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MAGOFFIN COUNTY HIGH SCHOOL HISTORY CLUB UNCOVERS: Magoffin Connection to Infamous Feud

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Across every region of the United States, it is impossible to hear the name “Hatfield” without automatically thinking of the name “McCoy.”  However, for residents of Magoffin County, the infamous feud has an added sense of familiarity. The most recognizable feud in American folklore occurred in the same Appalachian hills that Magoffin residents currently call home. The county seat of Salyersville sits less than 70 miles from the KY-WV line where patriarchs William "Devil Anse" Hatfield and Randolph McCoy routinely clashed. However, even with Magoffin County’s close proximity to the location of the infamous feud, there is no observable connection between Magoffin County and the two dueling families. That is, with the exception of a single individual, Monteville Deskins. Deskins, widely unknown today, is Magoffin County’s own member of the Hatfield clan.

Monteville Deskins, often known only as “Mont,” was a recognized affiliate of the West Virginia clan. Although not a Hatfield in name, Mont was a relative of the family and participated in the infamous feud. Newspapers reported that during the feud “a number of deaths were laid at Deskin’s door.” It was his direct participation in the famous feud that led Monteville to abandon his “old haunts” on the KY-WV border and head west in the early 1890s. Looking to escape his “murderous career,” Mont eventually settled in Magoffin County. 

Ironically, Monteville found himself serving in the role of Magoffin County’s Justice of the Peace in 1893. Monetville likely landed his new appointment through family patronage – William Deskins, identified as Mont’s brother by some accounts, was serving as constable. Despite his new role, violence and continued feuding followed Mont to his new home. Much like the Hatfields and McCoys, the Deskin clan had found their own adversary – the Risners. 

In early January of 1893, Dug and Samuel Risner had physically attacked William Deskins. As Justice of the Peace, Monetville had a warrant issued for the two Risners’ arrest. Eventually, the men were taken by strong guard to Salyersville to stand trial for the assault. However, the Commonwealth was not ready for trial and the two men were released under bond on January 4.

Upon release, “loud talking on part of one of the Risners” almost led to a confrontation between the two factions in the town center, but quick interference by the authorities prevented any violence. 

However, just an hour later, approximately one mile outside of Salyersville near Gardner Branch, a confrontation described as the “bloodiest fight in Magoffin County’s history” occurred.

Approximately eight to ten of the county’s most-recognizable citizens engaged each other on both sides – including the Deskins and Risners. The two sides were armed with repeating rifles and navy pistols with newspaper accounts referring to the notable participants as “lawless Kentuckians.” The event would be described across the country as the “the liveliest melee in the history of Magoffin County.” 

The bloody fight led to the death and injury of several participants including constable William Deskins. Several newspaper accounts even reported that Monteville had been fatally wounded. Mont had suffered serious injury in the melee leaving a bloody trail through the snow as he disappeared. Later, the gun with which he had been armed was found and it was believed that he had succumbed to his injuries. However, for the first instance of many, reports of his death had been exaggerated. 

For his role in the “bloody fight,” Deskins would eventually be charged with murder. The indictment resulted in his flight back to the border of West Virginia. On January 30, local newspapers would report that a heavily armed Mont had made a stop in the town of Inez just long enough to write a letter to his friends back in Magoffin. While there, he told residents that he had “shot one man, but his head was so hard that his bullet would not penetrate it.”  For nearly two years, Magoffin County would be free of the Hatfield ally. However, back in West Virginia, Monteville found trouble among his own clan. Difficulty with his father and brother would ultimately result in Mont returning to Magoffin County around 1895. 

Mont’s return to Magoffin County was met with quick resistance. Hearing of his return, authorities moved to immediately arrest him. Monteville sent word to Magoffin officer Noah Minix that he wished to surrender. The two agreed to meet at the home of one of Mont’s relatives on the Middle Fork of the Licking River. On the night of the proposed meeting, three men approached the house claiming to be Minix; however, in actuality, the three men were Deputy Sheriff Newt Howard, Deputy Sheriff Frazier, and an unknown man. Tom Arnett, Deskin’s father-in-law, told the three men that Mont was “not in.” Eventually, a confrontation between Mont’s wife and the officers led Mont to reveal himself. With his Winchester rifle in hand, Mont tried to push through the three men and was shot by Sheriff Howard. Injured and bleeding, newspaper accounts describe Monteville’s continued effort to evade: “He ran to a nearby branch and fell in the water, but rallying, raised to his elbow and fired at his assailants.” For at least the second time, newspapers would report on the likely death of Monteville – and once again, they would be wrong. Mont would eventually surrender to authorities in Wolfe County; however, for unknown reasons, his time in custody would be short-lived.

Mont would soon find himself in the middle of a violent encounter again in May of 1895. While traveling with his wife down a road in Magoffin County, the couple was approached by a man named Robert Alsept. As Alsept engaged the two in conversation, the Deskins were shot from ambush by Alsept’s son, Daniel, and another man named Ben Clemons. A bullet grazed Mont’s wife, Mary, in the head, but Mont faced a much more serious situation – he had been shot in the chest. For at least the third time, the newspapers reported on his likely demise, but, once again, they were incorrect. Several months later, in the fall of 1895, Mont was reported murdered by John Ried Caldwell – this time in Mingo County, West Virginia. For a fourth time, the newspapers had got the date of Monteville’s death wrong. Even today, the exact cause and date of Mont’s death remains a mystery. 

Monteville Deskins would eventually return to West Virginia, but for a few years in the 1890s, he brought the violence of the Hatfield-McCoy feud to the hills of Magoffin County. The man entrusted as Justice of the Peace by Magoffin County would be described by national newspapers as a “notorious desperado” and a “mountain terror.” His exploits would be covered on a national scale – finding a place among the headlines in major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. Although largely forgotten today, for a few years in the 1890s, the Hatfield relative had put the “bloody events” of Magoffin County center stage on the national scene.

The preceding article was produced in conjunction with a research activity at the November meeting of the Magoffin County High School History Club. The goal of the History Club is to inspire more students to interact with history – especially local history. The club hopes to engage students in the practice of historical research and help bring forgotten stories of the past back into the public consciousness. Ethan Kidd and Susan Cole contributed research on this subject. The History Club meets under the guidance of faculty sponsor Justin Bailey. 

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