Tunstall Canyon Tour

by Lucas Speer

On July 17, 2009 the Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang took a field trip down into Tunstall Canyon where a 24-year-old Englishman named John Tunstall was brutally murdered by a group of deputized outlaws on February 18, 1878 sparking the violence which has since come to be known worldwide as the Lincoln County War. Young Billy the Kid was a witness to this horrific act of violence and swore to bring Tunstall's killers to justice.

Sheriff William Brady had sent the posse to serve a writ of attachment on Tunstall seizing both his ranch and livestock on the false pretext that he and Alexander McSween were legal partners. The writ of attachment had been issued against McSween in a civil lawsuit filed against him by the Fritz family over Emil Fritz's life insurance policy.

On the morning of Monday February 18, 1878 Tunstall had left his ranch on the Rio Feliz and started back towards Lincoln with nine horses that Sheriff Brady himself had already exempted from the attachment a few days earlier. Tunstall had left Martin Martz and his cook behind at the ranch to oversee, but not to resist the attachment of the cattle.

John Tunstall and his ranch hands identified as William Bonney, Fred Waite, John Middleton, Rob Widdenman, and Richard Brewer left his ranch at approximately 8:30 A.M. and began herding the horses towards Lincoln on the road, which wound in a northerly direction toward the Rio Hondo, where it joined the main road from Roswell to Lincoln, near the site of modern day Tinnie. After riding together for approximately 10 miles, Waite continued on the road with the wagon while the others, driving the small herd of horses, took a short-cut, ascending the trail which ran along the west side of Pajarito Mountain. 

At approximately 5:00 in the afternoon the group reached the canyon through which ran the trail leading to the Rio Ruidoso, some four miles to the north. Tunstall, Widenmann, and Brewer rode in the lead of the small herd, while Bonney and Middleton rode drag approximately 500 yards to the rear of the herd.

As the group rode along they startled a flock of wild turkeys which quickly fled into the underbrush. Widenmann later recalled that he offered Tunstall his rifle, but that he declined stating, "I'll stay with the horses, you and Dick go after the fowls." Shortly after Widenmann and Brewer left Tunstall to pursue the turkeys the thunderous sound of approaching horsemen riding from the rear interrupted the leisurely sounds in the canyon. 

Tunstall and his men then came under fire from the posse without so much as a command to halt being issued. All of Tunstall's men quickly realized the danger of the situation and quickly rode for a nearby wooded hillside covered with rocks to afford them some cover from the attacking party. John Middleton yelled for Tunstall to follow, but for some unknown reason he did not. Perhaps he still believed that he could resolve the situation by talking with the approaching posse and by showing no signs of resistance.

However within a short time the shooting stopped completely, but was followed shortly afterward by approximately 2 or 3 shots that Tunstall's men heard from their place of concealment.

Middleton stated what they must have all believed it when he said, "They have killed Tunstall." According to posse member George Kitt, Tunstall had failed to seek cover with the rest of his men, but instead turned and rode toward opposing posse members Jesse Evans, Frank Hill, and William Morton. Kitt stated that the three men instructed Tunstall to ride towards them assuring him that he would not be harmed. According to this same account, Tunstall was then shot in the chest by Morton causing him to fall from his hose. Jesse Evans then dismounted and fired a bullet from Tunstall's own revolver into the back of his head, before also shooting his horse in the head.

The posse members then placed Tunstall's head on a rolled up blanket and placed the hat he had been wearing under his horses head. The posse would later claim that Tunstall had tried to fire on them as the posse read the writ of attachment out loud to him. Tunstall's body was recovered on the next day by rancher John Newcomb, whose property was located only approximately six miles away from the murder site. It was then brought back from this remote location to the town of Lincoln where and official inquest was held before the burial just Northeast of Tunstall's store.

Today there is a roadside historical marker located on the side of the road along Highway 70 East of Ruidoso proclaiming to be the Tunstall Murder Site. This marker gives an excellent overview of the events that occurred on that fateful day, but is located approximately six miles from the actual murder site.

During the 2009 BTKOG Membership Meeting and Campout several determined members hiked down into Tunstall Canyon and visited the authentic site. Several theories of the murder were discussed and the surrounding terrain was walked and investigated. A wonderful and educational time was had by all who attended and were able to walk this historic ground. 

Download a map and directions to Tunstall's Kill Site here: