Martha Goodwin Tunstall, anti-slavery Unionist, Radical Republican supporter, woman suffrage and temperance leader, was born in Uniontown, Perry County, Alabama, on December 29, 1838, to Hugh Walter Goodwin and Rebecca Long (Adair) Goodwin. Her parents were planters in Perry County before moving to Houston County, Texas. In early 1856, shortly after purchasing land in Houston County, her father died, which left her mother to run a 1,000-acre plantation, with twenty-six slaves.
Martha (also known as Martha Adair Goodwin Tunstall or M.G. Tunstall), was the oldest of nine children. She was educated at Union College in Alabama and taught school after her family’s arrival in Texas. In summer 1856 she taught at the Crockett Ladies Academy, and from January to May 1857 she taught on the Daniel M. Coleman plantation. In summer 1856 Martha was baptized and accepted into membership in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In 1857, while living on the Coleman plantation, she witnessed a white man beating a slave and wrote about the incident in her journal: “O my God when will all this end? He is beating him as one who had no feelings. What a horrible curse on mankind is slavery—would that it were done away with, then could we truly say America is free—how it does degrade this African & White man. It is the worst of evils.”
On December 29, 1858, Martha Goodwin married William Vaughan Tunstall (who sometimes went by the name of “Buck”) at her mother’s home. William Tunstall was born in Morgan County, Alabama, in 1828 and came to Texas in 1854. He was a schoolteacher, lawyer, politician, farmer, and circuit riding Methodist lay minister. Between 1861 and 1881 Martha and William had nine children.
After their marriage, the Tunstalls taught school at Ioni, a small village in southern Anderson County. During this time, the couple attempted to gain control over Martha’s mother’s slaves in the Anderson County courts by filing for appointment as executors of her father’s estate. The couple may have intended to manumit the slaves but could not overcome legal obstacles to such actions.
By summer 1860 Martha and William had relocated to Homer Parish, Louisiana; they hoped that the climate would help Martha’s ill health. She likely suffered from consumption (tuberculosis) for most of her life. On the day the first Southern state seceded from the Union, December 20, 1860, the Tunstalls left the South and arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Christmas Day. By 1862 they had moved to Minnesota, where they remained for several years. William Tunstall taught school, gave lectures on the war in the South, and served as a lay minister with the United Brethren Church. Near the end of the Civil War, Martha and William slowly made their way back home and in early 1866 arrived in Anderson County, Texas, where William received an appointment as postmaster of Palestine.
While continuing to serve as postmaster, William Tunstall was appointed as county judge of Anderson County in November 1867. Because of their Radical Republican politics, the Tunstall family was harassed and threatened by formerly Confederate citizens in Palestine. In June 1868 William left for Austin to serve as secretary of the Texas Constitutional Convention of 1868–69. Martha and their children likely soon followed. On December 7, 1868, the convention considered the issue of granting suffrage to women. Prior to the vote, Martha Tunstall gave a speech at the final meeting of the Austin Friends of Female Suffrage and argued in favor of woman suffrage. She concluded her speech by saying, “… may not your mothers, your wives, your sisters, your daughters, the women of America, have a voice in making the laws and selecting the rulers to who she owes, and to whom she renders the most implicit reverence and faithful obedience.” Despite her plea, the issue of granting suffrage to women was rejected by the convention.
In 1869 she became the vice-president from Texas of the newly-formed National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). She continued to serve in this capacity through about 1874 and again from 1877 to 1880. She also served on an advisory committee for the NWSA in 1876.
In February 1869 Tunstall returned home to East Texas while her husband campaigned for the First Congressional District seat of the U.S. Congress. In November 1869, William Tunstall withdrew from the race, and the couple relocated from Palestine to the Shiloh neighborhood of Houston County, near Martha’s mother. There, William was named postmaster of a new post office named Creswell.
The Tunstalls were harassed by former Confederates, including members of Martha’s extended family, during the first several years of their stay at Shiloh. They suffered public scorn, the vandalism of their crops and property, and the mutilation of some of their livestock. In June 1870, their well was poisoned and their family sickened, resulting in the death of two of their boys, ages five and seven. Martha and William believed that the well was poisoned by the local Ku Klux Klan organization. In April 1871 William joined the Texas State Police force in order to attempt to keep his family and property safe. He served in this capacity for about a year.
In July 1871 William Tunstall was accused of burning the Methodist Church/schoolhouse at Shiloh. When it became known that he was away from home that night, Martha and her young children were accused of the act. William, in turn, accused former Confederates of burning the school house in order to blame him.
William continued to farm and serve as a leader of Republican politics in East Texas. From 1874 to 1876 he also served as a lay minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church to the Freedmen of Crockett and Lovelady. Martha and William conducted a “literary colored school” in the door yard of their house at Shiloh. By 1877 the family had moved from Shiloh to Crockett. There, William practiced law and Martha became more active as vice president from Texas of the NWSA.
On January 15, 1878, U. S. Representative John Henniger Reagan added the petition of Martha Tunstall and three other women from Crockett to those of women from other states. The petition asked the U. S. House of Representatives to pass an amendment to the U. S. Constitution prohibiting the states from disfranchising United States citizens on account of sex. At the July 18–19, 1878, annual meeting of the NWSA in Rochester, New York, a letter from Martha was read. She reported that, “this far off state is ripe for the change. In my own city [Crockett], at least half of the women and many of the men are open advocates of our right to the ballot.” Another letter from Martha detailing her reasons for supporting women gaining the right to vote was read in January 1880 at a convention of the NWSA in Washington, D.C.
In mid-1880 the Tunstalls left Texas and settled in southeast Kansas where William continued to practice as a lawyer. The couple moved to Missouri in 1882 where he became a lay minister in the Methodist Protestant Church. In 1885 he transferred to the Fort Smith/Indian Mission Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church. The couple lived at various times in western Arkansas and in eastern Oklahoma. Martha cared for the children and, at times, taught school.
She was limited in what she could do for woman suffrage by her location in rural East Texas, the poverty of her family, and her husband’s views on the subject. In a letter she wrote from the Peoria Nation to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) at the end of 1885, she volunteered her services to work for temperance in Indian Territory and commented, “I was years ago appointed by Susan B. Anthony as vice president of W.N.S.A. [sic] for Texas, but my husband is so opposed to suffrage that I dropped everything connected with it.”
Martha received permission from Frances E. Willard to organize for the WCTU in Indian Territory. She accompanied her husband to the Territory in 1886–87 to work towards establishing chapters of the organization and was likely motivated in part by a mistaken belief that she had Cherokee ancestors. She served as president of the WCTU in Indian Territory until 1888, when she was succeeded by a Cherokee woman, Jane Stapler.
In 1895 the Tunstalls returned to Texas where Martha was appointed postmaster at Rhymer in Collin County. After about a year, the family returned to Oklahoma. William died in Golconda in 1898. Martha remained active in the Women’s Home Mission Auxiliary Society of the Indian Mission Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church. She subsequently lived with her adult daughters in Bluejacket, Oklahoma Indian Territory, where she died of tuberculosis on April 16, 1911. Martha Goodwin Tunstall was buried in Bluejacket Cemetery. Her tombstone has the inscription: “Mother is sweetly sleeping Take thy rest.”