In 1846, the heirs of Matthias Bruen of New York City inherited 200,000 acres of a 1796 Western Virginia land grant, extending through the present counties of Putnam, Kanawha, Jackson, and Roane. Attempts to manage the Bruen lands resulted in violence and bitterness, upsetting the peace of the area for generations.
The problem originated in the deplorable land records of Virginia, including faulty surveys and overlapping titles. Apparently Bruen land agents had already sold a number of farm sites to northern settlers by 1845. At about the same time, other land agents had also contracted to sell off a nearby tract that bordered on Bruen. They were responsible for a mass migration to Jackson County of families from the Clinch River area of southwestern Virginia. A dispute arose over their land titles that was never entirely settled. Differences were aggravated by conflicting Northern and Southern sympathies during the Civil War and partisan political differences.
Killings were associated with the feud. In 1877, long after the Clinch River settlers had established their Jackson County homesteads, Bruen agents reappeared in the area accompanied by U.S. Deputy Marshal Nathan Cunningham. The settlers were notified that the land they were on was part of the Bruen survey, and they were officially informed that they had only a short time to vacate. The settlers formed an armed vigilante committee, and when the marshal returned to enforce the order he was ambushed, shot, and killed. His brother, Dan Cunningham, also a lawman, then took up the cause and carried it on for many years.
Unconfirmed local tradition states that the vigilantes managed to intimidate their neighbors and local peace officers and attempted to protect their property by forming a Ku Klux Klan group. For years after, whenever an occasional barn burned or someone’s livestock broke out, it was usually blamed on the Bruen lands feud.
This Article was written by Bill Wintz
Last Revised on January 07, 2011
Harmon, Dale L. Kanawha County, West Virginia, Bruen Property Land Purchases from 47,000 Acre Sheba Tract 1850-1908. Durham: Dale Harmon, 1984.
Johnson, Ludwell H. 'The Horrible Butcheries of West Virginia': Dan Cunningham on the Hatfield-McCoy Feud. West Virginia History, (1985-86).
The Vandalia Journal, (July 1966).
Cite This Article
Wintz, Bill "The Bruen Lands Feud." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 07 January 2011. Web. 24 February 2017.