Sunday, November 11, 2012

Not Quite Hatfields and McCoys, But Still Pretty Bloody

The New York Times wrote about the Turner-Howard feud in 1889.
Well, I certainly didn't expect to uncover a new piece of family history while reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, but that's exactly what just happened. Outliers is Gladwell's attempt to explain what makes people successful. As the back cover puts it, "we should look at the world that surrounds the successful—their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing." (I'm just halfway through the book, and it's really fascinating. I'd recommend it.)

To illustrate how centuries-old cultural traits shape people to this day, Gladwell talks about one of my favorite subjects, the Scotch-Irish immigrants whose proud, violent culture was shaped by their experience on the border of England and Scotland. A good half of my ancestry is Scotch-Irish, and some of the stories I've told on this blog reflect that culture of feuding hill-country clans. (Remember how Silas Jones fled Arkansas? The story is here, here, and here.) Gladwell uses as an example a feud between the Howard and Turner families in Harlan County, Kentucky, after the Civil War.

The feud he recounts—between the descendants of William Turner and those of Samuel Howard—went on for years and cost at least a dozen lives. (One account is here; you can read Gladwell's summary on Google Books here.) It started with a dispute over a poker game and escalated with each successive insult to Scotch-Irish honor. At one point, the governor sent troops to the area to protect the courthouse in the midst of the feud, and in 1889, the New York Times published an article about the feud, calling it "a faction war that has cost many lives and still disgraces the state of Kentucky." The main characters on the Turner side were grandsons of the patriarch William Turner: Will, George, and "Devil Jim." As Gladwell puts it succinctly, "These were not pleasant people."

When I saw the name Turner and Harlan County, though, I had to reach for my family history files. And sure enough, the same William Turner described as the patriarch of the feuding family was an ancestor. Born in 1770 in Virginia, William married Susannah Bailey and moved to Harlan County, where he owned a tavern and two general stores. Their daughter Mary Turner married Bales Shumate. They had at least one son, William Shumate, before Mary drowned in the Clover Fork River in 1828. (The family story is that she was going to her sister's house to care for someone who was sick.) A few years later, their son William moved to Arkansas with his wife Sarah and her Ball family; Bales moved to Arkansas at about the same time. William and Sarah were the parents of Bennett Shumate, who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and was Cal Jones's grandfather. (I wrote about the Joneses and Shumates in the Civil War here.)

So although my direct ancestors had moved west some 30 years before the feud began, they were very closely related to the feuding Turners. I hope to learn more about the particulars of the feud and report in future blog posts.


SeeNinon said...

Is it any wonder that these seeds of inflammatory nature rest (unrest) in our DNA. We see it all in election years especially now that Facebook gives us insight into the daily thoughts or snits we're having about the state of the Union. Local or Global, we're a feisty lot. God Love us all, at least we give a hoot.

Anonymous said...

The court records, including transcripts of the testimonies, for the trial of James Turner, may be found at

Kevin McKenzie said...

My 4th Great Grandfather was William Thomas Middleton, reportedly killed by Devil Jim - who was his 1st cousin. Williams mother and Devil Jim's father were siblings - children of William Turner. William T Middleton had married Narcissus Howard, so was connected to both sides of the feud.