When the Hatfields and McCoys blasted back into the public consciousness with a wildly popular television miniseries last month, lots of people in the Bluegrass were left wondering: "Could I be related to a famous feuder?"
If you have roots in Pike County, the answer is likely "yes."
Both patriarchs of the feud, which ran from about 1865 to 1891, had large families: "Devil" Anse Hatfield of West Virginia had 13 children, and Randolph McCoy of Pike County had 16. Many of those went on to continue the mountain tradition of having sizable broods. So, the family trees have many, many branches.
"If you are from there and your family has been there for a while, you are probably related in some way to just about everybody there," said Letha Berry, a self-taught historian who coordinates a Kentucky genealogy Web site dedicated to Pike County. "The area was so isolated, there is always a way to find some type of connection." Berry, who has loose ties to the McCoy clan, found that hard to believe when she was a child growing up in Pike County.
"My mom used to say, 'That's your cousin, that's your cousin" and I used to think there is no way," Berry said.
Those country cousins were scattered as the Depression made the always difficult life in the Appalachian Mountains untenable. Many of those related to the original feuders, both from Kentucky and West Virginia, migrated out of the area and sometimes out of the state, said Louise T. Jones, special-collections and library director at the Kentucky Historical Society.
But, she said, that link to ancestors in the region remained strong and "was a definite point of pride that, 'yes, that is where my people come from.' "
Berry, 63, has lived in Harrodsburg for 30 years, but says "Pike County is home, it will always be home."
That sense of pride in place has meant that families have passed down stories from generations, especially if it involves a roguish figure who was part of the infamous feud.
Shortly after the miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys, began to air on the History channel, Berry was contacted by a man from Canada who said his family's oral history included a story about a George McCoy who fled north after a fatal fight at a dance. He wanted to know whether George was related to the fabled feuding McCoys. Berry is trying to help him conduct his research.
Knowing family lore is a plus as a starting point for doing genealogical research, said Joseph Shumway, a professional genealogist with Ancestry.com.
Plenty of stories have surely circulated this weekend as the Hatfields and McCoys gathered for a three-day reunion that spans Kentucky and West Virginia and features genealogy sessions, a re-enactment of the Johnse Hatfield-Rosanna McCoy romance, tours of feud sites and a show of antiques from the feud era. It all ends Sunday with a multifamily potluck.
As good as some of those tales may be, Shumway said, "most of the time, those family stories don't pan out exactly as they have been handed down."
It is often possible to verify family stories — and a family tree — but the region's history of isolation, the poor record-keeping of the time, limited literacy and even the status of women in society can complicate matters.
Lisa Alther, author of the recent Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys — The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance, points out in her book that little is known about most of the daughters of both Hatfield and McCoy beyond records of their births.
As was custom at the time, Jones said, many women became known just by their husband's name — Mrs. John Smith, for example — obscuring their family history.
Often, Shumway said, the only scant information comes from wills in which a woman was mentioned by her husband or father.
Berry said the vast, mountainous terrain meant some marriages may have been legitimized, but the records were never filed because that meant a long trip to the county seat.
Some records just weren't kept. Kentucky, for example, started keeping standardized birth records only in 1911, Jones said.
Then, tracing the roots of those who lived in the Tug Fork region, an epicenter of the feud, is complicated by a regional tradition of naming relatives after honored members of the family.
One more factor, even when records are available, is spelling. A single family name might show up with various spellings on a census document, for example. Berry herself searched for years to find her grandmother's death certificate under her last name, Cantrell, only to find it by happenstance filed in Frankfort under "Contrell."
Start with yourself
Berry, Jones and Shumway agree the place to start your own research is with the family you know best.
"Start with yourself and move backward in time," Shumway said.
Family stories can serve as a jumping-off point but will need to be backed up by research, Berry said.
"It's a little like being a private investigator. You are just trying to dig out the facts, like they used to say in Dragnet: 'Just the facts, ma'am,'" Berry said.
Jones said people may need to seek out family-specific documentation. For example, family graveyards can be a good source of information. Gravestones generally have birth and death years and often the names of other close family members.
But, she said, while volunteers have photographed and cataloged the tombstones in many parts of the state, it might take a field trip to yield the particular bit of information to secure a branch on the family tree. Some smaller private plots that might have once yielded information have been long forgotten.
A family Bible might also contain important information, along with family pictures where the subjects are identified. Plus, it never hurts to ask older relatives about stories they might not have shared.
Shumway said there is often a pattern in situations where an ancestor's behavior — say feuding — may have been disavowed by immediate kin. Usually, he said, two generations later it becomes fascinating. "There is an element of mystery to it," he said.
There is a thrill in finding an unknown connection or lost relative, Shumway said. But you must double-check sources and apply some common sense. For example, it wouldn't make a great deal of sense if you think you find an ancestor born in one end of the state and then married at the opposite end, he said.
Even with a family history as well known and well documented as the Hatfields and McCoys, there may be some unknown relatives, or stories, still to be discovered, Jones said.
"Genealogy is wonderful in that it will never be done," she said. "You won't ever have every piece of paper for every family member. There is always a curve."
Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.