LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Hatfield and McCoy descendants came armed — with digging tools. Side by side, they worked together to help archaeologists unearth artifacts from one of the bloodiest sites in America's most famous feud.
The leader of the dig says they have pinpointed the place where Randolph McCoy's home was set ablaze in the woods of eastern Kentucky during a murderous New Year's attack by the Hatfield clan.
Two McCoys were gunned down in the 1888 ambush on Randolph McCoy's homestead. It marked a turning point in their cross-border war waged in Kentucky and West Virginia, led by family patriarchs William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield and Randolph "Ole Ran'l" McCoy.
The 10-day excavation focused on a back corner of the homestead. Archaeologists and volunteers — including descendants from the two families — uncovered charred timber, shell casings, nails, a pulley and fragments of glass and ceramics.
Eddie McCoy had made earlier pilgrimages there, but he said sifting through his ancestral soil was especially poignant.
"When I was digging through the mud and big chunks of burned wood started coming out, it just made it so real," he said this week. "I had to actually pause for a moment. I just could not believe I was being able to literally dig into my family's past."
A 2012 dig had given excavators some understanding of the McCoy homestead.
The team decided the actual site wasn't quite where they thought it was, said Kim McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey. She led the archaeological teams on both digs.
"We had some suspicions that we weren't quite in the right place at the first dig," McBride said. "With more work, we were able to confirm that suspicion. We think the house sat a little bit further back."
The back corner of the homestead was the area least disturbed by development, McBride said.
"Having this little area of materials from the original house in its burned state was very significant," she said.
In a region slammed by a slumping coal industry, better identifying the McCoy homestead could help lure visitors.
The property is owned by Hatfield descendant Bob Scott, who would like to build a replica cabin on the same spot.
"We're trying to preserve the heritage of the Hatfield-McCoy feud," he said. "People like to get off the beaten path sometimes."
A tour group from Georgia visited the site this week, he said. Visitors from Hawaii stopped by recently.
Pike County tourism officials promote tours of feud sites on their website.
The Hatfield and McCoy Heritage Days from Sept. 24-26 in Pikeville, Kentucky, will include a Hatfield-McCoy paintball tournament, music and local crafts. Across the border, West Virginia tourism officials also are trying to capitalize on interest in the feud.
A 2012 History Channel miniseries about the feud helped stir up new interest. And the National Geographic Channel series "Diggers" will focus on the feud and the most recent dig in an episode airing Monday night.
Many believe the feud was rooted in the Civil War, but the bitterness was perpetuated by disputes over timber rights and even a pig. The fighting claimed at least a dozen lives by 1888. The feud officially ended in 2003, when descendants of the families signed a truce.
The saga even included an ill-fated love affair between Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy.
"The characters are just so amazing and so complex and so human," said feud expert Bill Richardson, an extension associate professor for West Virginia University. "They have all those human faults — greed, jealousy and lust. Honestly, it's like a Shakespearean play but it's true."
The families now share a kinship, said Eddie McCoy, who lives in South Carolina. During the dig, he said, a Hatfield descendant apologized for what her family did to his ancestors.
His reply: "You can't be apologetic for what happened in the past and what your ancestor did, because my ancestor did bad things to their family, too."