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John Henry Tunstall (6 March 1853 – 18 February 1878), born in London, England, became a rancher and merchant in New Mexico, where he became a prominent figure and was the first man killed in the Lincoln County War, an economic and political conflict perhaps compounded by ethnic rivalries.
Early life and education
Tunstall was born in Hackney, London. His family was upper middle-class and in August 1872, he went to North America with capital to invest, earning more there by working for his father for four years in Victoria, British Columbia.
Emigration and career
As a young man, he emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada in 1872 to work at Turner, Beeton & Tunstall, a store in which his father was a partner. Tunstall left Canada for the United States in February 1876.
He spent six months investigating sheep ranches in California, but decided to try New Mexico, where land was cheaper and more abundant for ranching. Soon after his arrival in Santa Fe, he met Alexander McSween, a lawyer who told him of the potentially big profits to be made in Lincoln County, New Mexico. Tunstall bought a ranch on the Rio Feliz, some 30 miles (48 km) nearly due south of the town of Lincoln, and went into business as a cattleman. In the town he also set up a mercantile store and bank down the road from the Murphy & Dolan mercantile and banking operation established a few years earlier by James Dolan, Lawrence Murphy and John H. Riley, of Irish ancestry. The Murphy-Dolan store was known colloquially as "The House." Tunstall and McSween were supported by John Chisum, the owner of a large ranch and over 100,000 head of cattle.
Murphy and Dolan ran the town and surrounding county of Lincoln as though the area were their fiefdom. Any business transaction of consequence in the county passed through them. They controlled the court. The Sheriff of Lincoln, William J. Brady, was theirs. Writing about the two gangster storekeepers, one Lincoln resident said, "They intimidated, oppressed, and crushed people who were obliged to deal with them."[this quote needs a citation] Tunstall was eager to make money in Lincoln County, too, but when he set up his store in Lincoln town and offered at least decent prices and reasonable dealings, the locals flocked to do business with him and to get out from under Murphy and Dolan.
Tunstall’s mercantile business put him into conflict with the powerful political, economic, and judicial structure that ruled New Mexico Territory. This group of men was known as the Santa Fe Ring. Ring members included Thomas Catron (1840-1921), the boss, who was the attorney general of New Mexico. Catron owned 3,000,000 acres (12,000 km2) of land, one of the largest land holders ever in the history of the United States. Catron numbered among his colleagues the following men: William Rynerson, a district attorney, who had assassinated John P. Slough, the Chief Justice of New Mexico, and gotten away with it; Samuel Beach Axtell, the Territorial governor, who was fired for corruption by President Rutherford B. Hayes; and Warren Bristol, a territorial judge, who lied on the record to protect Catron. The Attorney General's dealings included holding the mortgage on "The House." When too many of the residents of Lincoln switched their business to Tunstall’s store, Murphy-Dolan began a slide into bankruptcy and Catron’s bottom line was affected.
Murphy and Dolan tried to put Tunstall out of business, first harassing him legally, then trying to goad Tunstall into a gunfight, using hired gunmen, most of whom were members of the Jesse Evans Gang, aka "The Boys." Tunstall recruited half a dozen local small ranchers and cowboys from those who had reason to dislike Murphy and Dolan. These men worked his ranch and protected him while he tried to settle his conflict with Murphy and Dolan. One of Tunstall's employees was the 18-year-old William Bonney (aka Henry McCarty, aka William Henry Antrim, aka El Chivato, 1859 [?]- 1881), who would later be dubbed by the newspapers as "Billy the Kid".
On 18 February 1878, Tunstall and several of his ranch hands, including William Bonney, were driving nine horses from Tunstall's ranch on the Rio Feliz to Lincoln. A posse deputized by Lincoln Sheriff Brady went to Tunstall's ranch on the Feliz to attach his cattle on a warrant that had been issued against his business partner, McSween. Finding Tunstall, his hands, and the horses gone, a sub-posse broke from the main posse and went in pursuit, although the horses were not part of any legal action. William "Billy" Morton, one of the deputies, said, "Hurry up boys, my knife is sharp and I feel like scalping someone." Evans and Tom Hill had recently broken out of jail.
Evans, Hill, Morton (and probably Frank Baker) rode ahead after Tunstall. Evans, Morton, and Hill caught Tunstall and his men a few miles from Lincoln, in a hilly area covered with scrub timber. Tunstall, the nine horses, and his hands were spread out along the narrow trail. Bonney, who was riding drag, alerted the others. The deputies began firing without warning. Tunstall's hands galloped off through the brush to a hilltop overlooking the trail. Tunstall first stayed with his horses, then rode away, but was pursued by the three deputies.
Only the three deputies survived the confrontation with Tunstall. Most historians believe that Tunstall likely surrendered. He was shot through the breast with a rifle, and someone shot him in the back of the head with a revolver. The posse faked the crime scene, removing Tunstall's gun and firing it, then arranging it near his body. This type of set-up was a common gambit in the Wild West. Not one of the Tunstall group believed the deputies' "resisting arrest" account. A third party, who was not present but heard an account from a posse member, testified to this account of summary murder.
