Human beings are complicated.
In many of the hagiographies written about the great men of history we are told of their great deeds, but their lesser qualities are often glossed over or ignored
This can do a disservice to the historical figure because it makes him appear larger than life, while allowing us to mistakenly believe he lacked any negative character traits.
All humans have flaws, including those who possess many positive qualities or virtues or who have done great things.
I am going to explore a young man who, by all accounts was overly ambitious, arrogant, condescending, and headstrong, a man who hired ruffians to protect his business interests and has been accused of using others for his own benefit.
John Henry Tunstall was portrayed in the movie Young Guns as an older English gentleman, a father figure, who beneficently gave young men, including Billy the Kid, shelter and work protecting his ranch.
Despite his portrayal in the movie, the fact is at the time of his violent death, Tunstall was only 24 years old, and filled with the sense of adventure and ambition present in young men throughout the ages. In my view, these qualities – adventure and ambition – are positive, and, in fact, when harnessed correctly are what change the world for the better.
Born in London in 1853 into an upper middle-class family, Tunstall emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia at the age of 19 to work in his father’s store.
He soon became restless, and his entrepreneurial spirit led him to the New Mexico territory in 1876, at the age of 22. Soon after arriving in New Mexico, he met Alexander McSween, an attorney, who convinced him of the economic opportunities in Lincoln County.
He soon partnered with McSween, buying a ranch and opening a store and bank in Lincoln. The problem is that the store was down the street from the Murphy & Dolan general store, known as “The House,” which had enjoyed a de facto monopoly in the area. The House owned the rights to very lucrative contracts to sell beef to the federal government, contracts they did not want to lose.
They resented this upstart, and there was also some element of ethnic strife between the Irish Murphy and Dolan and the English Tunstall.
The problem for Tunstall is that Murphy and Dolan practically owned the town of Lincoln, controlling the entire economic and political establishment, including the courts and sheriff. They were politically connected to the higher echelons of power in New Mexico. Tunstall, the recent immigrant, was not, and was basically on his own with his friend McSween and the rancher John Chisum.
Tunstall soon became too successful for The House’s liking. One of the problems with a monopoly is, due to lack of competition, they can set prices as high as they want. Tunstall threatened their thriving business and their very livelihoods.
They wanted him gone when more residents of Lincoln began doing business with Tunstall, and they started losing significant market share.
Murphy and Dolan prepared for war. This being the Old West, they hired a posse, known as “The Boys,” to harass Tunstall and try to goad him into a gun battle. In response, Tunstall hired his own protectors, later known as “The Regulators,” including William H. Bonney, now known to history as Billy the Kid.
Since Murphy and Dolan were in control of the courts in Lincoln, in February 1878 they were able to get a warrant issued to seize Tunstall’s livestock to pay back a dubious debt. A posse was deputized by the corrupt Sheriff Brady to carry out the work.
When the posse arrived to enforce the court order, Tunstall attempted to speak with them. During this conversation and without prior warning, one of the men shot Tunstall in the chest. When he dropped off his horse, another member of the posse took Tunstall’s gun and shot him in the back of the head, killing him weeks before his 25th birthday.
His death led to retribution by the Regulators, including assassination of Sheriff Brady and the death of others, during the Lincoln County War, and the legend of Billy the Kid was born. Ultimately, more than twenty people were killed in the War. Billy the Kid was later shot by Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881.
As I stated at the beginning of this piece, all people are complicated, and Tunstall was no different. There’s evidence that his motives were not pure, and he was not seeking to bring competition and capitalism to Lincoln, but instead he wanted to replace the Murphy and Dolan monopoly with his own.
While I don’t have the space to analyze in full his motivations, in my view his life represents the spirit of adventure and ambition that all men should ideally have.
Men are restless.
Men don’t like to sit still.
Men abhor routine, and boredom.
When we allow these attributes to become extinguished, we lose a part of ourselves.
Tunstall wanted to strike out on his own and make his own way in the world, outside of his family business. This is admirable. Coming from a financially comfortable background with a father who was successful commercially, Tunstall could have taken the easy way out and stayed in the employ of his family. But, to a man like Tunstall, a life as a clerk was unthinkable.
Think of all the young men coming from wealthy families who choose a life of idleness and sensual pleasures instead of taking risks and working hard in an attempt to make something of their lives apart from their families. Such men are legion.
Instead, Tunstall chose a life of adventure and economic uncertainty. He sought to become his own man free of the constraints of family expectations. He sought to make a name for himself and earn his own wealth.
All new business ventures carry considerable risk, particularly those in places like Lincoln in the 1870’s where law and order existed to serve the ruling economic house.
Choosing to hang his shingle in Lincoln demonstrated that Tunstall was courageous and ambitious enough to take serious risks above and beyond those normally taken, and it cost him his life. There were less risky ventures in other areas of our nascent nation he could have undertaken that could have been successful, but he sought out the proverbial home run in Lincoln.
Tunstall represents the striving for greatness that should be present in the hearts, minds, and souls of all men, as well as a dissatisfaction with the status quo.
It is this spirit that existed within Tunstall’s very soul that we should strive to emulate.
Never be content with the status quo. Don’t allow your sense of adventure to be extinguished by the demands of the modern world. Have the ambition and courage to pursue your dreams, despite the obstacles that are in your way. Strive to be extraordinary, and live life completely on your own terms.
You may fail at times. When you do, pick yourself back up and reinvent yourself again.
John Tunstall is a reminder that adventure and ambition characterizes the lives of men, and we should never let anyone put that fire out.
By Chris D.
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