cultural context for the individual is part of what makes it so easy to knock down the old buildings to build a shopping mall. You would rarely meet an older person who was actually born and raised in Florida. I met a couple of elderly natives over the years and what they told me about what it was like at one time was an eye-opener (one gentleman, a veteran of the Greatest Generation and a former POW, told me how the Blacks lived near the ocean because the whites were afraid of hurricanes!). Their memories were valuable, but no one seemed to care. They contained within them that sense of place that keeps one rooted, that makes one say, "I'm a Floridian." I didn't realize that moving from Florida to Kentucky would help me gain something I didn't know that I had lost. My visit to the library in Grundy was the first episode in this epiphany, and it is a revelation that has continued as long as I kept pursuing the next document or pension record or family reminiscence.

Back to the library in Grundy: Ed showed me where Andrew Baker was listed as a member of Company H of the 10th Kentucky Cavalry, CSA. This was really exciting for me as none of this was preserved in my line of the family's memory: I had an ancestor who served as a Confederate soldier. However, there was also another notation in the same entry that said that Andy Baker had also served with "39 KY INF, US." What was this? He served with the other side as well? How and why did he do that? This was the question that set me on a path to recover some of my family's history, but it also led to the eventual recovery of part of the family histories of 1,600 other soldiers and a reappraisal of what made these men join the Union army, of what it was to be a mountaineer and a settler, a resident, a citizen of the very rugged Appalachian mountains. What I would learn would change my own perceptions and those of many, many others about what went on during that not-so-distant war, how it would be fought on their own doorsteps with and against their relatives and friends and neighbors and acquaintances. My research would lead me to an understanding of how nasty the local war was and how prejudice, patriotism, ignorance, courage, cowardice, and the entire spectrum of human emotions and beliefs would contribute to a remaking of a culture that had just then been settling into a rhythm and a comfortable way of life.

In my next installment, I'll start laying out the historical stuff that you have probably come to this site looking for. I promise!

The 10th Kentucky Cavalry versus the 39th Kentucky Infantry

Here's the entry for Andy Baker that I found in John and Jim's book on the 10th Kentucky Cavalry:

Baker, Andrew: Co. H Enl: 5/15/63 in Buchanan Co., VA, pres. 7/23/63, b. 1860 [sic] in KY, serv.prev. Co. E, 2nd VA State Line, res.of Buchanan Co., VA in 1860, age 33.

At the time, I could read, but I couldn't comprehend. Obviously, there's a little typo with the year of his birth (he was actually born in what is now Letcher Co., KY, on Leatherwood Creek -- locally famous as the site of a small battle -- in 1830). This also shows that Andy had joined the 10th Kentucky Cavalry in May of 1863 in Buchanan County. The notation that he had served previously with the 2nd Virginia State Line was quite cryptic to me at that time.

It also occurs to me now as I write this that there is no notation in this source that indicates that Andy served with the 39th Kentucky, so I'll have to search and see if I can relocate where I made the connection that Andy had served on both sides [possibly in Jeff Weaver and Randall Osborne's book on the Virginia State Line].

Now, with what I know about all of this stuff today, ten or twelve years removed from my initial discoveries at the Grundy Public Library, this very taciturn account reveals a great deal. I understand much, much more now than I did then, but, as this is intended to be an account of the revelations as they occurred and then my gradual (so very gradual) understanding of how all this stuff fit together and how it became a fairly encompassing knowledge, I must keep to my narrative and my promise to myself.

What I can say is that SOMETHING tipped me off to Andy's dual service. I thought that perhaps I saw this in Gwen Boyer Bjorkman's extensive genealogy, but I just looked that over (archived at and it does not indicate anything about Andy's military service. However, I did find it in Barbara Baker Haughey's flawed genealogy, so that must have been what tipped me off to the connection. Here's the entry for Andy in Haughey's genealogy:

3. Andrew (Andy) Baker -- (1/25/1830 Perry Co., Ky. - 7/2/1913 Knox Creek, Buchanan Co., Va. - Twin to Calvin (Dock). Served in 39th Reg., Co. H, Ky. Infantry.) -- Married 8/15/1850 Tazewell Co., Va.

I need to continue with the information that Mrs. Haughey provided for Andy's first wife as there is another connection that will become clear later on:

1st Wife -- Harriet Smyth - (1832 Tazewell Co., Va. - 1/6/1884 Knox Creek, Buchanan County, Va.) - Daughter of Samuel M. Smyth (son of Amous Smyth and Mary [Polly] ______) and Mary (Polly) Justus (daughter of Simon {Simeon} Justus and Keziah Salisbury).

It's kind of interesting to me now that John and Jim had Andy's Confederate regiments worked out but were apparently unaware that he had served with the 39th. It's also interesting that Mrs. Haughey's genealogy is clear about Andy's service with the Union army, but it makes no mention of his Confederate service. If I were to look at this now through my multi-colored lenses, experience would whisper to me that these were not the same man. Experience, at least in this instance, would be wrong.

