Howard B. Lee, former Attorney General of West Virginia, provided this account of Nancy Hatfield (widow of Cap) in the early 1970s:
“Mrs. Hatfield, we have talked much about an era that is gone. Feuds are ended, railroads and paved highways have come, the huge coal industry has developed, churches and schools are everywhere, and people are educated. Now, I would like to know something about you.”
This is the brief life-story of the remarkable and unforgettable Nancy Elizabeth Hatfield, as she related it to me.
She was Nancy Elizabeth Smith, called “Nan” by her family and friends, born in Wayne County, West Virginia, September 10, 1866. (She died August 24, 1942). In her early years, she lived “close enough to the Ohio River,” she said, “to see the big boats that brought people and goods up from below.” She attended a country school three months out of the year, and acquired the rudiments of a common school education, plus a yearning for wider knowledge.
While she was still a young girl her parents moved by push-boat up the Big Sandy and Tug rivers into what is now Mingo County, then Logan County. They settled in the wilderness on Mate Creek, near the site of the present town of Matewan.
“Why they made that move,” said Nancy Elizabeth, “I have never understood.”
In her new environment, in the summer of 1880, when she was 14 years old, Nancy Elizabeth married Joseph M. Glenn, an enterprising young adventurer from Georgia, who had established a store in the mountains, and floated rafts of black walnut logs, and other timber, down the Tug and Big Sandy rivers to the lumber mills of Catlettsburg, Ky., and Portsmouth, Ohio.
Two years after their marriage Glenn was waylaid and murdered by a former business associate, named Bill Smith–no relation to Nancy Elizabeth. Smith escaped into the wilderness and was never apprehended. The 16-year-old widow was left with a three-weeks old infant son, who grew into manhood and for years, that son, the late Joseph M. Glenn, was a leading lawyer in the city of Logan.
On October 11, 1883, a year after her husband’s death, at the age of 17, Nancy Elizabeth married the 19-year-old Cap Hatfield, second son of Devil Anse.
“He was the best looking young man in the settlement,” she proudly told me.
But at that time Cap had little to recommend him, except his good looks. He was born Feb. 6, 1864, during the Civil War, and grew up in a wild and lawless wilderness, where people were torn and divided by political and sectional hatreds and family feuds–a rugged, mountain land, without roads, schools, or churches.
When he married, Cap could neither read nor write, but he possessed the qualities necessary for survival in that turbulent time and place–he was “quick on the draw, and a dead shot.”
“When we were married, Cap was not a very good risk as a husband,” said Nancy Elizabeth. “The feud had been going on for a year, and he was already its most deadly killer. Kentucky had set a price on his head. But we were young, he was handsome, and I was deeply in love with him. Besides, he was the best shot on the border, and I was confident that he could take care of himself–and he did.”
Nancy Elizabeth taught her handsome husband to read and write, and imparted to him the meager learning she had acquired in the country school in Wayne County. But, more important, the she instilled into him her own hunger for knowledge.
Cap had a brilliant mind, and he set about to improve it. He and Nancy Elizabeth bought and read many books on history and biography, and they also subscribed for and read a number of the leading magazines of their day. In time they built up a small library or good books, which they read and studied along with their children.
At the urging of Nancy Elizabeth, Cap decided to study law, and enrolled at the University Law School at Huntington, Tennessee. But six months later, a renewal of the feud brought him back to the mountains. He never returned to law school, but continued his legal studies at home, and was admitted to the bar in Wyoming and Mingo counties. However, he never practiced the profession.
Nancy Elizabeth and Cap raised seven of their nine children, and Nancy’ss eyes grew moist as she talked of the sacrifices she and Cap had made that their children might obtain the education fate had denied to their parents. But her face glowed with a mother’s pride as she said:
“All our children are reasonably well educated. Three are college graduates, and the others attended college from one to three years. But, above everything else, they are all good and useful citizens.”
As I left the home of the remarkable and unforgettable Nancy Hatfield, I knew that I had been in the presence of a queenly woman–a real “Mountain Queen.”
Source: West Virginia Women (Richwood, WV: Jim Comstock, 1974), p. 153-154.