Them's Fightin’ Words: Researching Feuds of the Appalachian South

Sneedville, Hancock County, Tennessee
Image from Tennessee State Library and Archives
I confess that myth busting family narratives is one of my favorite things to do. This round, we’ll be exploring the Greene-Jones feud of Hancock County, Tennessee.

I descend from a long line of Greenes native to east Tennessee. When I recently became aware of a feud that gripped Hancock County and involved the Greene family, I had to know more about it.

Instantly my cursory Google searches took me to the message boards—my old frenemy Rootsweb, as well as For better or worse, most web searches take us to these sites first. And I want to make it clear that I don’t have a problem with checking RootsWeb for ideas of things to research. It can be a really helpful way to get started. What I have a problem with is when people copy things from RootsWeb without following up with more research. They take someone else’s word as gospel, not realizing that some of this information has never been verified.

What is a feud?

Feuds are family conflicts which create a backdrop for the post-Civil War South. Reports of such conflicts were common among many states during this time period, and the Appalachian regions of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee were no exception. Sometimes conflicts in regions outside of the Appalachian South found their beginnings in others states. The Greene-Jones feud was such as example, as members of the Greene family moved to Texas to escape incrimination or incarceration. Ultimately, arrest and violence ended up following many key players regardless of where they went.

Because feuds are inseparable from embellished folklore and hearsay, I won’t attempt to determine the cause of the Greene-Jones feud. Revenge plots for Civil War actions, violent reactions to Reconstruction policies, hogs overturning whiskey stills, men insulting each other’s wives—the problem with these stories is that there is no such thing as a reliable primary source. Even if the memory of a person who fought in the feud was recorded, it’s the testimony of an unreliable narrator at best. Determining motives for an entire movement of illegal, unjustifiable violence does not help us to establish historical fact.

What we can do as family historians is nail down the causes and effects of events, and root out the myths as they've been left behind for us in anecdotes and written records. These are my two primary focuses today.

Step One: Outline Events that can be Proven

I've read people calling the Greene-Jones feud the second largest feud in American history, second only to the Hatfield-McCoy feud. If that is true, there should be plenty of information to be had in the newspapers about it. Using the Chronicling America database and my public library’s access to Newspaper Archive, I began constructing a timeline of the events of the feud.

Step Two: Slaughter Myths

Don't move, Myths. This won't hurt a bit....
After glancing through the folklore as recorded on RootsWeb, Ancestry Member Trees, and, I’ve made a list of claims I want to explore and verify. With the sources in my timeline, the problems with some of these will become readily apparent. By comparing the folklore with what I've been able to establish as objective fact, many times the fiction tends to fall apart on its own. Whatever is left tends to be a much closer approximation to the truth.
  • The feud was of extended duration, up to 25 or 30 years.
From February 12, 1888, with the first death of the feud, to the suicide of Richard Greene is a period of 14 years.
  • Reported incident of a Greene participant who shot his wife, then killed himself
This piece of folklore refers to Richard Greene, one of the senior-most proponents of the feud on the Greene side.
  • Robert Greene fled to Sanger, Texas and is buried there.
This Find a Grave entry, complete with photo, should answer this question
  • Reported instance of the death of a small boy in one of the skirmishes
  • The boy was 14 year old Anderson Greene who died when shots were fired upon Hamp Greene’s house. He was killed while he was hiding under a bed.
The young child who was killed was a 5 year old, whose gender was not revealed in the evidence I found. He was killed in an attack on Hampton Greene's house, which took place some time before July 6, 1888. The child was not named. 

I did find an account that an Anderson Greene was killed in a skirmish after Western Gilbert's trial, which took place in late 1889. While Anderson Greene may have been a 14 year old boy, he did not die hiding under a bed in Hamp Greene's house. 
  • Governor Taylor enacted martial law in order to regain control over the feud. He made use of the Tennessee State Militia to accomplish this purpose.
This is the most common piece of folklore about this feud I've come across, and it simply is not true. First of all, martial law is unconstitutional in the state of Tennessee. Article 1, section 25 forbids the use of martial law by any government official--including the Governor.  Article 3, section 5 also expressly limits control of the state militia to the General Assembly, not the Governor. If the militia were to be activated and sent to Hancock County to restore order, it would be by majority vote of the General Assembly. Any action on the Governor's part to contradict these limitations would be impeachable offenses.

