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Learning about Pike County’s Rich History

I recently visited Pike County during the annual Hatfield-McCoy Heritage Days and I had a delightful time. Everyone I met was extremely nice and personified small-town hospitality. Folks also seemed to take deep pride in the regional history, and particularly in Pikeville's tradition for innovation and leadership in Central Appalachia that stretches back to the 19th century.

My trip to Pike County spurred me to finish putting together the Hatfield & McCoy tour on the ExploreKYHistory mobile application and website. This virtual tour marks important sites in the famous feud on the Kentucky side of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River that separates Pike County from Mingo County, West Virginia. The webpages for each of the 12 markers on the tour provide additional information on the topic and the marker itself. Writing these entries was the first time that I’d really looked beyond the stereotypes to the historical specifics of the feud.

What I found opened my eyes. The story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud is not simply a dramatic tale of a long-term family grudge that spilled out into violent spectacle. Instead, I discovered a complex saga that spanned decades, complete with shifting loyalties and divergent motivations. The feud actually comprised a couple of fairly distinct stages as a local rivalry and animosity took on larger regional and national significance amid the economic transformations of the late 19th century in Central Appalachia.

The main purpose of my trip was the dedication of historical marker #2489, which commemorates the life and accomplishments of Colonel John Dils Jr. He was an early settler to the region and envisioned Piketon, as Pikeville was originally known, as an economic center for the region. Dils, arrested for his pro-Union sympathies and imprisoned in Richmond, Virginia, during the opening months of the Civil War, returned to Eastern Kentucky and raised a regiment for service in the Union army. Ultimately, the army dismissed him from service in 1863 under a cloud of suspicion.

After the war, Dils continued his economic success and eventually became a player in the broader Hatfield-McCoy feud, as a guardian and benefactor to a young Perry Cline. Cline later played a key role in the feud. Dils Cemetery in Pikeville, the location of Dils burial, is believed to be the first integrated cemetery in Eastern Kentucky. After the dedication ceremony, Pike County Tourism threw a reception in honor of Mrs. Nancy Forsyth. Mrs. Forsyth has made countless contributions to preserving local history in the region over the course of more than four decades. She has been the driving force behind many of the Pike County historical markers, including most of those related to the Hatfield-McCoy feud.

Her personal history also is quite remarkable, and I really enjoyed my time chatting with her on a variety of topics, from Pike County legends to her service in World War II and how Centre College changed from the 1940s, when she attended, and the 2000s, when I attended. After having such a great time in Pikeville, I can say with confidence that this will not be my last visit. And, next time I plan to stay longer and do more to explore the rich history of the region.


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