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The Last Ride of John H. Tunstall

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

Map depicting the route of John H. Tunstall's last 48 hours.
Map depicting the locations of major events of John H. Tunstall's last 48 hours, 16–18 February, 1878, New Mexico Territory.

In 1877, a wayward young fellow named William H. Bonney, destined to be known by the world as Billy the Kid, rode into New Mexico Territory fleeing trouble back in Arizona Territory. It was at the deplorable pit jail in the town of Lincoln that young Billy met another young man by the name of John H. Tunstall. Tunstall was the son of a wealthy Englishman, and like so many others Tunstall had recently come to America to make his own fortune in the Wild West. The new arrivals became acquainted after Billy, in a random act of horse thievery at which he had become quite adept, stole some that belonged to Tunstall. But Tunstall, instead of pursuing legal action, offered Billy a job. Tunstall was in need of cowboys for the ranching operation he was assembling. Perhaps just as importantly, he was in need of protection from Jimmy Dolan, a treacherous young fellow who was already in business in the area and who saw Tunstall's entrepreneurial interests as a serious threat to his own. Billy accepted the offer, and in addition to his pay Tunstall treated Billy with kindness and gifts. Though their relationship was short, Tunstall's actions cemented Billy's loyalty and set the stage for one of the greatest tales of the Old West.

The 5-Minute History of Tunstall's Last 48 Hours

The Tunstall Store, Lincoln, New Mexico Territory

"Turn loose now, you sons of bitches! We'll give you a game!" None of the men inside Tunstall's store made a sound as Billy Bonney, with his buddy Fred Waite, stood on the street taunting the men holed up inside. Dolan's men had occupied the heavily fortified store much to Tunstall's dismay, and they weren't going to budge. Tunstall's newly constructed store was a major expansion of an existing adobe structure which had originally been built in the 1850's by settlers. The store had thick walls, reinforced shutters, was well-stocked with merchandise and was an affront to the existing Murphy-Dolan store down the street, known as "the House." Tunstall had only been in Lincoln a short time when he ran afoul of Dolan and the House which were part of a vast ring of crime and corruption that reached all the way up to the Territorial Governor. Dolan, who had a host of killers, criminals and lawmen at his disposal, which included Sheriff Brady, set about using any means necessary to destroy Tunstall's venture. Using intimidation and force thinly veiled under the guise of the law, Dolan's men confiscated Tunstall's store in Lincoln. Tunstall also learned that a large posse of some 40 of Dolan's henchmen was gathering down at the Paul ranch with the intent to storm Tunstall's ranch and take all of the cattle, and possibly a few souls just for kicks. Tunstall needed serious reinforcements, and his only hope was with John Chisum, cattle baron of the Pecos. ​Out of desperation, Tunstall sent Billy and Fred down to the Tunstall ranch, while Tunstall himself set out alone on the 60 mile ride from Lincoln to Roswell, hoping to find Chisum at home.

Chisum's South Spring Ranch, Roswell

It was a sixty mile ride from Lincoln to Chisum's ranch headquarters on the South Spring River, but Tunstall knew that Chisum had a history of confrontation with Dolan and his henchmen and would be a likely ally. As a friend and fellow rancher, Tunstall hoped Chisum would lend his formidable crew of cowboys in the impending confrontation with the Dolan posse. Tunstall rode all night and arrived exhausted, and he must've been crushed when he learned that Chisum himself had been jailed in Las Vegas by parties in league with Dolan. Despite Tunstall's pleas, Chisum's brothers, reluctant to get involved, would not send Chisum cowboys to help face down the posse. ​Tunstall, with his own small crew of cowboys which included Billy the Kid, were on their own. The posse from the Paul Ranch would be assembled soon, and it was another sixty miles as the horse flies to get from Chisum's ranch to his own down on the Rio Felix. 

Tunstall's Ranch on the Rio Feliz

With little rest and no backup, Tunstall left the South Spring Ranch and set out on another 60 mile journey to his own ranch on the Rio Feliz (interchangeably known as the Rio Felix) where he met up with Billy Bonney, Fred Waite, Dick Brewer, John Middleton, Henry Brown and Robert Widenmann. The Dolan posse would be preparing to leave the Paul ranch by sunrise the next day, so there was no time to waste. Tunstall decided to leave his cattle behind for the posse, but take his small herd of horses and his men back to Lincoln out of harm's way. Tunstall wanted to offer no resistance, and instead put his faith in the legal system to settle the dispute. So again with little rest and 120 miles behind him already, Tunstall, now joined by his men and horse herd, set out on the final 40+ mile trek to Lincoln. It was now the pre-dawn hours of February 18, 1878 and young Tunstall was about to see his last sunrise.

