Abner Vance, of course, is well-known from stories as the stern father who was hanged for killing a man who defiled and abandoned his daughter. And Abner's grandson Jim Vance is usually held up as one of the worst villains in the Hatfield-McCoy feud story; often labeled "Bad Jim" or "Crazy Jim" and portrayed in newspaper accounts, books and movies as a near-psychopathic vindictive murderer.
|The one surviving picture believed to be of Jim Vance, who was killed in 1888.|
Abner Vance died in 1819 before photography, so no pictures of him exist.
These usual stories are colorful and fun (for later generations) and have even been handed down through the years in families directly related to Abner and Jim. But the county government and land records as revealed by Cherep, Hardesty, and Dotson are showing a different picture of both men. According to surviving records from those times, Abner's daughter Elizabeth already had several children at the time Abner shot Lewis Horton, and there is no mention in his trial proceedings or any other records that he had any conflicts with the Hortons over his daughter. And Jim Vance was apparently elected constable of the local district in 1870 and a Justice of the Peace in 1883. He engaged in land deals with the McCoys and even hosted at his own house the marriage of his daughter to a McCoy son. Hardly the usual picture of Jim Vance as an obsessed and vindictive murderer.
What is also covered by records of the time, of course, is that Abner Vance did shoot Lewis Horton in 1817, and Frank Phillips led a party of McCoy sympathizers to kill Jim Vance in 1888, so for whatever reason they clearly felt Jim deserved to die. But the motives behind those events and the Vance characters associated with them look very different in the historical record than in the stories that have made their way into popular culture. Whatever really happened back then, those stories seem to have sensationalized and distorted the real motives and men involved.
Does that mean these Vances were saints? Of course not. But perhaps history should remember them with a bit more balance. In any case, they can still generate controversy all the way into the 21st century!
Some recent articles by Ryan Hardesty have covered this emerging picture from historical research in more detail and are available here and here (the third article in the series is pending and I will add the link as soon as it's available).