John Henry Tunstall

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John Henry Tunstall


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John Henry Tunstall (1853-1878) was a rancher and merchant, with a Jersey-born mother. His murder triggered the start of the Lincoln County War in New Mexico


Birth and parentage

John Henry Tunstall was born in London in 1853, the only son of John Partridge Tunstall, later of Cheltenham, colonial merchant, who had married in St Peter in 1849, Emily Ramié, the daughter of Charles François Ramié, of St Helier, a draper, shipowner and merchant. Ramié had married Anne Le Brocq of The Yews and was a former business partner of his brother-in-law, William Le Brocq. John Henry Tunstall was, through the Le Brocqs, a descendant of the Le Feuvres of La Hougue and, by marriage, was a great-nephew of Abraham de Gruchy. He was, in his own generation, related to both of the founders of La Société Jersiaise, being a second cousin of one and related by marriage to the other. An uncle was The States of Jersey`s architect, Charles William Ramié.

Lincoln County

John Henry Tunstall migrated in 1872, to Victoria, British Columbia, to join Turner, Beeton and Tunstall, a firm run by his uncle, Henry Coppinger Beeton, in which Tunstall`s father had shares. He later decided instead to settle in New Mexico to take up ranching, arriving in Lincoln County, NM in 1876.

The Lincoln community and outlying area had but the one trading firm and bank, which was run by two or three large, well-established, ranchers known as the `Murphy-Dolan faction`, at the expense of all others. This firm conducted all local cattle buying, as they had secured the Government contract to provide beef, some of which was for the use of local Indians. Cattle were therefore able to be bought by them at the lowest of prices, for which same cattle, the U.S. Government paid them handsomely; this profit being made at the expense of all other ranchers. To the fury of those with a vested interest in the status quo, Tunstall, having come from a mercantile background, set up a rival business and bank together with a friend, Alex McSween, a lawyer, backed by the renowned cattleman, John Chisum. Many of Lincoln`s residents immediately switched business to Tunstall`s firm, leaving their rivals facing possible bankruptcy. As ill-feeling mounted, gunfighters were hired by both sides, on Tunstall`s for defence and by the other parties, for threat and intimidation.

The Lincoln County War (1878-1881)

The spark that blew the proverbial `lid off the powder-keg` was the murder by gunfire of Tunstall [1] on 18 February 1878. This was enabled by Sheriff William Brady, a Murphy-Dolan appointee, deputising a posse mainly consisting of gunmen, to ride over to Tunstall`s ranch on the Feliz River, ostensibly to seize cattle, but in reality to eliminate Tunstall. The latter and some of his ranch-hands were absent, taking horses to Lincoln, using a remote trail through scrub woodland. Four members of the posse broke away, caught up with Tunstall and his men, and immediately opened fire. Whereas his men scattered for cover towards a nearby knoll, Tunstall remained with his horses on the trail, where he was shot twice and killed. This event triggered the long-running land and cattle war known as the Lincoln County War, in which `Billy the Kid` McCarty/Antrim alias Bonney, hired by Tunstall, rose to notoriety.

When Sheriff Brady made no effort to apprehend the murderers, McSween obtained from the local Justice of the Peace, John Wilson, a warrant for their arrest, at the same time having his and the late Tunstall`s employees sworn as special constables. These named themselves the Lincoln County Regulators. They hunted down and killed by March 9th, three of Tunstall`s killers and an associate of theirs, whilst also seriously wounding the fourth of his killers, in what was known as the `Blackwater Massacre`. On April 1st, they shot and killed Sheriff Brady and his deputy. There followed actions such as the `Battle of Blazer`s Mill` and the `Gunfight at Fritz`s Ranch`.

Tunstall`s friend and colleague, McSween, was shot and killed five months later during the `Battle of Lincoln,` which went badly for the Regulators, as the U.S. Army was on that occasion involved. One of the two instigators of the unrest, Lawrence Murphy, died of natural causes three months after this. Some two hundred fighting men were involved in this prolonged struggle. Many died between the above dates; others were killed afterwards. Properties were `torched` and what had begun as a struggle between right and wrong, developed into a feud unto death. The Murphy-Dolan faction`s economic monopoly was broken, despite Dolan having had the original warrant from Justice of the Peace John Wilson declared illegal. After this considerable loss of life, Dolan was charged with Tunstall`s murder, but was acquitted, to the amazement of all concerned. Bizarrely, only Billy McCarty, alias Antrim, was brought to trial and actually convicted, although friends enabled his escape. He was finally cornered and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett, in July 1881, which date marked the end of the Lincoln County War.

Leadership and Character

Tunstall was a clear-headed, fair man who, on moving into Lincoln County, saw immediately what was required to redress a serious injustice and acted accordingly by founding the rival business. When the Murphy-Dolan faction harassed him with legal challenges, he was unmoved. When they began the hiring of gunmen, he followed suit. Efforts to provoke him into a gun battle in order to kill him, he calmly ignored. Indeed, he had been trying to negotiate with Murphy and Dolan until the final days. Those who witnessed his death testified that his revolver was still in its holster when the bullets struck him. He was in every sense a man who stood his ground. It is a testimony to his leadership and character that he could, in so short a time, inspire such loyalty in his men that they were prepared to avenge his death, however long it took.

Notes and references

  1. J. H. Tunstall had yet to marry, at the time of his death. His eventual heirs were his sisters, Emily Behrens, née Tunstall, of Bavaria, Miss Mabel Tunstall and Lilian Le Feuvre Burdett, née Tunstall, of London
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