August 5, 2011Got this inquiry via Marshall Trimble this afternoon:
"In the July/2011 issue of TW, page 50 is a drawing of the murder of John Tunstall. There are no trees in the picture. The actual site is in a forest. So, was this depiction 'poetic license' by BBB or how the area actually looked back then?"
This is a good question and one that befuddled me as well when I visited the site for the first time in 1991. Here's what I have since found out. The actual site where Tunstall was murdered was heavily logged in the 1920s and cleared completely. It has grown back much thicker than it ever was in the 1870s. This is true of the entire area. If you look at photos of San Patricio and Lincoln and Hondo and Ruidoso in the 1870s and 1880s it is quite amazing how denuded it is. Very few trees of any kind on the hill sides. Part of the problem is they had more fires in those days and many Native New Mexicans burned their crops after each harvest and there are reports of numerous fires, some burning for weeks and even months at a time.
But the biggest contradiction comes from the eye witnesses to Tunstall's death. As I report in my Illustrated Life & Times of Billy the Kid, we have dueling quotes:
"I said to Brewer we can't hold this place it being a perfectly barren and rocky hillside."
"I was not present when Tunstall was shot—I did not see him shot, nor did I see anyone shoot at him—it was scrub timber & a person could not see."
—Johnny Hurley, posse member
Fred Nolan and others believe it was probably both, with a stand of trees obstructing Hurley's view (although it must be said, Hurley was testifying and didn't WANT to see anyone shooting Tunstall, because, a.) he was on their side and b.) they would kill him if he told the truth), and then an open area where Tunstall was actually killed and the rock pile where Billy the Kid and Rob Widenmann and Dick Brewer took refuge.
Here is what the ridge looked like in the 1920s:
—John Henry Tunstall's last words