In which case there should be evidence of public outcry, which I also didn't find.

The activities of the Tennessee legislature are preserved in records called Acts of the State of Tennessee. They are publicly available and searchable on the Internet Archive and Google Books. Having researched the Greene-Jones feud extensively in newspapers, the time when such intervention from the militia would have been necessary was between 1888 and 1891. I checked the Acts books for 1887, 1889, 1890, and 1891 and searched for any mention of feuds, the activation of the Militia, and Hancock County. There was no record in legislative records of the Militia being sent to Hancock County during the feud. While I could be concerned that I could not find an 1888 Acts book to search, the fact that I also found no mention of the Militia being activated in any newspapers satisfied my mind on the question.

If anyone has actual evidence that the Militia was called to Hancock County, I invite them to make it known. Because all of the places where evidence of such action should be, it is conspicuously absent.
  • Sheriff Greene brought the suspicion of the Governor when he ordered so many firearms for his family that they arrived in Rogersville on a boxcar.
I couldn't find any evidence to substantiate a "boxcar" of weapons. While many articles stated that one or the other side was ordering more weapons, never was there a number or quantity given. Anyone who can substantiate this story is also invited to do so.

Step Three: Get Lucky

In addition to getting lucky that my ancestors did not die in the feud, I realize that the feud itself comes with a strange kind of luck. Hancock County has some of the most severe record loss I've ever encountered. Their courthouse had not one, but TWO fires. And given that this feud straddled the early 1890s--a period of time in which most other researchers are completely out of luck--the Greenes managed to make themselves unforgettable. Their names are in newspapers all over the country for a period of fifteen years. I could probably make it a research project to discover all of the newspapers that covered this feud, and I would never finish it. My efforts over the past few days, in the dozens of newspapers I've found, probably don't begin to scratch the surface.

Luck is the bulletproof vest that saved my ancestors from losing their lives to this feud. Luck is the reason I'm here and able to research their lives today. And luck, more than anything else, is the reason I succeed at it. And if not luck, then definitely providence.

My example from this round of research is the only thing of my ancestors' that I've found from researching this feud.

Henry Lee Greene has been a dead end in my tree for years. Any birth record that existed for him was lost in one of the Hancock County Courthouse fires. I've been trying for years to find, and prove, who Henry's parents are. Thanks to the new Ancestor Discoveries from AncestryDNA, I had a clue that William Trent Greene might be his father. But if the only record I have to go on is the census and a glorified Member Tree hint, how could I be sure? How was I ever going to get past this obstacle?

Virginia Chronicle, digital images, Library of Virginia, ( : accessed 26 April 2015), Chapter 154, County boundary change for William T. Greene, citing Albert B. Tavel, Acts of the State of Tennessee (Nashville: Printer of the State, 1891) p. 329.

William Trent Greene petitioned for a county boundary change, so his land could be in Hancock County with the rest of his family. This was probably one of very few transactions of which the record would not have been kept in the Hancock County courthouse. And only because I was searching for government intervention in "Hancock County" in the 1891 Acts book did I discover this. Without this research project, I'm more than fairly confident that I never would have found this in any other combination of circumstances. And while the record does not state directly that Henry Lee Green is the son of William Trent Greene, it corresponds harmoniously with what evidence I do have in every point. It provides the second witness to their relationship that I desired.

Researching feuds requires a level of impartiality, thoroughness, and curiosity that is bound to make us better researchers. By taking the time to fact check, your search will take you to new sets of records that may just be what you've needed all along.

As a genealogist, the only wrong answer is to give up on the search.