Pawpaw Tree Incident

Historical Marker #2047 marks the site of the notorious pawpaw tree incident in 1882.  

The violence of the pawpaw tree incident grew from a spark ignited by an election-day altercation between Tolbert McCoy, a son of Randolph “Old Ranel” McCoy, and Ellison Hatfield, a bother of William “Devil Anse” Hatfield. The details of the scuffle vary depending on the source, but soon two of Tolbert’s younger brothers Pharmer and Randolph Jr. jumped into the fray and turned the tide decisively against Ellison Hatfield. In the melee, Ellison was eventually stabbed more than two dozen times and shot, yet hung on to life. A quick-thinking local justice of the peace got constables to arrest the three McCoys and escort them to the nearest jail in Pikeville. The judge’s fear that failing to act quickly could lead to greater bloodshed proved well-founded, but his actions failed to divert events from that course.

William “Devil Anse” Hatfield quickly organized a posse to take the perceived injustice into his own hands. The posse caught up to the prisoners before they made it to the Pikeville jail, relieved the constables of their passengers, and took them across the Tug River to Hatfield territory in West Virginia. “Devil Anse” linked the three McCoys’ fate to that of Ellison: if Ellison survived, they might also. Ellison hung on for a day, but eventually succumbed to his injuries. Despite the pleas for mercy made by McCoy women, “Devil Anse” made good on his threat. The McCoy men were taken back across the Tug to the Kentucky side of the river, tied to pawpaw bushes, and shot dead in cold blood.

Yet, despite the violence of these events, they did not touch off a cycle of bloody retribution. Instead, the clash moved into legal channels and cooled off considerably. The state of Kentucky issued indictments for “Devil Anse” and twenty of his supporters, yet no action was taken to extradite the Hatfields for five years. In the eyes of many historians, the pawpaw incident marked the end of the first stage of the feud, which flared up anew when Kentucky finally moved to arrest the Hatfields five years later.

Historical Marker #2047 was dedicated on June 7, 2000 through the efforts of Pikeville-Pike County Tourism.

The marker reads:

Pawpaw Tree Incident
This episode is result of August 1882 election-day fight. Tolbert, a son of Randolph McCoy, exchanged heated words with Ellison Hatfield, which started a fight. Tolbert, Pharmer and Randolph McCoy Jr. stabbed Ellison to death. Later the three brothers were captured by Hatfield clan, tied to pawpaw trees, and shot in retaliation. Presented by Pikeville-Pike County Tourism.