CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- History is sometimes a hard thing to live down.
In the late 1800s, while West Virginia was still trying to figure out its identity post-Civil War, two feuding families inadvertently helped define the image of Appalachia.
Through sensationalized stories printed in newspapers around the world, the feud between Randal McCoy and Devil Anse Hatfield and their families became a worldwide spectacle and helped make the phrase "hillbilly" synonymous with poor, ignorant and volatile. The term became a stereotype, a cartoon to poke fun at and an epithet.
The History channel's new "Hatfields & McCoys" miniseries, which begins May 28, is a dramatization of that conflict. Through careful retelling, it tries to give the hillbilly icons back their humanity and to explain that the feud that took more than a dozen lives was a lot more complicated than a dispute about the ownership of a pig.
West Virginia native Darrel Fetty served as one of the producers on the miniseries. Fetty grew up in Ball Gap, near Milton. He said he'd heard about the feud since he was a child, but after he left the state for Hollywood, he came to resent the way the people of this area have been portrayed.
"These people were pioneers," he said. "They were rugged individuals, just the same as in the American West."
The West, he said, had the Earps, the Clantons and Billy the Kid. Somehow they became respected legends, while the Hatfields and McCoys became figures of derision and ridicule.
The story of the feud had long been on his mind, but a few years ago he mentioned an idea of doing a miniseries to Leslie Greiff, a producer and writer he'd worked with before.
"Leslie had a relationship with History," he said. "He got a development deal. We started working with some writers. At a certain point, Kevin Costner read a script, liked it and committed."
Costner stars as Hatfield patriarch Devil Anse Hatfield.
With a major star attached, the project was put in production.
Telling the tale of the Hatfields and the McCoys, however, wasn't easy. Even now, both families have their supporters, and the story of the feud is invariably colored by the perception of which side the teller is on.
Not only that, but the "official" reports of the time came from newspaper writers during the golden age of yellow journalism, where the truth never got in the way of a good story.
Fetty explained that during the height of the feud, "A lot of urban reporters would pick up the story, and if it wasn't colorful enough, they'd make things up. So a lot of things reported as history were distorted."
"Hatfields & McCoys" hopes to remove some of the distortions, but Fetty acknowledged that it's not an exact re-creation of the events that began around 1864 and ended finally in the early 1900s. Time has been telescoped, dialogue has been added and a few characters have been pushed together.
"We did have to make some choices," he said.
For instance, there is a Preacher Anse Hatfield and a Walls "Deacon" Hatfield. Preacher Anse was a justice of the peace who presided over the livestock dispute.
"He was peripherally related to the Hatfields in the feud."
A minor character with one important scene.
Deacon Hatfield was the older brother of Devil Anse Hatfield. He was also a judge and presided over the trial of Paris and Sam McCoy, who were charged with killing Bill Staton, a worker related to both families who'd testified in favor of the Hatfields over the disputed pig.
"We used two different judges to make one character," he said. "It made the part stronger and took nothing away from the story."
And with a story as sprawling as the Hatfield-McCoy feud, Fetty said condensing was necessary to fit the story into a six-hour miniseries.