A couple of hours after daybreak, February 18, 1878, several men on horseback heading to Lincoln, New Mexico, spotted a posse closing on them fast and took cover. But, one of the men—John Tunstall— refused to turn tail and run.


Tunstall, the 24-year old rancher the other men worked for, decided to stand his ground.

Wealthy and adventurous, Tunstall arrived in New Mexico Territory in 1876 with entrepreneurial dreams and a burning ambition to achieve success on the wide open range of Lincoln County, an area populated by cattle ranches, mining camps, and railroad towns.

His success as a cattle rancher, banker, and merchant ruffled the wrong feathers.

The disdain harbored by established business interests put Tunstall front-and-center in a dangerous face-off for economic and political control of the 27,000-square mile region of Lincoln County, the largest county in the United States.

The men feeling most threatened were two Irish-Americans who operated a general store in Lincoln called The House

J.J. Dolan and L.G. Murphy controlled access to lucrative government contracts to supply beef, horses, and grain to the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation.

The House also lent money to ranchers at exorbitant interest rates. At the same time, it paid low prices for beef.

The ranchers who struggled to pay back the loans suffered severe setbacks when The House foreclosed on many of them.

When cattle baron John Chisum and attorney Alexander McSween objected to the Dolan-Murphy monopoly and mounted a direct challenge to The House, Tunstall joined them. He became, in effect, the leader of the anti-House contingent.

Although Tunstall opposed violence, he knew the potential danger of his actions and began recruiting young guns for protection. Among them: William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid.

The core of inevitable bloody confrontation centered on a controversial legal issue.

The court-approved, but illegal, scheme involved attaching McSween’s personal belongings and Tunstall’s assets, including his store and livestock.

The ruling, ordered by Judge Warren Bristol, a friend of the Murphy-Dolan group, fanned the flames of discontent. Some historians suggest such dubious action required cooperation from Governor Sam Axtell, along with the district attorney, and the sheriff.

While preparing to remove merchandise from Tunstall’s store, Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady, a Murphy-Dolan ally, deputized a posse and sent it to Tunstall’s ranch to seize his cattle.

On the morning of the shooting, the four Tunstall gunfighters—Billy the Kid, Dick Brewer, John Middleton, and Rob Widenmann—watched the posse approach Tunstall, who decided to try to reason with the men.

With no warning, one of the men in the posse fired. The bullet struck Tunstall in the chest and knocked him from the saddle.

Another member of the posse retrieved Tunstall’s gun and then shot the young rancher in the back of the head. 

Whatever life left in Tunstall oozed out along with his blood, soaking the ground around him.

The enforcement arm of the Tunstall-McSween group—the Regulators—responded to Tunstall’s cold-blooded murder with a vengeance.  

The Kid and his cohorts retaliated by killing Sheriff Bradytriggering the start of the Lincoln County War.

Branded as outlaws, the Regulators fled Lincoln County authorities. 

The conflict claimed more than twenty lives in Lincoln County.

Less than six months after Tunstall’s death—despite all the bloodshed—The House prevailed, with Alexander McSween among its victims.

Fighting continued sporadically until 1884, the same year John Chisum died of natural causes in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

By that time, Billy the Kid had already been dead for three years, gunned down by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett.

In the end, there were no victors in the Lincoln County War, chiefly because no one was able to step in and fill the leadership void.

The response by the Territorial government proved inadequate, allowing outlaws free rein to roam throughout Southeastern New Mexico, stealing cattle and killing citizens.



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  • Keith Olsen

    Interesting. Tunstall was portrayed as an older man in the John Wayne movie Chisum.

  • Keith —-I think he has always been portrayed as older. Most people are surprised to learn his age.

  • Jude

    Yo creo que siempre ha sido retratado como una persona mayor ya que era paternal con Billy hay que tener en cuenta que el es considerado el padre adoptivo de Billy y hay historiadores que aseguran que entre ellos había un cariño muy especial por lo que no es difícil pensar que lo consideraba un hijo también de lo que se sabe de ellos hay quienes afirman que el le dio a Billy todo lo que no tuvo de niño.
    Billy adoraba a John Tunstall y era muy capaz de todo por el ya que de cierta forma fue el único padre que tuvo.
    El biológico no se sabe a ciencia cierta si murió siendo el un bebé o más grande.
    Su padrastro lo abandono a su suerte sin importarle que acabará de perder a su madre por lo que
    John Tunstall vino siendo el único padre que tuvo y supo lo que era tenér un Papa.
    Hay historiadores que dicen no pero al mismo tiempo hay muchos que afirman el hecho de que Billy consideraba a John como un padre y lo adoraba y no creo que tantos historiadores estén equivocados.

  • Señor Jude–Gracias por tus comentarios. Sacas varios puntos buenos. Sin embargo, creo que obtendrás fuertes contraargumentos, John Tunstall es una figura paterna para Billy el niño.
    Primero, tenían una edad cercana. Tunstall, como mencionaste, no era la amable figura canosa que a menudo se representa en las películas. Tunstall era el empleador de Kid. Algunos dicen que fueron buenos amigos, pero incluso eso es cuestionable. En las cartas que Tunstall escribió a su familia en Inglaterra, rara vez mencionaba a Billy the Kid.

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