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Prelude to Feud: Digging in past unearths golden nuggets

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Ellis County Press
Research for a documentary series on the Hatfield-McCoy feud, soon to begin in the Ellis County Press, unearthed countless nuggets of charming Americana, quaint humor and bizarre facts.

Such as the story of a frontier clergyman who preached his own funeral:

More than two centuries have elapsed since a frontier hard-shell Baptist preacher known as Elder Abner Vance lived with his family on Clinch River near Abingdon, Va. Curiously, Vance's location on the river is known to this day as Horton's Ford, and therein lies a tragic, chilling story that will touch your heart.

A frontier doctor by the name of Horton eloped with the comely daughter of Preacher Vance, but reneged on his promise of marriage after indulging himself with the love- smitten girl.

Dr. Horton took her to the Vance residence and dumped her near the door, then with a certain cockiness shouted coarse insults at her and her family.

The cutting sting of Horton's words was more than Vance could bear. …

The upcoming Hatfield-McCoy series came about in great part from public demand. Charles Hatfield, publisher of the Ellis County Press, is a direct descendent of the feuding Hatfield clan, and is often requested to share details regarding the famous vendetta.

The public's fascination with the story of the feud persists even into this new century.

… In the grip of emotion, Preacher Vance took down his rifle from a rack above the door while Horton galloped away.

Horton made the mistake of stopping to water his horse in the river, perhaps some 175 yards away. Frontiersmen could shoot as accurately as they could spit, and Vance put a chunk of lead into Dr. Horton, which killed him outright. Unfortunately, it struck him in the back of the head.

Clinch River, the scene of many a baptism, was now stained with the mortal blood of a man killed by the flock's own pastor. As soon as the act was done, remorse and uncertainty came over family members. At their urging, Preacher Vance made a decision to leave. …

Before the Hatfield-McCoy feud series is completed, Charles Hatfield will share inside knowledge regarding the true cause of the feud, as passed down through generations of the Hatfield family.

This delicate information was purposely kept quiet through the years, and you are not likely to find it on the Internet or in any text.

... Traveling alone, Preacher Vance made his way to the trackless borderlands between Kentucky and present day West Virginia. He remained there several years as a fugitive in the dark wooded hills above the valley of the Tug River.

While hiding from Virginia law, he made substantial land purchases throughout the area on both sides of the Tug River. But after several years, Vance tired of the fugitive's life and returned home, hoping he could face his accusers in court and explain his reason for killing Dr. Horton.

Instead, Vance was jailed and charged with murder. A resentful jury convicted him because he shot Horton from behind. He was sentenced to be hanged. …

The story of the feud is a complex one that requires a good measure of ink to be told properly. A simple account of the feud is dramatic enough, but the stories behind the story are of great value, providing both entertainment and knowledge.

Any student looking into the background of the feudists would learn much about the settlement of America and the social forces that shaped the mind set of early Americans. These influences began long ago across the Atlantic, yet weigh heavily on our lives even today.

… A large emotional crowd gathered on the day of execution, and many wept openly. Elder Abner Vance, who for so many years had preached The Word and forewarned countless sinners, conducted his own funeral, complete with sermon and prayer.

Then he was hung.

Before his death, Vance divided his substantial Tug River holdings with his children. Years later, his many descendants populated those properties.

His granddaughter, Nancy Vance, became the mother of 'Devil Anse' Hatfield, who would become the Hatfield family patriarch and a central figure in the feud.

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