Artifact of the Week — October 27, 2022

Posted by on October 27, 2022

Thomas Todd Tunstall is an important, intriguing figure in our region of Arkansas, especially in Jacksonport, which he founded in 1839 (the Pleasant Hill Chapel honorary stone claims the date as 1820, but historians believe this date is imperfect). Captain Tunstall served in Simaral’s Cavalry of the Kentucky Light Dragoons during the War of 1812. He was present during the Battle of New Orleans, where he came into contact with the Bowie brothers, notorious for the “Arkansas toothpick”, or the Bowie knife, which happens to be Arkansas’ state knife. The tie to the Bowies deepened, according to legend. Bowie knives used in the Alamo standoff were crafted by James Black for Jim Bowie at Tunstall’s blacksmith shop on his plantation.

In gratitude of their friendship, James Bowie gifted a knife to Captain Tunstall. It now reads “Made & Presented to His Friend Capt. Thos Tunstall. By Col. Bowie, White River, Arkansaw Ter. near Batesville, 1833”. On the opposite side of the knife is written “Sheldon I. Kellogg – from his friend Thomas Tunstall, Nov., 1834”. Mr. Kellogg traveled the road adjacent to Tunstall’s property, and Tunstall gave him the knife, not recognizing its value. It was not engraved at the time Tunstall presented it, proven because James Bowie was proclaimed a captain postmortem. If you remember, the Alamo was in 1936. The knife is currently on display at the Saunders Museum in Berryville, Arkansas.

Captain Tunstall piloted the first steamboat, the Waverly, down the White River in 1831. In the early 1830s he hauled lumber aboard his own steamer, The William Parsons to Pleasant Hill on Dota Creek to build a plantation home. It is believed he owned land from Pleasant Hill to Jacksonport. Captain Tunstall was Sulphur Rock’s first postmaster in 1834.

Captain Tunstall’s third wife Elizabeth Magness, was a young 19 years old when she married 48-year-old Thomas Tunstall. Their union produced 11 children before she died 18 years later in 1856. Her dying wish was to be buried overlooking the racetrack where her husband bred and raced his prized thoroughbreds. Tunstall followed through on this promise, preserving her body in alcohol and placing it in a casket with a glass top so she could see the racetrack below.

During the Civil War, Union General Samuel Curtis removed the Tunstall family from the plantation. The Union soldiers confiscated everything of value and burned the house, took two of his steamboats, and smashed the glass lid on Elizabeth’s casket to snatch the diamond necklace from around her neck. Although Tunstall married a fourth time in 1861, he died in 1862 and chose to be interred next to Elizabeth in Pleasant Hill Cemetery.

As an interesting aside, his middle name, Todd, is his mother’s maiden name. Mildred Todd was related to Mary Todd Lincoln; Captain Tunstall and Mary Todd Lincoln were second cousins. Captain Tunstall is rumored to have visited the White House while President Lincoln was in office, although Tunstall considered himself a Confederate.

Read more about the fascinating history Of Thomas Todd Tunstall and his family at the Old Independence Regional Museum to research the files, chronicles, and pictures of the Tunstall family.

Thomas Todd Tunstall at OIRM
Thomas Todd Tunstall at OIRM

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