Using court records, public documents, official correspondence, and other documentary evident, Otis K. Rice presents an account that frees, as much as possible, fact from fiction, event from legend. He weighs the evidence carefully, avoiding the partisanship and the attitude of condescension and condemnation that have characterized many of the writings concerning the feud.
He sets the feud in the social, political, economic, and cultural context of eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By examining the legacy of the Civil War, the weakness of institutions such as the church and education system, the exaggerated importance of family, the impotence of the law, and the isolation of the mountain folk, Rice gives new meaning to the origins and progress of the feud. These conditions help explain why the Hatfield and McCoy families, which have produced so many fine citizens, could engage in such a bitter and prolonged vendetta
Through an intensive study of the social, economic, and political developments in pioneer West Virginia, Rice shows that during the period 1730--1830 some of the most significant features of West Virginia life and thought were established. There also appeared evidences of arrested development, which contrasted sharply with the expansiveness, ebullience, and optimism commonly associated with the American frontier. In this period customs, manners, and folkways associated with the conquest of the wilderness to root and became characteristic of the mountainous region well into the twentieth century. During this pioneer period, problems also took root that continue to be associated with the region, such as poverty, poor infrastructure, lack of economic development, and problematic education.
Since the West Virginia frontier played an important role in the westward thrust of migration through the Alleghenies, Rice also provides some account of the role of West Virginia in the French and Indian War, eighteenth-century land speculations, the Revolutionary War, and national events after the establishment of the federal government in 1789.
Rice traces the development of Kentucky through the end of the Revolutionary War. He deals with four major themes: the great imperial rivalry between England and France in the mid-eighteenth century for control of the Ohio Valley; the struggle of white settlers to possess lands claimed by the Indians and the liquidation of Indian rights through treaties and bloody conflicts; the importance of the land, the role of the speculator, and the progress of settlement; the conquest of a wilderness bountiful in its riches but exacting in its demands and the planting of political, social, and cultural institutions. Included are maps that show the changing boundaries of Kentucky as it moved toward statehood.