Burnet, the county seat of Burnet County, is one mile west of the divide between the Brazos and Colorado river watersheds near the center of the county, forty-eight miles northwest of Austin. In 1849 people on the frontier sought protection from the Indians at nearby Fort Croghan. The area was commonly called Hamilton or Hamilton Valley for John Hamilton, who had a league and labor of land there. A creek flowing through the league was also named for him. The town was founded as Hamilton in 1852, when Burnet County was established. In August of that year a post office in Hamilton was named Burnet Courthouse. In 1857 thirty-five residents of the town petitioned the state legislature to change the name of the town to Burnet since there was another town in Texas named Hamilton. The name was changed in 1858. Citizens first voted to incorporate in 1876. A second election was held in 1883 and resulted in the official incorporation of Burnet in October of that year.
A major spurt in growth occurred with the arrival of the Austin and Northwestern Railroad in April 1882. Burnet then became the railhead for the area to the west, including the Llano, Mason, and San Saba vicinities. On June 3, 1885, Southern Produce Company shipped 157,000 pounds of wool from Burnet, reportedly the third largest wool shipment made up to that time in Texas. In 1885 Gustav Wilke, subcontractor building the Capitol in Austin, constructed a narrow-gauge railroad from Granite Mountain, fourteen miles south of Burnet, to Burnet. At a point just south of the town and within its city limits, Wilke constructed a yard to shape, finish, and fit the granite for placement in the Capitol building. Here some 1,802 railroad carloads, 31,000 tons, of granite were finished and shipped by the Austin and Northwestern to Austin. After the railroad was extended to Llano in 1892, Burnet declined as a supply point and became a farming and livestock center.
In April 1931 the contract was let for the construction of what was then named Hamilton Dam on the Colorado River ten miles west of Burnet. While this construction was under way as many as 800 men were employed, and Burnet was home for many of them and supply base for nearly all of them. Due to the Great Depression the Insull-owned corporations, including the one owning Hamilton Dam, failed financially, and work ceased. In 1934 the state legislature established the Lower Colorado River Authority, which, financed by the federal Public Works Administration, acquired and completed the dam and changed the name to Buchanan Dam. Other dams along the Colorado River soon followed, and Burnet was on a sound economic path from that time forward.
In 1989 the town had a population of 3,794 and in 1990, 3,423. The population was 4,735 in 2000, and the community had a city manager form of government. Burnet produces stone and various milled products from stone; mining, milling, shipping of graphite, agribusiness, hunting leases, tourism, and recreation contribute to the economy. Many retirees live in Burnet.