The town was named after Matteawan (now called Beacon), a town in Dutchess County, Upstate New York. Matteawan was the home town of Erskine Hazard, a civil engineer from the Norfolk and Western Railway who laid out the town in 1890 and drew up the first map of the new community. Local residents, however, changed the spelling and pronunciation.
Attempts to unionize by coal miners in 1920 led to the Battle of Matewan between miners and Baldwin–Felts detectives, which was the inspiration for the 1987 movie Matewan. The town’s history is on display at the town’s Web site, which has a small museum.