I am almost certain that I first met Ed at the Grundy Library and learned about Andy from The 10th Kentucky Cavalry, C.S.A.: May's-Diamond's-Trimble's "Yankee Chasers" before I found Barbara Baker Haughey's genealogy. I am pretty sure that I located Mrs. Haughey's manuscript at the public library in Whitesburg during my only visit to that place, so my understanding of Andy's dual military service must have occurred in that order.

Now, I would not knock John's and Jim's work on the 10th Kentucky Cavalry (as I would not down Randall Osborne, Jeff Weaver, Scott Cole, Jack Dickenson or any of the other published military historians from the area), but it is not a pleasant read. It's not bad either. Their technical and compositional skills are good as both men are very good writers, but the nature of their topic, unfortunately, lends itself to a very fragmented, angular, choppy account. Confederate military records are typically incomplete for a variety of reasons and these lend themselves to a hard read. This is not the type of book that one reads for pleasure, but rather for edification and information. Yet, there was one comment that intrigued me and may have sent me deeper into researching the 39th Kentucky. Wrote Jim and John about Morgan's "Last Raid" in which the 10th Kentucky Cavalry participated:

"Ironically, Burbridge's command included the 39th Kentucky Mounted Infantry, the 10th's ancient enemy from the Big Sandy valley." (66)

So, did they mean that, since both regiments recruited their men from almost the exact same neighborhoods, there was a possibility that brothers and cousins, uncles and nephews, and fathers and sons were shooting at each other at Cynthiana on June12th, 1864? With which side did Andy serve during Morgan's "Last Raid" which began late in May, 1864, and was pretty much done and over with by the end of June? Well, here too was an interesting question for which I would find an answer, but I had to get much, much deeper into the paperwork to find out.

Andrew Baker, born January, 1830, in what is now Letcher County, KY, and died on Knox Creek in 1913.
Andrew Baker, born January, 1830, in what is now Letcher County, KY, and died on Knox Creek in 1913. | Source

Back to the Feud

I resisted studying the feud (when I refer to THE feud, it's the one with the Hatfields and McCoys, the one that had a movie made about it with Jack Palance playing the part of the Devil himself) for as long as I could. I wanted to avoid it, hoping against hope that it would not somehow bleed into my oh-so-sacred research on the 39th Kentucky. However, there were a bunch of guys in the regiment with the last names of Hatfield and McCoy. I had to deal with it and figure out if THESE Hatfields and McCoys were the right ones. If they were, how did they end up in the same Union regiment. Well, they weren't and they didn't, so who were THESE Hatfields and McCoys?

There are a couple of great books on the bloodlines of each or both of the families. G. Elliott Hatfield did a good one for, of course, the Hatfields and Truda Williams McCoy wrote a good one on the McCoys. The genealogies were pretty good as far as I could tell, but the narratives that they provided were very similar and neither really provided anything earth-shattering about what the families did during the war. I read account after account and many of these books and other sources pretty much parrotted the same stories. After a while, I noticed that many of these details, even those related by Hatfield or McCoy family members, were derived from the old newspaper accounts from round-about the time of the feuds. This perplexed me, but I began to understand their relative value or lack thereof in a somewhat unrelated source that was confirmed by a bonafide expert.

The unrelated source was the pension record of, if memory serves me right, my wife's ancestor, either William Norman or William Reilley Norman. The widow of (oh, yes, it was) Reilley was apparently accused of pension fraud. To figure out what had actually happened, the pension bureau had sent an investigator into the Tug Valley. This must have been Culture Shock in the extreme for the investigator, a member of one of the tribes of Israel, whom went from house to house asking questions about the widow and what they knew of her. At one point, the investigator noted that he was directed several times to the "next house" where the residents were literate and could help him. This poor guy was probably walking, wearing a suit, and sweltering in the summer heat as he sought answers from people whom were naturally cautious about outsiders. By the time I got to the end of the report, I realized, even if this poor gentleman didn't, that he had been had. It was something of a joke or sport for each of these locals to send this fellow further down the creek, despite the conditions and the seriousness of his task. It was about this point in my research that I began to realize that those newspaper reporters whom had tried to comb the same neighborhoods looking for information about the Hatfields and McCoys and the feud were probably fed the same disinformation that Elizabeth Hatfield Norman's pension bureau investigator obtained from the locals. That being the case, how could we take much of any of the old newspaper reports and all of the subsequent accounts written using those sources as reliable to any degree. Then, another researcher and friend of mine, Kristen Clayton, pointed out that the newspaper reporters of the day were pressed to write compelling stories. If their source material was not engaging, they had to figure out some way to make it so to make it into print. Thus, it seems pretty plain that those sources were little more than useless.


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