Tunstalls Natural Features Reserve - Nature Conservation Reserve
Tunstalls N.C.R., Australia
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John Henry Tunstall (6 March 1853 – 18 February 1878) was a New Mexican rancher and prominent figure in the Lincoln County War.
Born in Hackney, London, England. Tunstall emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada in 1872 where he spent his time working 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 the possibility of becoming a sheep rancher in California, but decided instead to try New Mexico, where land was cheaper and more abundant for ranching. Soon after his arrival in Santa Fe he met a lawyer, Alexander McSween, who persuaded him that there were 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 that was just 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. 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 Jimmy Dolan ran the town and surrounding county of Lincoln by money and pistol as though the area was 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 their sheriff. Hardly anyone at the time who was not in the direct pay of Murphy and Dolan spoke well of them. Writing about the two gangster storekeepers, one Lincoln resident stated, "They intimidated, oppressed, and crushed people who were obliged to deal with them." 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 decisions didn’t just pit him against two local, lethal Irishmen. It put him in conflict with the ownership of the entire political, economic, and judicial structure that ruled New Mexico Territory. This corrupt 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—along with Ted Turner—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 by Rutherford B. Hayes, the U.S. President, for corruption. Warren Bristol, a territorial judge, who lied on the record to protect Catron. Catron’s commercial dealings included holding the mortgage on "The House." So when the residents of Lincoln switched their business to Tunstall’s store, and Murphy-Dolan began a slide into bankruptcy, this put pressure on Catron’s bottom line.
Alarmed and enraged by Tunstall's plans, Murphy & Dolan attempted to put him out of business, harassing him legally and, when that did not work, 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, who had the usual reasons to dislike Murphy and Dolan. These men worked his ranch and protected him while he tried to settle his mercantile conflict with Murphy and Dolan. One of Tunstall's employees was the 18-year-old William Bonney (aka Henry McCarty, and William Henry Antrim, 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 William Brady went to Tunstall's ranch on the Feliz to attach his cattle on a warrant that had been issued against Tunstall's 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. One of the sub-posse deputies, William "Billy" Morton is recorded as having said, "Hurry up boys, my knife is sharp and I feel like scalping someone." Two of the other sub-posse deputies, Evans and Tom Hill, had recently broken out of jail.
Four of the sub-posse members, Evans, Hill, Morton (and probably Frank Baker) rode ahead after Tunstall. Baker's horse apparently flagged from the hard ride and he fell back. Evans, Morton, and Hill, all members of Evans's gang, and who also worked for Jimmy Dolan, 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 when Evans and the other two caught up with them. 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. Inexplicably, Tunstall stayed with his horses, then rode way from the animals, but was pursued by the three deputies until they caught up with him.
Precisely what happened next remains uncertain because only the three deputies survived the confrontation with Tunstall. Most historians tend to agree that Tunstall likely surrendered. What the pathological evidence proves is that one of the posse members, probably Morton, shot Tunstall through the breast with a rifle. Another, probably Hill, dismounted and administered a coup de grace, shooting the Englishmen through the back of the head (the revolver bullet exited above Tunstall's left eye). After they had murdered Tunstall in cold blood, the posse faked the crime scene. One of the slayers removed the victim’s holstered pistol and discharged it into the air. He then arranged the gun near Tunstall’s body. An illusion was thereby created that Tunstall had tried to resist arrest by firing at the posse; thus giving the deputies a rationale to return fire and commit justifiable homicide. This scrap of counterfeit was a common gambit in the Wild West. No one of the Tunstall group believed the "resisting arrest" account, and a third party, who was not present at the murder but heard it from another posse member, testified to this account of summary murder.
One historian, Robert Utley, casts the event in a slightly more problematic light, saying that Tunstall may have tried to defend himself with his pistol because he was aggressively cornered by Morton, Hill, and Evans. Another historian, Joel Jacobsen, points out that Tunstall died some hundred yards from his horses, so if it was the horses the posse wanted, why did they pursue the Englishmen, except to kill him. Other evidence and testimony also damaged the official story given by the three deputies and embraced by the Murphy-Dolan faction.
