4 Bloody Family Feuds in American History

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If you have a disagreement with your neighbor today, you might head to small-claims court to settle the dispute. But in rural parts of 19th-century America, such disagreements were often solved with the business end of a gun. Here are four bloody family feuds that could have used some mediation.

1. Grahams–Tewksburys: The Pleasant Valley War

Before their feud started in the 1880s, the Grahams and Tewksburys, both livestock ranchers in Pleasant Valley, Arizona, were actually friends and business partners. Granted, their business was stealing cattle from another rancher. So neither family was a pillar of the community from the start. Their falling out occurred around 1882, probably over the stolen cattle, though the over-grazing of land by the Tewksburys' sheep was also a point of contention. At the time, the feud resulted in the occasional fistfight or bout of name-calling, but little more.

Things got more violent in February 1887, when Thomas Graham shot a Tewksbury hired hand who had been herding sheep on contested grazing land. In retaliation, Graham was shot by Ed Tewksbury, who immediately went on the lam. Shortly after, the Grahams and their sympathizers laid siege to the Tewksbury cabin, engaging in a shootout that lasted for hours. The only cease fire was granted to Mrs. Tewksbury—so she could dig shallow graves for her son, John, and his friend, William Jacobs, who had been killed in the melee.

Over the next few years, between 20 and 50 men from both sides were killed, often by bands of masked men, which made arrests a rarity. However, the feud finally came to an end in 1892, when Tom Graham, Jr., the last surviving member of his family, was shot and killed in Tempe by the fugitive Ed Tewksbury, the last of his clan. Tewksbury was tried and convicted, but due to a legal technicality, his case was dismissed in 1895. Tewksbury died of natural causes in 1904 as the sole survivor of The Pleasant Valley War.

It wasn’t just the two families that were affected by the feud. For many years before the War started, Arizona had been vying for statehood. But since the feud remained unresolved for so long, many legislators in Washington saw it as proof that Arizona was not yet civilized enough to be a part of the Union. Some historians believe the War might have set back Arizona statehood for decades.

2. Turks-Joneses: The Slicker War of the Ozarks

The feud between the Turks and the Joneses, both of Benton County, Missouri, in the Ozark Mountain region, started like so many others at the time – on Election Day. Most men were given the day off from work so they could visit the polls, which meant they also spent a lot of time in the local saloon after casting their votes. A combination of whiskey and politics inevitably resulted in fistfights, such as the one in 1840 when Andy Jones and Jim Turk got into a scuffle that was soon joined by other members of their clans.

Later, a bounty hunter came into the region looking for a relative of the Joneses named James Morton. The County Sheriff wasn’t willing to help, but the Turks saw an opportunity to get back at their rivals, so they nabbed Morton and turned him over. Because of their actions, patriarch Hiram Turk was arrested for kidnapping, but the charges were later dropped. Feeling they’d been wronged, the Jones family got their revenge when Andy Jones allegedly shot and killed Hiram on July 17, 1841. Jones went to trial, but he was acquitted.

Feeling the justice system had failed them, the Turks publicly announced their intention to form a vigilante group to rid the area of counterfeiters, robbers, and murderers. Under the guise of public welfare, they rounded up people from the community, and went after these unwanted elements, which naturally included their enemies, the Joneses and their allies.

The group soon earned the nickname “Slickers,” based upon their usual mode of punishment, called “slicking”, which involved tying a person to a tree and whipping them with a hickory switch. In retaliation, the Joneses started “The Anti-Slickers,” who guarded their allies, and occasionally went after Slickers as well. The battle raged until the Slickers mistakenly went after an innocent farmer and nearly killed him, after which the Missouri government charged 38 of the Slickers with the crime. The arrests diminished the Slicker numbers significantly and led to the feud dissolving over the next few years.

Unfortunately, the Slickers' form of justice caught on with the people of Missouri, as more Slicker groups sprang up that had nothing to do with the Turk-Jones feud. Much like the Turks' Slickers, these groups were easily influenced by leaders with less-than-honest intentions, so many innocent people were accused, beaten, and even killed for crimes they did not commit.

