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MOUNT BONNELL

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 adventurer George W. Bonnell, who recorded his "Observations" while traveling through the Texas frontier in 1838. Excerpts from George Bonnell’s "Observations" 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 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."

There is a debate over the namesake of Mount Bonnell. The excerpts from George Bonnell’s “Observations” that were printed in the May 1, 1839, edition of the Telegraph and Texas Register did not identify the mountain by name. Albert Sidney Johnston, in his letter of April 21, 1839, did not give it a name either. George W. Bonnell’s 1840 book, Topographical Description of Texas, contained a single sentence that for the first time identified the mountain by name but gave no positive identification of a namesake: “Four miles above the city, upon the east side of the river, is a high peak, called Mount Bonnell.”

Four years later William Boallert, an English journalist, made a copy of Bonnell’s original journal. That copy is the only form in which the original “Observations” manuscript is available to historians. The entry for July 25, 1838, in Boallert’s copy read in part, “…ascended to the summit of a high hill. My companions called it ‘Mount Bonnell.’” The landmark was referred to by name later in the same entry with the name in quotation marks: “The Summit of ‘Mount Bonnell’ composed of a corraline looking rock, oyster & other marine shells.”

Over the years, newspaper accounts appeared stating 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. 

More recently, others have suggested Lt. Joseph Bonnell, who served in Texas during the Texas Revolution, as the mountain's namesake. 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. 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. Thus, there is an argument, based on circumstantial evidence, that Secretary of War Johnston and Adj. Gen. McLeod may have given the name after Joseph Bonnell to this high ground in 1839. Proponents of this argument contend that the lines from Boallert’s copy of the diary suggesting that the name came from George Bonnell’s friends in 1838 were not in the original but were added by Boallert while making the copy.

The matter remains contested and can be argued endlessly. If the words of Bonnell’s friends about calling the elevation “Mount Bonnell” were in the 1838 original, why did they not appear in the portion published in the newspaper in 1839? If George Bonnell was the namesake, why did he not indicate that directly in his 1840 book? If Boallert added whole sentences to his 1844 copy, what was his motivation? Interested readers can make their own decisions as to where the preponderance of the evidence lies. However, without the original manuscript or without some other form of direct documentary evidence on the matter, the namesake of Mount Bonnell cannot be determined beyond dispute.

Regardless of the debated origins of the landmark’s designation, 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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

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 [manuscript]: 1838–1839, 1844, 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. Albert Sidney Johnston Papers, Manuscripts Department, Special Collections, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University. Telegraph and Texas Register, May 1, 1839.

Seldon B. Graham, Jr., rev. by Laurie E. Jasinski and Randolph B. Campbell

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Seldon B. Graham, Jr., rev. by Laurie E. Jasinski and Randolph B. Campbell, "MOUNT BONNELL," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/rjm28), accessed July 28, 2015. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on July 20, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.