The story of Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy has been romanticized for years, and it is indeed a tragic love story akin to something Shakespeare might have devised. However, the story as it is usually told is far from the truth, and since the miniseries Hatfields & McCoys is currently being aired on The History Channel and seems to be repeating those stories, now is as good a time as any to clear it up for those interested in the feud.
The story as it is usually told is that Johnse and Roseanna fell in love at first sight, and were kept apart by their families.
Bear in mind, I am descended from Devil Anse Hatfield. I therefore heard various feud stories directly from elderly Hatfields many times while growing up, but the story of Johnse and Roseanna was never even once relayed to me as a love story. This is not because they were painting Johnse in a better light, either – far from it, in fact.
I absolutely believe the story I have always been told, especially since it does not reflect at all well on Johnse. As far as I am aware, the truth about the relationship between Johnse and Roseanna has never before been spoken outside the Hatfield family.
So what follows is the true story of Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy, as it was told to me many times over many years, by several different elderly family members. If you prefer to believe the oft-repeated love story between Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy, however, you probably want to stop reading now.
Johnse was what my family calls “a lover, not a fighter” – in other words, he was more interested in the pursuit of girls, than in anything else. He was a huge flirt who had lots of girlfriends, and was not above lying to a girl so he could have his way with her.
Roseanna was a very good girl who had lived an extremely sheltered life, and who desperately yearned for love and affection. She was thus very easily coerced into a sexual relationship through declarations of love, and promises of marriage, by the far more worldly Johnse. When he told her that he loved her and swore he was going to marry her, though they barely knew one another, she never doubted him.
Johnse, on the other hand, was still seeing other girls the entire time he was seeing Roseanna. The truth of the matter is that Johnse did not love Roseanna, and certainly had no intention of marrying her. That had all just been a lie to get her to have sex with him. However, he continued his lies, and even expanded upon them, just so he could continue his sexual relationship with her.
That of course is a story which plays out every single day all around the world, even today. However, there were other aspects to the relationship, especially involving the families, which have also not been accurately portrayed.
The Hatfields were strongly opposed to a marriage between Johnse and Roseanna, even after she became pregnant. Though Randall had by then already disowned his daughter, Devil Anse had daughters too, so he was well aware that Randall still loved Roseanna deeply, and had only disowned her due to the shame her actions brought upon their family.
Despite how the story is usually told, the feud had nothing to do with Anse’s opposition to the marriage. At that point, Randall hated Anse with a passion, but Anse did not yet hate Randall. Quite the contrary, in fact, since he felt sympathy for his old friend, up until the murder of his brother Ellison. He believed that Randall had his spirit and mind broken by his experiences in the Civil War, but that he would eventually come to his senses and allow Anse to help him.
Anse’s opposition to the marriage therefore lay in the fact that he refused to defy (and thus disrespect) Randall with regard to his daughter. Knowing that Randall would never approve of the marriage is the reason Anse refused to give the young couple his blessing, even after Roseanna became pregnant.
So while a shotgun wedding was the norm during that era when a girl became pregnant outside marriage (meaning that the boy was forced to marry at gunpoint, whether he wanted to marry the girl or not), the Hatfields were opposed to the marriage even when society expected it, and even though they themselves would have demanded it of Johnse, if the girl had been anyone but Randall McCoy’s daughter.
There was also very strong opposition to the marriage by Anse’s wife Vicey, though for different reasons, and she had far more influence in the family than most understand. In my family, mothers are extremely doting on their sons and have extraordinarily close relationships with them, and they also rarely make demands upon their sons. When they do make a demand, it is expected that the demand will be honored. As a result the sons only rarely defy their mothers, even as adults, and especially when it comes to something as important as marriage. So the women in the Hatfield family were far more powerful and influential within the family, and far more outspoken, than history makes it appear.
Vicey was certainly no exception. She was a very strong woman, highly respected within the family and the community, and she had a very strong influence on both her husband and her sons, though she wisely used that influence judiciously (which only rendered her more powerful).
Vicey liked the young naive Roseanna, and felt protective of her. Since she knew that Johnse was continuing to see other girls behind Roseanna’s back, she believed that a marriage between them was doomed to fail. In that era, a failed marriage meant that the wife and children would suffer greatly, and could even starve without a man in the household to provide, especially without the financial support of their own family. Furthermore, given that Roseanna was a McCoy, Vicey and Anse would be severely restricted in their ability to help them in the event the marriage failed, if in fact they would be allowed to help them at all. Roseanna and her children would be completely at the mercy of the McCoy family, and thus become nothing but pawns in the sick game that her father was playing.
For those reasons, to protect the young naive Roseanna from making a terrible mistake by marrying Johnse, Vicey put her foot down about a marriage between them very early in the relationship. Everyone knew that Johnse would not defy his mother, since he did not love the girl anyway, and never had any intention of actually marrying her.
It is true that the McCoy sons hated and repeatedly tried to kill Johnse. However, they did that because common sense told them that he was having sex with their sister, and no other reason. Even today in this region, having sex with a virginal girl can result in violence from the brothers, especially if the brothers believe their sister was coerced. In this case, they were right to believe that, though of course no one in the Hatfield family (least of all Johnse) was going to admit it.
That is the reason why Devil Anse allowed the McCoy boys go free repeatedly, without even so much as a beating, even though they had repeatedly tried to kill his son. Anse understood his son, you see. He knew Johnse was doing Roseanna wrong, and that Johnse had sweet-talked Roseanna into having sex with him though he did not love her and had no intention of ever marrying her; and Anse was both ashamed and embarrassed by this behavior.
The truth is, Devil Anse would have reacted the same way as the McCoys, had it been his sister or daughter being treated like that, so he was not about to kill those boys for reacting in a way he considered understandable. Instead he told Johnse that he was not to have anything else to do with Roseanna, because the McCoy brothers would kill him for it.
Still, the reality is that Anse would not have killed the McCoy boys even if they had killed Johnse, because Johnse had provoked them into that reaction by sleeping with their sister. Anse only killed the McCoy boys when they slaughtered his brother Ellison in cold blood, without any provocation.
That reaction to the death of Ellison undoubtedly saved Johnse’s life, because his coercion of Roseanna into a sexual relationship had brought shame upon the McCoy family. The McCoy boys were therefore not going to stop until Johnse was dead
The interesting thing about that situation is that Johnse’s relationship with Roseanna – and the inability of the McCoy boys to take revenge upon Johnse, due to repeated intervention by Devil Anse – was the underlying motive for the murder of Anse’s beloved brother Ellison.
Despite the betrayals and lies by Johnse, and despite the fact that he was only using her, Roseanna did indeed love Johnse, and the opposition of her family to the relationship – as well as the opportunity to marry into the loving and wealthy Hatfield family – only made her want him more. Like naive young ladies everywhere, Roseanna equated sex with love and, thinking that her love would change his cheating ways, she fell deeply in love with Johnse despite being treated so badly by him. When her relationship with Johnse ended and just months later he married her cousin (one of the girls he had been continuously seeing behind her back all along), she pined for him endlessly, not being able to accept that he had never loved her at all.
It is said that Roseanna never got over losing Johnse and their baby, and that she died of a broken heart shortly before her 30th birthday.
Given that there were no real medical records kept back then, we are not privy to the exact cause of Roseanna McCoy’s death. The oldtimers who told me the real story said that she committed suicide, since that is what “died of a broken heart” meant back then.
No matter what actually caused her death, the love story between Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy is not a love story at all, except on her part, which only makes her death at such a young age even more tragic.