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'Hatfields and McCoys': Is History Channel miniseries fact or fiction?

The family feud between the Hatfields and McCoys is brought to life in a new History Channel series. But history and folk legend blur as the show follows the lead of cable TV's more mature fare.

By Staff writer / May 29, 2012

History Channel's 'Hatfields and McCoys' producer Darrell Fetty makes his way down the red carpet during the premiere event on Thursday at the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center in Huntington W.Va.

Mark Webb/The Herald-Dispatch/AP


Los Angeles

There is something about portraying grimy men shooting one another in the woods that speaks to many actors of a certain, let’s say, experience.

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The History Channel’s “Hatfields and McCoys,” a six-hour miniseries about the 19th-century folk legend, airing on the basic cable channel through Wednesday night, is chock full of some of Hollywood’s top frontier-lovin’ hombres. Star Kevin Costner won an Oscar for his Civil-War-era “Dances with Wolves,” and Powers Booth may have set a high-water mark for portraying gritty outlaw life in HBO’s "Deadwood.”

But this is not a feature film or even HBO. This is the History Channel debuting its first scripted series, coming out of the gate with the somewhat lofty goal of illuminating some of history’s lesser-known corners. While most Americans may know the reference to the 19th-century Appalachian blood feud, few know more than the gun-toting, cartoon cowboy characters who shoot at each other and miss.

And so, this largely unfamiliar but profoundly foul-mouthed, violent depiction of frontier justice and family revenge may be just the ticket for a channel trying to shed its somewhat stuffy legacy, says Josh McMullen, chairman of the Government, History, and Criminal Justice Department at Regent University's School of Undergraduate Studies.

“The History Channel’s 'Hatfields and McCoys' is in keeping with the station's recent trajectory towards popular culture rather than rich, historical analysis,” he says via e-mail, adding that much of the programming on the channel – such as “American Pickersand “Pawn Stars" – is “more akin to reality television than it is to a historical documentary.”

These shows focus on Americana as much as they do on American history, notes Professor McMullen. The History Channel’s "Hatfields and McCoys" continues the theme, as it has been a long-standing American folk legend, he adds.

As with any program trying to separate the threads of a little-documented historical period, he says, the difficulty is separating fact from fiction when discussing the famous feud. One major problem anyone faces in attempting to explore history’s overlooked, disenfranchised, or maligned is that often these are individuals with little desire – or little capacity – to tell their own stories. “These were not regions of the country where people were keeping careful track of their own stories,” says Thomas Flagel, a historian at Columbia State Community College in Franklin, Tenn., and author of “The History Buff’s guide to the Civil War.”


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