No matter the exact circumstances under which Tunstall was killed, his murder ignited the Lincoln County War. Bonney was especially affected by this wanton killing because Tunstall had treated him well. Bonney is alleged to have stated that Tunstall "was the only man that ever treated me like I was a free-born and white", and also swore, "I'll get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it's the last thing I do."
Knowing that Brady and his deputies would hardly arrest themselves for Tunstall's murder, Bonney, Richard 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 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. It is important to keep in mind when reviewing the events of the war that this posse was legal and that Richard "Dick" Brewer, a well-respected ranch owner who had been Tunstall's foreman, was its leader, not Bonney. These newly minted peace officers, calling themselves Regulators, went after Evans, Morton, Hill, and Baker and the others implicated in Tunstall's death. There were now, in effect, two legally deputized posses in Lincoln at war with each other.
The Regulators tracked down and captured Morton and Baker on March 6. The two men met violent ends before the Regulators delivered them to the Lincoln jail. The Regulators' story was that Morton and Baker had tried to escape and were killed during their flight on March 9. This is possible. It is also possible that the posse realized that to turn the men over to Sheriff Brady in Lincoln would result in their immediate release, so they gave the two men a chance to run for it, however small that chance might have been. Regulator William McCloskey, who was a friend of Morton's, apparently tried to convince the other Regulators not to kill him. Brewer and Bonney and the others may also have believed McCloskey to have been spying for the Murphy-Dolan faction. In any event, McCloskey, too, was killed along with Morton and Baker. The Regulators claimed that Morton shot McCloskey during the escape attempt. There is no way to be certain about these events, although historians tend to favour a narrative in which the three deaths were a sort of practical execution by 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, William Brady, the sheriff of Lincoln who had deputized the posse that killed Tunstall, was ambushed and shot down in the middle of the Lincoln road along with his deputy, George Hindemann. Half a dozen Regulators, including Bonney, Jim French, and Frank McNab committed these reprisal slayings. It is notable that Dick Brewer was not present at this ambush. The Regulators also killed Buckshot Roberts—who had been a member of the larger Brady posse that killed Tunstall—at Blazer's Mills, southwest of Lincoln in what is now the Mescalero Apache Reservation. Richard Brewer, too, was killed in this famous Wild West shootout. Brewer's death was unfortunate because his passing removed some restraint on The Regulators' actions.
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 stationed at nearby Fort Stanton, under the inept command of the alcoholic Colonel Nathan Dudley, intervened in the fight despite a new Congressional law forbidding the army to interfere in civilian matters. Dudley was partial to the Murphy-Dolan faction in the war, so he brought his troops to town during the battle and threatened the Regulators while the Dolanites strutted Lincoln's street with impunity. Dudley was later subject to a Court of Inquiry for his transgression. His actions were whitewashed by his fellow officers.
After their loss to the Dolan forces in the Five-Day Battle, the Regulators and the people who had fought with them got of town in a hurry. Bonney could have gone to California, Oregon, or Canada, changed his name, and disappeared into history. Instead, he remained in New Mexico despite the fact that he had an outstanding indictment against him for his involvement in the reprisal killing of Sheriff Brady. He did have the good sense to make himself scarce by moving to Fort Sumner, New Mexico way up on the border of the Texas Panhandle near the Pecos River, a place so remote and difficult to reach at the time that it became a haven for desperadoes of all sorts who had good reason to be absent from genteel communes. Bonney managed to stay alive until July 14, 1881, when he was shot and killed at Fort Sumner by Pat Garrett, a man with whom he had once gambled regularly but who had subsequently become the new Sheriff of Lincoln with a mandate to get rid of Billy and his friends.
Despite the many deaths and outrages perpetrated by the Dolan faction, and others by the Tunstall-McSween faction, Bonney was the only person ever tried and sentenced for a crime committed during the Lincoln County War.
John Tunstall lived in Lincoln for about a year-and-a-half before Morton, Hill, and Evans killed him. During his time in New Mexico, he was a regular and voluminous correspondent to his family back home 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 located at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, UK (website www.royalarmouries.org).
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