By Bill Archer
Bluefield Daily Telegraph staff
BLUEFIELD — Father Russell Hatfield, rector of the Tazewell County, Va., cluster of parishes of Episcopal Churches, is a man of God and a direct descendant of one of the Hatfields who was killed during the early years of the famous Hatfield-McCoy Feud.
Russ Hatfield’s great grandfather, Valentine “Wall” Hatfield, older brother of William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, was arrested in 1888 and charged — along with six other Hatfield family members — with the murder of Allifair McCoy who was killed when she attempted to flee from Randall McCoy’s cabin that was set on fire by the Hatfields.
“My great grandfather was a peaceful man,” Russ Hatfield said. “He knew he didn’t have anything to do with the events that led the Kentucky posse to issue all of those arrest warrants for other family members. My great grandfather gave himself up. He was innocent, but they found him guilty.
“My grandfather, Allen Hatfield, was 97 years old when he died in 1975, and I knew him well,” Russ Hatfield said. “He never talked about the feud, but he remembered the day that they took his father, ‘Wall’ Hatfield away. He was about 8 years old when that happened.”
Hatfield said the family was never told what happened to his great grandfather. “We were told that he was in prison for a couple of years and that he died of a broken heart because of the love he had for West Virginia and his home in the mountains,” Russ Hatfield said. “Some years later, my Aunt Erma — dad’s sister — went to the Kentucky State Prison in Frankfort, Ky., to find out when he died and where he was buried.
“When she got there, a man told her the records were sealed and she couldn’t look at them,” Hatfield said. “Then the man told her to come back the next day. When she came back, he told her that a couple of months after he was put in prison, he was put in a cell with McCoy family members and McCoy sympathizers and they killed him. We never knew where he was buried.”
According to Russ Hatfield, Valentine Hatfield was a justice of the peace and was highly respected in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. “A lot of the Hatfields were politically active,” Russ Hatfield said. “One of the movies that came out several years ago about Rosanne McCoy, portrayed the McCoys as being ignorant hillbillies and the Hatfields as being sophisticated. That was not an accurate portrayal.
“My great grandfather was educated and could read and write, but they weren’t more sophisticated than the McCoys,” he said. “They were active in politics.”
Russell Hatfield grew up on Beech Creek Road where his grandfather operated a store. He was 12 or 13 years old when the family moved to Tazewell, Va., where his father, Major Hatfield, got a job as station master at the North Tazewell station on the (then) Norfolk & Western Railway’s Clinch Valley line.
“One thing that was interesting about that job that my father was the station master and his second cousin, Ted Hatfield, was the agent for Railway Express. He used to haul things to Tazewell where my father worked.” Teddy Hatfield was a grandson of Ellison Hatfield, another brother of Devil Anse Hatfield. Ellison was killed on a Kentucky election day in 1882. His death prompted Devil Anse to seek out the three McCoys who were believed to be responsible and execute them.
“I grew up with McCoys,” Russ Hatfield said. “My first recollection that there was a feud was when I went to junior high school.”
Russ Hatfield graduated from Tazewell High School in 1962, and earned his undergraduate degree from Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. He accepted a position as band director at Tazewell High School, joined the Episcopal Church and served as a sacramentalist until 1998 when he was ordained as a priest. Since that time, he has served as rector of the four churches of the Tazewell County cluster of Episcopal Churches.
“An interesting thing happened to my wife and I a few years ago when we went to the Hatfield-McCoy Dinner Theater at Pigeon Forge,” he said. “We had reservations and they knew I was a Hatfield, but they seated me in the McCoy section. I raised a little fuss about it, but we still enjoyed the show. It was quite entertaining.”
Hatfield said that he got invited to return to the dinner theater, and he and his wife went again. This time, they were greeted at the door. He said that after the show, a man brought him to meet one of the actors associated with the show.
“He gave me a video of the show and asked for my autograph,” Hatfield said. “After I signed my autograph, I looked up and there were 35 people waiting in line to get my autograph. It’s a good ice breaker.”
Hatfield said that having the Hatfield-McCoy ATV system is a good thing. “The trail is up in Mingo and Logan counties and that’s where most of the Hatfields and McCoys lived,” he said. Hatfield said that the feud has been sensationalized through the years. “I saw a program on TV, ‘You Bet Your Life’ with Groucho Marx and a man there — Guy Hatfield — claimed to be an expert on the feud. He said it lasted 100 years and that 300 people were killed.
“There’s always been some confusion with the coal miners strike at Matewan in 1920 because of Sid Hatfield, but that didn’t have anything to do with the feud,” Hatfield said. “The feud lasted about eight to 10 years and 10 or 12 people were killed. There has been some sensationalism through the years.
“I know lots of McCoys and they’re my friends,” Hatfield said. “There is even a McCoy family that worships with us at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Bluefield, Va.”
Hatfield said that he has attended family reunions on Beech Creek, but said he doesn’t regularly attend the reunions in Matewan. With four churches to serve, he stays pretty busy.