The war has its roots in the Underwood-Holbrook Feud, in which John Martin was a lesser member of the Underwood side, and all male Underwoods died in a conflict that took 30 lives. Martin had worked as a clerk for the county, and owned a store in Morehead. In 1877 his gambling caused him to lose his store, and charges of falsifying county records cost him his clerk job in an election in 1878. After this he rented land from George Underwood, which led him to support the Underwood in the Underwood-Holbrook Feud.
After the feud, Martin began illegal distillery operations. Being a Republican, he became a political rival of Democrat Floyd Tolliver, also formerly of the Underwood Faction, and on an Election Day in August 1884, after a misunderstanding, Tolliver wounded Martin while killing Solomon Bradley, a friend of Martin's. Just before the matter was to be settled in court in December 1884, Tolliver and Martin met each other while drinking and Martin fired his pistol while still in his coat pocket, killing Tolliver. Tolliver's last words, addressed to some friends, were "Remember what you swore to do; you said you would kill him; Keep your word.
Martin was promptly jailed, and then taken to the Clark County, Kentucky jail, in Winchester, Kentucky, due to fears for his safety. This led Tolliver's brother, Craig Tolliver, to kill two cousins of D.B. Logan, an ally of Martin. Tolliver supporters soon gained control over the county.
Martin was eventually killed after supporters of Tolliver forged a request to transfer Martin back to Morehead, and shot him after boarding the train. Martin's wife was in another car of the same train, and felt dread after hearing shots fired. Rushing to the scene, she saw her husband dying. Martin lived long enough to travel back to Morehead, where he walked to the Powers Hotel, where he died the next day. Quickly sides were chosen, with Democratic families supporting Craig Tolliver, and Republican families supporting Martin's family. Craig Tolliver became the town marshal of Morehead, and assumed control of Morehead due to intimidation. The sheriff of Rowan County, Republican Cook Humphrey, sided with Martin's father, Dr. Ben Martin. By July 1885, nine out of ten men within the county had taken one side or the other in the new conflict.
Feud violence continued for three years, concluding in the summer of 1887 when a faction led by Hiram and Logan Pigman surrounded and shot Craig Tolliver. Three others died in a final shoot-out that sixty men participated in for two hours.
Three times the state militia was called to quell the violence, included the noted Louisville Legion. At one point, a state report done by General Sam Hill recommended to the governor of Kentucky that Rowan County be dissolved due to the violence. After a legislative investigation by the Kentucky State Assembly concluded, the townfolk were mortified of their reputation throughout the state. They acted by creating the Morehead Normal School. Years later, after funding that Morehead's new State Senator Allie Young acquired, the Normal School became Morehead State University. The incidents are chronicled in a ballad titled, alternately, "The Rowan County Crew" and "The Rowan County Feud."