The Courier Journal

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Byron Crawford

Families come together, mark Morehead feud

Descendants of two once-feuding families gathered yesterday in Morehead to dedicate a marker to 20 of those killed and 16 wounded in Kentucky's bloodiest clash of clans.

So deadly was the Martin-Tolliver Feud, from 1884 to 1887, that it is remembered as The Rowan County War.

Trouble had been brewing for a number of years before violence erupted during a race for sheriff in 1884. Solomon Bradley, who was a friend of the Martin family, was killed. Then Floyd Tolliver, a supporter of the Democratic candidate, and John Martin, a Republican, got into a gunfight in a bar and Tolliver was killed.

Within weeks, the streets of Morehead became a battleground as the two sides continued killing and more families were drawn into the conflict. The state militia was twice ordered into the county, and the Kentucky General Assembly even threatened to dissolve the county if the violence did not cease.

Not a topic for discussion

"I never discussed it a lot because I was brought up that way, (and) you don't know who you're talking to," said Janie Strunk, a secretary at Morehead United Methodist Church and a great-granddaughter of John Martin. "It's not that I want to ignore it, but it's something that runs so deep that I guess you feel like you're bringing it back. I never knew of my grandmother ever mentioning it."

William Tolliver, a retired United Methodist minister in Columbus, Ohio, whose great-grandfather, Hugh Tolliver, was murdered by robbers many years before the feud began, also attended the dedication.

"My father was born in 1878 in Morehead and was there when the Tollivers went to the train at Farmers and killed John Martin. He lived through Uncle Floyd Tolliver and others being killed … and Craig Tolliver," he said. "My dad was a very peaceful person, and he was very traumatized by all the violence that went on."

Craig Tolliver, who led his clan against the Martins, was shot down in his stocking feet with guns blazing in a fierce exchange of fire among 60 gunmen on Railroad Street in Morehead when a posse demanded his surrender in June 1887. Although the so-called war was said to have ended with the his death and those of several of his followers, the killing was by no means over.

William Tolliver's father moved away from Rowan County and settled in Wisconsin after Charles "Cate" Tolliver was shot in the back and killed in 1921.

William was born in 1933. His wife, Emma Lee Tolliver, a genealogist, has located two great-granddaughters of Floyd Tolliver. They had grown up in Eastern Kentucky but knew nothing about the feud, and they learned they had been neighbors and best friends with a great-great granddaughter of John Martin.

Building new bonds

The Tolliver Family Association has held a reunion in Morehead the last five years and has in the past invited several Martin family members to attend -- as well as descendants of numerous other families whose ancestors were part of the feud.

The idea for a commemorative marker, near an old train depot where much of the gunplay occurred, originated with J.D. Reeder, a retired professor and feud researcher who lives in Morehead and is a Tolliver descendant. Some 35 people gathered for the dedication yesterday, including several whose ancestors died in the feud.

"We have folks here who are descended from the Bradley and Logan families, as well as descendants of Hiram Cooper, who was an ally of the Tollivers during the last big shootout," Reeder said.

After the ceremony, Strunk discussed the Martin family's feud stories with three Tolliver descendants.

"Everybody was just sharing hugs," Strunk said. "There is not much on the story that they know. They weren't told much either."

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