On February 18, 1878 rancher John Henry Tunstall was murdered on his ranch at Lincoln County, New Mexico by gunman William Morton, a deputy sheriff.
Tunstall moved to the United States with thoughts of becoming a sheep rancher. He arrived in Santa Fe, where he met a Lincoln County lawyer and cattle rancher named Alexander McSween. After talking to McSween, Tunstall was convinced that there were profits to be made from lucrative beef contracts in Lincoln County and soon began ranching in 1876.
The area was monopolized by two men by the names of Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, who owned the only store in Lincoln County — Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking. Murphy and Dolan virtually controlled the trade of the county. The Englishman and McSween soon set up a rival business called H.H. Tunstall & Company near the Murphy & Dolan Mercantile, known as “The House.” Murphy & Dolan attempted to put the pair out of business, harassing them legally and when that did not work, Dolan tried goad Tunstall into a gunfight.
Dolan and Murphy obtained a court order to seize some of Tunstall’s horses as payment for an outstanding debt. When Tunstall refused to surrender the horses, Lincoln County Sheriff, William Brady, formed a posse led by Deputy William Morton to seize them. After protesting the presence of the posse on his land, Morton drew his gun andTunstall was shot in the head. It was rumored that Tunstall had been murdered on the orders of Dolan and Murphy.
One of the witnesses of this murder was Tunstall’s hired hand, an orphand teenager, William Bonney, a.k.a. William Antrim, a.k.a. Billy the Kid.
Just what Billy the Kid’s relationship withTunstall is not clear. Tunstall was a young man at age 24; the story that he was a father figure sounds improbable. He must have provided some environment and influence that gave Billy stability and a sense belonging in his tumultuous life. Tunstall was not a simply an employer but a friend and Billy the Kid had a deep loyalty for him.
He was deeply affected by the murder. At Tunstall’s funeral Billy swore: “I’ll get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it’s the last thing I do.”
He immediately began a vendetta of violence against The House and its allies. Lincoln County became a war zone, and both sides began a spree of vicious killings. Billy the Kid rode into Western history and legend that still fascinates historians, novelists, and Hollywood movie makers.
As far as historians can surmise, Billy the Kid never lived to his 21st birthday and killed or was involved in the killing of 9 men in his short life. 5 of these men were involved in the Lincoln County War or involved in the murder of Tunstall. William Morton was one of them.
The Lincoln County War would continue to erupt sporadically until 1884 and The House finally regained full control of Lincoln County. By that time, Billy the Kid had already been dead for three years, gunned down by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett.
John Tunstall is buried near the McSween store at Fort Sumner, New Mexico; near Alexander McSween who was also a victim of the feud in July 1878. The exact locations of the remains are unknown; the crosses and grave stones are at an approximation.