Feudin’ — it’s all in the family

A few months back I met a new friend at a political rally, when I heard the name, I found myself just having to share with him that unfortunately, we could not be friends because we were feudin’.
The young man, of course, had no clue of what I was talking about, so I went on to share a bit about my family history and one of the many historical feuds within the family tree.
When we hear the words family feud, we think of the game show, but in many areas of the mountains the words had a much more serious and sometimes violent meaning. Folks around the world have heard of the Hatfield and McCoy Feud but what about the Swafford Tollett Feud?
I have written many a column about the idyllic happenings of my mother and grandparents in the valley below the Gravelly Spur Mountain. The now peaceful Sequatchie Valley north of Pikeville, Tennessee was the scene that a feud carried on from the Civil War until the 1890s and by some accounts truly did not completely end until the Great Depression.
Many years ago, I met a distant cousin, the late cousin Thomas V. Swafford who had written a book entitled “The Swafford-Tollett Feud.” I learned so much from he and his book shooting straight about the good and the bad, the positive and the negatives of more than 50 years of ill will, court battles, moonshining, gun fights, beatings, burnings and intimidation.
Swafford said in 2007 that many might not wish the stories told.
“A few people may say this book should have not been written,” he said. “They may say it opens old wounds and even that should be swept under the rug and hidden from future generations.”
Several in the previous generation probably preferred to let the tales die in the dust and be washed away by time. That is understandable, many of us prefer to gloss over the misdeeds of those behind us and polish the tarnished memories away.
At the root of the feud is often what we see in the movies and on television, money, revenge, property rights, and even a difference in beliefs. Swafford’s research points many of the early differences to one family aligning with the Confederacy and the other aligning with the Union. What makes it more difficult is the families were intermarried so cousins were feuding with cousins.
Some tales credit the beginning of the feud to be the 1863 murder of John Tollett, Jr., 72, who was tortured and killed by raiders supporting the North during the Civil War of which Aaron Swafford was believed to be amongst. Tollett was said to have a large amount of gold stored away and the raiders tried to make him give it up.
From this one Civil War period murder came decades of fighting.
I could tell you about the big election shoot out led by the Tolletts against the Swaffords and how many people were killed and injured or the logging incident lead by the Swaffords against the Tolletts.
There were many others featured in the book that show the violence moving from one generation to another and affecting other valley families and the law as it begins to take a more active role in trying to control some of the unruly behavior of its participants or their descendants right up into the Great Depression.
Of course, feuding killing wasn’t like regular murder in those days. Swafford quoted one lawyer’s comment that: we take into account whether the victim deserved killing, when he was asked why so many murders go unpunished.
It apparently was very difficult to yield a guilty verdict when the death occurred between two well-known feuding families.
Swafford wrote back then that “I am happy to report today the Tolletts and Swaffords are not only neighbors they are truly friends,” he said.
Personally, I was glad to hear this from my distant cousin. You see I am neither a Tollett nor a Swafford descendant, but I am cousins with both families with our family leaning towards the Tollett side in the feud as best I can tell. Those old suspicions and distrust flowed so deeply into the family beliefs, even I knew of them as a boy and was cautioned as a man to be cautious of dealings with the other family. I really never understood exactly why until I read his book because the stories were kept quiet. I was glad to bury the old feud in my mind by learning more but it never hurts to remind folks that it happened, so we can learn not to repeat the old mistakes.  I am pleased to say, my new friend and I didn’t restart it either.
Besides, I only have one bullet in my shirt pocket left from “In the Heat of the Night,” no need to waste it a feudin’ — you never know when Bubba might need a hand again.