The Posse at Paul's Ranch

On the morning of February 18, 1878 a posse of more than 40 of Dolan's henchmen set out from the Paul Ranch with the aim of seizing all of Tunstall's cattle. They arrived at Tunstall's ranch just hours after Tunstall and his party had left for Lincoln.  Dolan joined the posse at Tunstall's ranch and, learning that Tunstall had headed for Lincoln, hand-selected a sub-group of hardened killers from the posse to overtake Tunstall and bring back the horses. Whether or not Dolan intended the murder of Tunstall or anyone else isn't known, but the hard and notorious men he chose to pursue them indicated that, at the very least, Dolan wasn't concerned with the means by which his posse achieved their objective. One of the men selected by Dolan, William Morton, was heard to say, "Hurry up boys, my knife is sharp and I feel like scalping someone!"

Tunstall's Cold-blooded Murder

By late afternoon on February 18, 1878, Tuntsall and his men were closing in on the Lincoln area. Fred Waite, who had been traveling with the party and driving the wagon, had split off earlier to take the easier wagon road back to Lincoln. The rest of the party took the more rugged but direct route back toward town, unaware they were being pursued. Billy and the others were distracted by a flock of wild turkeys, which they had chased up a hill just moments before the pursuing posse crested the ridge behind the party. When the posse was sighted, Billy was able to take cover on the hillside with the others. However Tunstall, exhausted from having ridden 160 miles in 48 hours, didn't flee but turned and rode casually toward the posse, perhaps to try and reason with them and make a show of no resistance. But Tunstall's tactic didn't work. Without warning or provocation, one of the men, possibly Jesse Evans, shot Tunstall in the chest, knocking him out of the saddle. Finding that Tunstall was still alive, another shot was fired. Tunstall was struck in the back of the head, execution style, and died there in the canyon that now bears his name.  The posse also shot and killed Tunstall's horse and, for a little frontier humor, positioned the bodies as if they were taking a nap together. The posse was unable to dislodge Tunstall's men from the surrounding hills, and so rounded up the horses and delivered their plunder to Dolan. Billy and the other men escaped to Lincoln, where the report of Tunstall's murder sparked fear and outrage. Tunstall's body was collected from the canyon and returned to his store where it was laid out and prepared for burial. The result of Tunstall's murder was to pit Tunstall's men and others who opposed Dolan's lawlessness against the House and all of the men under Dolan's influence, in a series of bloody confrontations soon to be known as The Lincoln County War.

Present-day Historical Locations

A great many of the buildings where the events of the the Old West played out have long since burned, been redeveloped or paved over, or have simply been allowed to crumble and blow away over the generations. Many of the physical locations are on private land, and are not accessible to the curious hoping to commune with the spirits of the Old West. However, there are exceptions, and notable among them is the tiny community of Lincoln. So many of Lincoln's original 19th Century buildings remain today that Billy the Kid would undoubtedly still recognize its lonely street, once called "the most dangerous street in America." The entire community has been designated a historic district, and a great many of the buildings that stood in the late 1800's have been preserved. Today there are seven state-owned museums and historic sites in Lincoln for visitors to enjoy and learn about the town's wild and infamous past. In the section below we'll tour what remains of the places Tunstall went during his last ride, starting with his store in Lincoln, New Mexico.

The Tunstall Store & Museum

In 1877, John Tunstall moved to the Lincoln area and acquired a lot with a small adobe building on it. He quickly set about expanding it, and by 1878 it was a fully stocked store. After Tunstall's murder the store continued to play a role role in the events of the Lincoln County War. It was a strategic location for Dolan's men in the Five Day Battle, in which the neighboring McSween house was burned, and was looted several times. In subsequent years it changed hands several times but remained a store until 1957 when it was sold to the state and became a museum. The museum still has the original shelving and display cases, and is stocked with many of same items sold there in the early days of operation. The store looks very much as it did when Tunstall operated it in the brief period before his murder.

In addition to the retail area, the store also had a living quarters. It was under the floor of this room where the wounded Jim French, one of The Regulators, successfully hid from Dolan's men as they ransacked the store trying to find him.

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