MOUNT BONNELL. Mount Bonnell is high ground overlooking Austin, Texas, and is one of the most popular sightseeing destinations in the city. It is located within the western city limits of Austin in central Travis County and is on the eastern bank of the Colorado River, now Lake Austin.
The steps leading to the summit are located at 3800 Mount Bonnell Road, and the summit (at 30°19' N, 97°46' W) is approximately 775 feet above sea level. The city park atop Mount Bonnell contains 5.36 acres and was named Covert Park in honor of Frank M. Covert, Sr., who originally promised to donate acreage in the 1930s. In 1939 his sons Clarence Covert and F. M. Covert, Jr., deeded the property in his memory to the people of Travis County. This land was eventually deeded to the city of Austin in 1972.
Mount Bonnell is of limestone rock. Vegetation on it is predominantly ashe juniper (cedar), with some plateau live oak, mountain laurel, and persimmon. In the early twenty-first century, luxury homes occupied all but the top portion.
The first known reference to the physical feature appeared in a diary by journalist and soldier George W. Bonnell, who recorded his observations while traveling through the Texas frontier in 1838. “Bonnell’s observations” were later transcribed by geographer William Bollaert in 1844. Bonnell’s journal entry for July 25, 1838, recorded, “…ascended to the summit of a high hill. My companions called it ‘Mount Bonnell,’ the Colorado appearing but an inconsiderable Stream.” He referred to the landmark by name later in the same entry and enclosed the name in quotation marks: “The Summit of ‘Mount Bonnell’ composed of a corraline looking rock, oyster & other marine shells.”
Excerpts from George Bonnell’s diary that were printed in the May 1, 1839, edition of the Telegraph and Texas Register did not identify the mountain by name but did identify Bonnell’s companions as Gen. Edward Burleson and newspaper editor and merchant Simon Mussina.
Early mention of this high ground was also made by Albert Sidney Johnston, Secretary of War of the Republic of Texas, in correspondence to George Hancock of Louisville, Kentucky, in which he wrote on April 21, 1839: "My agent will set off in a few days to commence the building of the City of Austin at the foot of the mountain on the Colorado. His escorts will be sufficient to protect the workmen and materials."
Johnston's knowledge of the terrain suggests that he probably had seen "the mountain on the Colorado" River prior to writing this letter. Johnston (formerly the commanding general of the Texas Army) and his adjutant general, Hugh McLeod, were responsible for the military defense of the new capital while it was being constructed, and high ground was critical to military defense. Military protection was needed during the construction, because laborers were liable to be interrupted by hostile Indians for whom there was a constant watch. The threat of a sudden appearance of a large Mexican army was also on the minds of military planners, since three years before, a large Mexican army had surprised San Antonio.
Mount Bonnell was an integral part of the defense of Austin for about a year until the population of Austin increased and the Indian threat and the threat of a Mexican Army invasion decreased. The first known publication of the name "Mount Bonnell" appeared in George Bonnell's book titled Topographical Description of Texas to Which is Added an Account of the Indian Tribes and published in April 1840. On page sixty-six of this book is found the following:
"Four miles above the city [of Austin], upon the east
side of the river, is a high peak, called Mount Bonnell.
From the top of the mountain there is a perpendicular
precipice of seven hundred feet down to the water.
The prospect from the top of this mountain, is one of
the grandest and loveliest in nature."
After the threat of attack on Austin subsided, Mount Bonnell became a favorite sightseeing location. After the Civil War, when Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer established the headquarters of his Sixth United States Cavalry Regiment in Austin, he and his wife, Libby, had picnics atop Mount Bonnell. The Custers noted that the summit was too steep for a cavalry horse to climb, so it had to be climbed on foot. Custer had the Sixth Cavalry Regimental Band play concerts at these picnics on Mount Bonnell. This included their favorite music, "The Anvil Chorus," because "the sound descended through the valley grandly."
While the Sixth Cavalry Regiment was stationed at Camp Sanders, a young lieutenant in the regiment, Thomas Tolman, fell gravely ill. Austin resident Jinnie Barret asked the commanding officer to have this man brought to her home so that she could try to nurse him back to health, and the commanding officer, expecting Tolman would die, granted her request. During the months of Tolman's recovery, Jinnie Barret was helped by her daughter Corinne, and during the lieutenant's convalescent period of increasing exercise, Corinne Barret and Thomas Tolman rode horses to Mount Bonnell. At the time, there was a legend that a couple would fall in love on the first visit to Mount Bonnell, become engaged on the second visit, and marry on the third visit. On Christmas Eve 1866, the couple became engaged on their second visit to Mount Bonnell. Later, presumably after their third visit to Mount Bonnell, Corinne and Thomas were married. This love story was told by their son, Texaco executive J. C. Tolman, in 1924.
The landmark has been the subject of many legends over the decades, and local lore also named the summit "Antonette's Leap" in memory of a woman who jumped to her death to escape Indians who had just killed her fiancé.
Author James Michener lived in his home on Mount Bonnell while researching and writing his novel, Texas. The Texas Monthly Guidebook to Texas states that Mount Bonnell is one of Austin's oldest tourist attractions, and the Austin Chronicle's' "Best of Austin" selected Mount Bonnell as "Austin's Best View."
Debate has occurred regarding the naming of Mount Bonnell. Over the years, newspaper accounts have suggested that Gen. Edward Burleson called the peak Mount Bonnell after his friend George W. Bonnell. The Galveston Daily News on May 7, 1876, stated that two prominent hills on the Colorado were named for the two Austin newspaper editors in the 1840s—George Bonnell of the Texas Sentinel and George Teulon of the Austin City Gazette. A Texas Historical Marker for the landmark was erected in 1969 and credits George Bonnell as its namesake.
Others have suggested Lt. Joseph Bonnell, who served in Texas during the Texas Revolution, as the mountain's namesake. He was appointed aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. Sam Houston, his personal friend. Joseph Bonnell was a captain in the Regular Army of Texas as well as a first lieutenant in the Regular Army of the United States, and he played a critical role by single-handedly quelling an Indian uprising in East Texas which threatened Houston's army prior to the battle of San Jacinto.
Joseph Bonnell and Albert Sidney Johnston served together for three years as cadets at West Point. Joseph Bonnell and Hugh McLeod served together as lieutenants in the Third Infantry at Fort Jesup, Louisiana. Bonnell, Johnston, and McLeod met with Sam Houston in Nacogdoches in August 1836. There is circumstantial evidence that Secretary of War Johnston and Adj. Gen. McLeod may have given a name, perhaps after Joseph Bonnell, to this high ground in 1839 for purposes of military defense of Austin.
Despite the debated origins of the landmark’s designation, the name Bonnell is reflective of two significant figures of early Texas. Mount Bonnell is a famous and integral part of Austin. Its close association with the military defense of Austin in 1839, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, the Army of the Republic of Texas, Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and the Band of the Sixth Cavalry Regiment makes it a significant and historic military site as well as a recreational destination.
Austin History Center Files. George W. Bonnell, Topographical Description of Texas to Which is Added an Account of the Indian Tribes (Austin: Wing & Brown, 1840). “Bonnell’s observations: 1838–9, Copied by W. J. Bollaert 1844,” manuscript of George W. Bonnell’s diary in Edward E. Ayer Manuscript Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois. Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Tenting on the Plains, or General Custer in Kansas and Texas (New York: Webster, 1887). Historical marker files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. W. Eugene Hollon and Ruth L. Butler, eds., William Bollaert's Texas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956). Albert Sidney Johnston Papers, Manuscripts Department, Special Collections, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University. Telegraph and Texas Register, May 1, 1839.