A feud is a prolonged but usually intermittent hostile relationship between two groups. Especially typical of tribes feuding often occurs between two descent groups or factions.

Three important characteristics:

  • Feuds involve not individuals but groups, for whom injury to one member is considered injury to all.
  • Feuds are physical. Violence, even killing, is believed to be justified for either of two reasons: revenge on enemies or glory for one's own group.
  • Feuding takes place within societies rather than between them, so feuding groups share the same cultural values, institutions, and expectations and observe and observe the same set of rules.

Feuding is found more often in tribes, than in bands, chiefdoms, or states because tribes are large enough to be divided up into special-interest groups but still small enough to be organised on the basis of kinship rather than some overarching principle of law. It is most common where formal educational or religious institutions are absent or weak, or where the government exerts little authority.

This was the case in the late nineteenth century in the isolated, mountainous area of the United States where West Virginia borders Kentucky. The region's residents-many of them farmers, hunters and illegal moonshiners by occupation- largely ignored civil authority. Their children rarely attended school, so illiteracy was high. Religion had no more influence on most people's behaviour than government or education. Nuclear families tended to be large, with a dozen or more children, and extended families enormous. Family ties were strong, but boys grew up pursuing solitary activities such as hunting and fishing. This is where the infamous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys occurred in the late 19th century.

(Ethnographer- Rice 1978)

No-one knows just what started the feud. It seems to be rooted in everyday conflicts of the time: different opinions on the Civil War, political arguments, minor theft. The first killing in 1865, followed an earlier exchange of gunfire, a couple of pig-stealing episodes and some vandalism. A brief Romeo-and-Juliet episode involving a Hatfield and a McCoy occurred, and this, as well as all the alcohol consumed by both families, made the conflict stronger. After a Hatfield was acquitted of pig-stealing charges, the McCoys refused to accept the decision of the court and resorted to "the law that might makes right". Soon afterwards, a Hatfield was murdered. In the decades that followed, the feud escalated. Members of the 2 extended families, increasingly active politically, won friends in official positions and even filled some of these positions themselves, but frequently they took matters into their own hands, ignoring the law. In the 18802, threats, fights, beatings, arson, and murder were frequent occurrences.