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John Henry Tunstall (6 March 1853 – 18 February 1878), born in London, England, became a rancher and merchant in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he competed with ethnic Irish merchants and politicians who ran the town of Lincoln and the county. He was the first man killed in what developed as the Lincoln County War, an economic and political conflict that resulted in armed warfare, perhaps compounded by ethnic rivalries between an Irish group and others of British descent.
Early life and education
Tunstall was born in 1853 in Hackney, London. His family was upper middle-class and his father was a businessman, with interests in Canada as well as the United Kingdom.
Emigration and career
At the age of 19, Tunstall emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada in August 1872 to work at Turner, Beeton & Tunstall, a store in which his father was a partner. He also had some capital to invest.
Tunstall left Canada for the West of 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 lawyer Alexander McSween.
He told him of the potentially big profits to be made in Lincoln County. It was being rapidly settled. McSween was allied with John Chisum, the owner of a large ranch and over 100,000 head of cattle. McSween became a business partner of Tunstall, and they both sought Chisum's support.
The young British man 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. It had been established a few years earlier by James Dolan, Lawrence Murphy and John H. Riley, all of Irish ancestry. The Murphy-Dolan store was known colloquially as "The House."
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. Tunstall was eager to make money in Lincoln County. Offering decent prices and reasonable dealings at his store, he attracted locals eager to find a competitor to 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, and was one of the largest land holders in the history of the United States. Catron numbered the following men among his colleagues: 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. Catron held the mortgage on "The House," so had a direct interest in its success in Lincoln.
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 him into a gunfight. They hired gunmen, most of whom were members of the Jesse Evans Gang, aka "The Boys."
Tunstall recruited supporters of his own: half a dozen local small ranchers and cowboys from those who disliked Murphy and Dolan. These men worked his ranch and protected him while he tried to settle his conflict with Murphy/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). He was later dubbed as "Billy the Kid" when leading a gang of his own.
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. But these horses were not covered by any legal action.
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 an 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. Most historians believe that Tunstall likely surrendered. He was reported as shot through the breast with a rifle, and shot 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.
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 supported 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, 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 also 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. Thus, 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. After returning to Lincoln, they said the two men had killed McCloskey of the Regulators. Several other killings, committed by both the Regulators and the gunmen hired by Murphy-Dolan, followed.
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. The Regulators killed Buckshot Roberts at Blazer's Mills, southwest of Lincoln in area now within the Mescalero Apache Reservation. Their man, Richard Brewer, also died in this shootout.
The period of July 15 through July 19, 1878, Battle of Lincoln, became known as "The Five-Day Battle." The U.S. Army from nearby Fort Stanton, under the command of Colonel Nathan Dudley, intervened in the fight and defeated the Regulators. Dudley threatened the Regulators while the Dolanites strutted along Lincoln's street. A new federal law of 1878, passed by a Democratic majority of Congress and in reaction to the former use of military forces in southern states to suppress violence targeting freedmen during the Reconstruction era, prohibited the Army from intervening in civilian conflicts.
After their loss to the Dolan forces in the Five-Day Battle, the Regulators and their supporters quickly left town. Bonney remained in New Mexico, moving to Fort Sumner on the border of the Texas Panhandle near the Pecos River. Bonney operated as a bandit in the area with his own gang, and survived until July 14, 1881, when he was shot and killed at Fort Sumner by Sheriff Pat Garrett 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 being killed by Morton, Hill, and Evans. During this period, he regularly corresponded with his family in London. Frederick Nolan collected these letters and published them as The Life and Death of John Henry Tunstall, a basic work in the historiography of the Lincoln County War. Tunstall's letters reflect his ambition, biases, and youthful arrogance and high-spiritedness. They also reflect 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 actor Murray Matheson in the episode "The Reversed Blade" (February 4, 1961) of the NBC television series, The Tall Man. The series uses the fictional name "John Tundall".
- In the 1958 film The Left Handed Gun, Tunstall was played by English actor Colin Keith-Johnston. In the 1970 film Chisum, he was portrayed by veteran English actor Patric Knowles. The English actor Terence Stamp played Tunstall in the 1988 movie Young Guns. Keith-Johnston was 62, Knowles 58 and Stamp 50 when they were picked to play the 24-year-old Tunstall. These films tended to portray Tunstall inaccurately as a kind of father figure to William Bonney (Billy the Kid). In fact, he was Billy's employer and good friend.
Turnstall is represented in the 2015 "Billy the Kid" episode of "Legends & Lies: The Real West" on Fox News Channel.
- 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.