The historian Robert Utley suggests that Tunstall may have tried to defend himself when cornered by Morton, Hill, and Evans. Joel Jacobsen notes that Tunstall died some hundred yards from his horses, suggesting the posse wanted him rather than the horses. Other evidence and testimony called into question the official story claimed by the three deputies and embraced by the Murphy-Dolan faction.
Tunstall's murder ignited the Lincoln County War. Bonney was especially affected by the murder as Tunstall had always treated him well. Bonney is alleged to have said that Tunstall "was the only man that ever treated me like I was a free-born and white", and swore, "I'll get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it's the last thing I do."
Bonney, Richard M. Brewer, Doc Scurlock, Charlie Bowdre, George Coe, Frank Coe, Jim French, Frank McNab and other employees and friends of Tunstall's went to the Lincoln County Justice of the Peace, "Squire" John Wilson. He proved sympathetic to their cause and swore them all in as special constables to bring in Tunstall's killers. This posse was legal and led by Richard "Dick" Brewer, a well-respected ranch owner who had been Tunstall's foreman. The newly minted peace officers called themselves Regulators and went after Evans, Morton, Hill, and Baker and the others implicated in Tunstall's death. Two legally deputized posses rode at large in Lincoln at war with each other.
The Regulators tracked down and captured Morton and Baker on March 6, killing them during an alleged escape before reaching Lincoln a few days later. They said the two had killed McCloskey of the Regulators. Several other killings, committed by both the Regulators and the gunmen hired by Murphy-Dolan, followed those of Morton, Baker, and McCloskey. On April Fool's Day 1878, the Regulators killed William Brady, the sheriff of Lincoln, along with his deputy, George Hindemann. Half a dozen Regulators, including Bonney, Jim French, and Frank McNab, carried out the reprisals. Brewer was not present at the ambush. The Regulators also killed Buckshot Roberts at Blazer's Mills, southwest of Lincoln in what is now the Mescalero Apache Reservation. Brewer was killed in the shootout there.
The war essentially ended in the July 15 through July 19, 1878 Battle of Lincoln. Known as "The Five-Day Battle," this conflict resulted in the defeat of the Regulators' forces when the U.S. Army from nearby Fort Stanton, under the command of Colonel Nathan Dudley, intervened in the fight despite a new federal law prohibiting the Army to enter into civilian matters. Dudley threatened the Regulators while the Dolanites strutted along Lincoln's street.
After their loss to the Dolan forces in the Five-Day Battle, the Regulators and the people who had fought with them quickly left town. Bonney remained in New Mexico, moving to Fort Sumner, New Mexico on the border of the Texas Panhandle near the Pecos River. Bonney survived until July 14, 1881, when he was shot and killed at Fort Sumner by Pat Garrett. Appointed as sheriff of Lincoln County, Garrett had been given a mandate to get rid of Billy the Kid and his gang.
John Tunstall lived in Lincoln for about 18 months before Morton, Hill, and Evans killed him. During his time in New Mexico, he regularly corresponded with his family in London. Frederick Nolan collected these letters into The Life and Death of John Henry Tunstall, a bedrock work in the historiography of the Lincoln County War. Tunstall's letters reflect his ambition, biases, and youthful arrogance and high-spiritedness. They are also an invaluable record of the economic, cultural, social, and political realities of the time and place. Tunstall's gun is held by the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, UK. (website www.royalarmouries.org).
Representation in other media
Tunstall was portrayed by the actor Murray Matheson in the episode "The Reversed Blade" (February 4, 1961) of the NBC television series, The Tall Man. However, the series uses the fictional name "John Tundall". In the story line, Tundall grows indignant when the con-man Ben Webster (John Archer), who stole his wife and $10,000 eight years earlier, arrives in Lincoln. Jeanne Cooper plays Tundall's former wife, now Mrs. Elmira Webster.John Tunstall was killed at the age of twenty-four, but Matheson was forty-nine when cast in this role.
Other depictions of Tunstall are in the 1970 film Chisum by veteran English actor Patric Knowles and in the 1958 film The Left Handed Gun by English actor Colin Keith-Johnston. Stamp was 50, Knowles 58, and Keith-Johnston 62, when they were cast as Tunstall.
- Nolan, Frederick (March 1992 (original publ. date)). The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History (Revised Edition) (2009 Revised ed.). Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press. pp. 21 (of 680). ISBN 978-0-86534-721-2.
- ""The Reversed Blade", February 4, 1961". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved February 15, 2013.
- Fulton, Maurice Garland. History of the Lincoln County War. Edited by Robert Mullin. Phoenix: University of Arizona Press, 1968.
- Jacobsen, Joel. Such Men As Billy The Kid. The Lincoln County War Reconsidered. Lincoln, Nebraska and London, England: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
- Garrett, Pat F. The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.
- Hunt, Frazier. The Tragic Days of Billy The Kid. New York: Hastings House, 1956.
- Nolan, Frederick. The Life and Death of John Henry Tunstall. Albuquerque NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1965.
- Nolan, Frederick. The West of Billy The Kid.Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
- Utley, Robert M. High Noon in Lincoln. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.
- Wilson, John P. Merchants, Guns and Money: The Story of Lincoln County and Its Wars. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1987.