Joseph Bonnell, an army officer during the Texas Revolution, son of Charles Bonnell and Mary Brehault Bonnell, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on August 4, 1802. Joseph entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1821 and graduated on July 1, 1825, in the thirty-seven-man West Point Class of 1825.
On April 23, 1831, Lieutenant Bonnell, stationed with the Third Infantry Regiment at Fort Jesup, Louisiana, married Anna Elizabeth Noble in Adams County, Mississippi. He brought his bride to Fort Jesup, which is near Natchitoches and the U.S. border with Mexican Texas.
In 1835 Bonnell distinguished himself as an official witness to the Caddo Indian Treaty of 1835. He discovered wrongdoing by the U.S. agent and provided a deposition on behalf of the Caddo Indians, which ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1850 in United States v. Brooks.
At the outset of the Texas Revolution, Maj. Gen. Sam Houston, commander-in-chief of the armed forces in Texas, selected Bonnell to be his aide-de-camp. This appointment was approved by the Governor and General Council of Texas by resolution on November 22, 1835. Joseph Bonnell was commissioned as a captain in the List of Officers in the Regular Army of Texas which was issued March 10, 1836. Thus Bonnell holds a unique distinction in Texas history as the only individual who was a regular army officer in both the United States Army and the Texas Army at the same time.
Prior to the battle of San Jacinto, reports of an Indian uprising in Texas were widely circulated. On April 7, 1836, U.S. Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines selected Joseph Bonnell to go alone into Texas to persuade the Caddo Indians to remain in peace. The Caddo Indians were formidable because of their influence with other tribes.
Bonnell reached Caddo villages in East Texas on April 14, 1836, and found them empty of men. Bonnell reported, “The squaws stated that the warriors had all gone to the prairies in consequence of what ‘Manuel Flores’ had told them,viz: that the Americans were going to kill them all.” Flores, an agent of Mexico, had urged the Indians to join him in fighting Americans in Texas. Bonnell subsequently found Caddo Chief Cortes and negotiated with him to have the warriors return to their villages and live in peace.
Joseph Bonnell’s successful mission with the Indians may have prevented Gen. Sam Houston’s army from being ambushed by a surprise Indian attack as it proceeded from its encampment on the west bank of the Brazos River opposite Groce’s Landing on its march toward San Jacinto. Thus Joseph Bonnell did a great service for Texas during its war of independence.
General Sam Houston’s weapon during the battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, was a sword given to him by his friend, Joseph Bonnell.
In the summer of 1836, when General Houston returned to his home in Nacogdoches after convalescing from his San Jacinto wound, he found Bonnell assigned there by the U.S. Army to help Texas with Indian problems. Bonnell's friend, Albert Sidney Johnston, was also in Nacogdoches to confer with Houston about joining the Texas Army. Bonnell and Johnston were cadets together at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Bonnell was a cadet officer while Johnston was a cadet sergeant.
In 1839, Johnston, then Secretary of War of the Republic of Texas, had a role in establishing the new capital of Texas in Austin. This has allowed a circumstantial argument that Johnston may have named Mount Bonnell in present-day Austin for his friend Joseph Bonnell, rather than George Bonnell who is generally credited as the mountain’s namesake.
Capt. Joseph Bonnell died on September 27, 1840, at the home of his brother, Samuel Bonnell, in Philadelphia. He is buried in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.