John H. Tunstall is a hard man to track down. Never mind that the 24 year old has been dead now for 140 years, 187 days. His grave isn't too hard to find, it's (sorta) behind his store in Lincoln and his store is now a museum. It would be more accurate to say that the houses he left behind on his Lincoln County ranch are what's hard to find. Though they won't be hard for you to find since you're lucky enough to be reading this article.
If you found your way here, you probably know that Tunstall was the young Englishman whose murder in the lawless New Mexico Territory in February of 1878 ignited the firestorm that would become the Lincoln County War, and that the Lincoln County War is what helped launch Billy the Kid into the stratosphere of American legends and folk heroes. When I set out to find all of the Tunstall sites for my Billy the Kid wall maps, I found them variously to be easy, confusing, and almost impossible to locate without actually getting out there with boots on the ground, but find them I did. Here's the story of Tunstall's final two days and where it all happened.
The Tunstall Store, Lincoln, New Mexico Territory
"Turn loose now, you sons of bitches! We'll give you a game!" Not a soul inside Tunstall's store dared to make a sound as Billy, with his buddy Fred, 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 even Billy the Kid couldn't get them to abandon it. Tunstall, however, had just learned that this was only the start of his troubles. A large posse of Dolan's henchmen was gathering at the Paul ranch with the intent to storm Tunstall's ranch and take all of the cattle, and probably a few souls just for kicks. Tunstall needed to call in the big guns, so he decided to set out alone from Lincoln to find John Chisum, cattle baron of the Pecos.
The story of Tunstall's last 48 hours begins and ends in Lincoln. He rode 160 miles round trip in two days trying to find help before being gunned down just ten miles outside of Lincoln. His body was brought back to his store where it was laid out on a table and later buried on the lot just northeast of the building. Just a few months later, Tunstall's friend and lawyer Alexander McSween would be murdered in The Big Killing right next door to the Tunstall store, and McSween would be laid to rest near Tunstall. The exact locations of the original burial sites have been lost to history, so markers were erected directly behind the Tunstall store. The area where the bodies were likely buried (shown on the map above) is now private property and is NOT part of the Tunstall Museum grounds, so don't go poking around over there. Let Tunstall (and the neighbors) rest in peace.
Chisum's South Spring Ranch, Roswell, New Mexico Territory
It was a sixty mile ride from Lincoln to Chisum's ranch headquarters on the South Spring River, and Tunstall arrived exhausted after being in the saddle all night. He was trying to find Chisum who, as a friend and fellow rancher, he hoped would lend his formidable crew of cowboys in the impending confrontation with the Dolan posse. Tunstall must've been crushed when he learned that Chisum himself had been jailed in Las Vegas, New Mexico by Dolan's goons, and that 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 rides to get from Chisum's ranch to his own down on the Rio Felix.
The Tunstall Ranch & Casey's Dugout on the Rio Feliz
With no rest and no backup, Tunstall left the South Spring Ranch and set out on the 60 mile journey to his own ranch on the Rio Feliz (interchangeably known as the Rio Felix) where he met up with Billy the Kid, Fred Waite, Dick Brewer and the other men in his employ. 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. He wanted to offer no resistance. 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.
Today the hardest Tunstall sites to find and access the are buildings on the old Tunstall Ranch, but miraculously the sites and some of the original structures do still exist. All of them, however, are on private property and are not accessible to the public without prior landowner permission. You can, however, admire them from the road if you're willing to brave the rocky, unpaved ranch roads to get to them. There are actually three buildings of interest on what was the Tunstall Ranch:
Tunstall's ranch house. This was a modest structure built over a pit that was about four feet deep. It's not likely Tunstall spent much time here considering the short and tumultuous nature of his time in New Mexico, but the site survives to this day. The house that stands on the site now is not the original house, and the pit below it was filled many years ago. Reportedly however, the stone fireplace inside the house is the same one that warmed Tunstall 140 years ago. The house is still occupied today.
Casey's dugout. This was another structure–most historians hesitate to call it a home–that was built over a pit and used for temporary or part-time living. Robert Casey originally built it when he was attempting to ranch the property. Casey was killed in Lincoln in 1875 by William Wilson, but that's another story. The dugout became Tunstall's when he acquired the ranch, and it's where Billy the Kid, Dick Brewer and the other men employed by Tunstall lived when they were working at the ranch. It's close to the road and easy to see, but strongly advised you don't walk onto the property without prior permission.
The James Dolan House. Through a sad and strange twist of fate, Jimmy Dolan, the man responsible for orchestrating Tunstall's murder, ultimately acquired Tunstall's ranch and built his own house on the property in 1895 just a little bit southeast of Casey's dugout. It was here in 1898 that Dolan himself died.
The Paul 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 the ranch and, learning that Tunstall had headed for Lincoln, hand-selected a smaller group of hardened killers from the posse to overtake Tunstall and bring back the horses. One of the men by the name of Morton was heard to say, "Hurry up boys, my knife is sharp and I feel like scalping someone!" With those words, Morton doomed both Tunstall and, ultimately, himself.
Today as far as I can determine, nothing remains of the old Paul Ranch. Though the exact location of its original buildings seems to have been lost to time, we know it was nestled along the Rio Peñasco and the present-day US HIghway 82 about where it's shown on the maps above.
The Tunstall Murder Site
Our final stop on Tunstall's last ride takes us to late afternoon on February 18, 1878. Fred Waite who had been traveling with the party was driving the wagon. He split off to take the easier wagon road back to Lincoln and the other men took the more rugged but direct route back toward town. Billy the Kid and the others were hunting turkey a short distance from Tunstall when the posse crested the ridge. The Kid was able to take cover on the hillside with the others. Tunstall, exhausted from having ridden 160 miles in 48 hours, not only hesitated but turned and rode casually toward the posse, likely to try and reason with them. Without warning or provocation, they shot him out of the saddle, then point blank in the back of the head. They also shot his horse and, for a little joke, positioned the bodies as if they were taking a nap together. They took all of Tunstall's remaining horses back to Dolan. Billy and the other men headed back to Lincoln to report the murder.
Special thanks go to Becky Borowski and Marilyn Burchett, without whose extensive knowledge and generosity this article wouldn't have been worth writing. I'd also like to thank the generous people of Lincoln and Lincoln County for always making my trips to Kid Country something special. If you enjoyed reading this article, you'll love my Billy the Kid wall maps for sale in the store. They're one-of-a-kind maps that are both educational and artistic, and your purchase helps fund new mapping research into your favorite stories of the Old West. Please "like" this post and comment to let me know what you think!