3. The Lee-Peacock Feud

In August 1861, Bob Lee joined the Ninth Texas Cavalry of the Confederate Army, leaving behind his family in northeast Texas. While he was away, the Union League, a civil group created to promote loyalty to the Union and to protect blacks and Union sympathizers, set up a local chapter headed by Lewis Peacock. After the War, Lee returned home to find the League using their political weight to force the area to adopt what the community saw as unfair Reconstruction initiatives. Many of Lee's neighbors looked to him—a former Confederate—as the leader in the push back against this new form of Northern oppression.

To quash his new rival, Peacock rounded up his men and arrested Lee on trumped up charges of war crimes. Knowing he would be exonerated in court, Lee and his brother, who acted as a chaperone, went peacefully. But instead of taking Lee to the authorities, Peacock's men took the brothers into the wilderness and robbed them. They also forced both Lee brothers to sign a $2000 promissory note before setting them free. Alive but angry, Lee and his brother sued the leaders of the Union League and won. But instead of settling the matter, the 1867 judgment only escalated the bitterness between the two sides. When a relative of Peacock's later shot and wounded Lee, the first blood had been spilled in what would become a small-scale Civil War in Texas.

In the summer of 1868, after a year of ambushes and shootouts that resulted in the death of about 50 men, Peacock requested help from the Federal Government. Peacock's political allies arranged for a $1000 reward to be posted for Bob Lee—Dead or Alive. However, Lee had friends and family who helped him move safely about the countryside, allowing him to fight for another year before the Fourth United States Cavalry was sent in to settle the feud. With the pressure on, Lee decided to run to Mexico, but was shot and killed en route by the military. Lee's plan was betrayed by a former supporter, Henry Boren, who met his maker the next day at the hands of his own nephew, who saw his uncle as a traitor.

Even though Lee was dead, the battle wasn't over. His men scattered, but they continued to come back into the area for years to take shots at Peacock and his men. In fact, it was June 1871 before Lee sympathizers killed Peacock, finally ending the feud once and for all.

4. The Hatfields and The McCoys

While the most famous family feud, between the McCoys of Kentucky and the Hatfields of West Virginia, dates back to 1865, the feud's most deadly era began on Election Day in 1882. Three McCoy men killed Ellison Hatfield, stabbing him 26 times before finishing him off with a bullet to the chest. The next day, as the three young men were escorted to Pikeville, Kentucky, for arraignment, the Hatfield clan intercepted them, tied them up, and shot them in cold blood.

Twenty arrest warrants were issued for Hatfields, but no law enforcement bothered to serve them. Oddly, the McCoys didn’t seek immediate revenge, as it was understood that, in terms of social justice, the three boys got what they deserved. Still, animosity ran high, and minor skirmishes occurred in the ensuing years, showing that the feud was quiet, but not dead.

However, when business investors balked at putting money into a community that had a reputation for vendetta violence, the government decided it was time to step in. The State of Kentucky began serving the 20 outstanding Hatfield warrants, arresting two men within a matter of weeks. In order to stop the arrests, a small faction of the Hatfields decided to kill the head of the opposing family, Old Ranel McCoy, so that he couldn't testify in court against them.

So, early on the morning of January 1, 1888, nine members of the Hatfields set fire to Ranel McCoy’s cabin. As he and his family fled the flames, shots rang out, killing two adult McCoy children. When Mrs. McCoy ran to check on them, she was severely beaten, but survived. The Hatfields’ target, Ranel, escaped harm entirely by hiding in a pigpen. The attack was condemned by most members of the Hatfield clan, and, although there were two more deaths and the occasional scuffles for years to come, the majority of the feud fighters had decided that enough was enough.

In all, around a dozen people died during the feud. However, the two families eventually put aside their differences and now see their shared family history with a sense of humor. For example, in 1979, both clans made a week-long appearance on the nightly gameshow, Family Feud, where both sides took shots at each other with pistols loaded with blanks. In this feud, the McCoys were declared the winners, three games out of five.

In 2000, the clans shared the first of what has become an annual joint family reunion, now called the Hatfield and McCoy Reunion Festival, in a weekend full of events that take place in both Kentucky and West Virginia.

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August 5, 2011 - 6:39am
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