What's in a Name

Mount Bonnell is a prominent point beside Lake Austin in Austin, Texas. It has been a popular tourist destination since the 1850s. With an elevation of 780 feet, the mount provides a vista for viewing the city of Austin, Lake Austin, and the surrounding hills. It is generally believed to have been named after early Texas publisher, printer, author and militia member George Bonnell who moved to Texas in August 1836. George Bonnell became a government printer, publisher of the Austin paper The Texas Sentinel, and a well known resident of Austin for several years following the War for Independence.

Though sources have long credited George Bonnell as the mountain’s namesake, Albert Sidney Johnston, then Secretary of War, or Hugh McLeod, Adjutant General of Texas, may have more likely named Mount Bonnell in 1839 for their colleague and fellow West Point graduate Joseph Bonnell, who was commissioned in the Texas Army during the War for Independence, was Aide de Camp to General Houston during that time, and has been recognized as a hero of the Texas Revolution by the Texas Legislature for his valor in events prior to the climactic battle of San Jacinto. There is no direct evidence to support any derivation of the name.

The official historical marker of the Texas Historical Commission on Mount Bonnell states: “Mount Bonnell ... was named for George W. Bonnell who came to Texas with others to fight for Texas Independence”.  As noted above, George Bonnell did not arrive in Texas until four months after the War for Texas Independence had ended.

George Bonnell in Texas – Highlights

The first mention of Mount Bonnell by name in print was in a book, Topographical Description of Texas, to which is added an Account of the Indian Tribes, published in April 1840. Ironically, the author of the book was George Bonnell. It states that “…above the city, on the east side of the river, is a high peak called Mount Bonnell.” Significantly, he does not mention for whom or by whom the mountain was named, suggesting that he did not know the answers to those questions. The book does disclose the sources of other topographical place names where apparently known by the author.

George Bonnell came to Texas in mid-August 1836, four months after the War for Texas Independence ended. He resided in Houston and served for a time as a Commissioner of Indian Affairs, led a militia campaign in 1838, moved to Austin in 1839, and was co-editor of the Texas Sentinel in 1840. He took part in the Texan Santa Fe expedition in 1841and the Mier expedition in 1842. He was captured and killed by Mexicans on or about December 27, 1842.

Joseph Bonnell: Hero of the Texas Revolution

There is a growing body of contemporary circumstantial evidence that Mount Bonnell in Austin, rather than being named for George Bonnell at some later time, was in fact named in 1839 for Joseph Bonnell, a West Point graduate, officer in the Texas Army, and Hero of the Texas Revolution who served as Aide de Camp to Sam Houston and played a key role in events leading up to the Battle of San Jacinto.

As a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Bonnell was stationed at Ft Jesup, LA on the Texas border from 1831 to 1838. During that time he played a highly significant role in Caddo Indian affairs in East Texas. In 1835 he was assigned to witness a treaty between the U.S. government and the Caddo and discovered wrongdoing on the part of the U.S. Agent. Lieutenant Bonnell provided a deposition on behalf of the Caddo people which ultimately went to the Supreme Court for resolution, cementing a relationship of mutual trust and respect with Caddo Chief Cortes based on Bonnell’s integrity and honesty.

In November 1835 Sam Houston had Lieutenant Bonnell assigned to his personal staff as Aide de Camp - and shortly thereafter made him a Captain in the Army of Texas - while he continued to serve in the U.S. Army.

But the real service that Joseph Bonnell provided to Texas was in 1836 on the eve of the Battle of San Jacinto, when Chief Cortes and 1,700 Indians threatened to attack the decimated Army of Texas as it prepared to engage the Mexican Army in the final battle of the revolution. Bonnell, accompanied only by an interpreter, traveled into war torn East Texas and met with Chief Cortes to successfully negotiate a truce that prevented an attack on the fledgling Texas Army.

For that action, Lieutenant Joseph Bonnell later earned the recognition of the Texas Legislature as a Hero of the Texas Revolution.

Speaking at a ceremony honoring Lieutenant Bonnell at the Bullock Museum last March, General Patrick Finnegan, Dean of Academics at West Point said “West Pointers have always been agile thinkers, using their talents, using their integrity, using what they learned as West Point cadets and beyond to solve problems as Joseph Bonnell did – not using force necessarily, but using other methods to avoid war.”

Albert Sidney Johnston: Building the City of Austin - 1839

In 1838 Joseph Bonnell was reassigned by the U.S. Army to duty on the Canadian border. In April of 1839 his West Point colleague Albert Sidney Johnston was serving as Texas Secretary of War and supervising building the city of Austin at the foot of the mountain which became known as Mount Bonnell. In an April 21, 1839 letter to a friend, Johnston wrote: “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.” Trained in Topographic Engineering at West Point, Johnston would most likely been the one responsible for assigning a name to the mountain which dominated the city– several months prior to George Bonnell’s arrival in Austin in October of that year. Hugh McLeod, another West Point graduate trained in Topographic Engineering and the Adjutant General of Texas, who had previously served with Joseph Bonnell at Ft. Jesup, may have been involved as well.

We must ask ourselves if, faced with such an opportunity to name a conspicuous terrain feature in Austin, it is more likely that Johnston would have in mind a departed comrade in arms who he had known for fifteen years; a fellow cadet at West Point and a brother officer in the Army of Texas; the Aide de Camp to General Houston during the War for Independence and a hero of the Texas Revolution – OR, would he have chosen to honor a newly arrived or prospective resident of the city who played no role in the establishment of the Republic?

George Bonnell’s Career in Texas: 1836-1842

George Bonnell's career in Texas journalism, politics and military adventure was relatively brief and inauspicious. He arrived in Texas in 1836 with a company of volunteers some months after the war had ended. In 1837 he lived in Houston, and during Sam Houston's first term as president of the republic was appointed Commissioner of Indian affairs. In June 1838 he wrote a report on the status of relations with the Indians. Unlike Joseph Bonnell, George Bonnell advocated a harsh policy against them. In November 1838, with the rank of major, he led a brief and ill-fated militia campaign against the Indians.

Charged with a responsibility to locate the enemy and engage in battle, George Bonnell prematurely ordered his unit to withdraw from the field and return to Houston. Shortly thereafter the infamous Morgan Massacre of men, women and children took place in the area from which George Bonnell had withdrawn.

Captain Joseph Daniels of the Milam Guards - an experienced officer who served under George Bonnell - had recommended that the operation continue into January 1839, writing that "…the country had not been sufficiently scoured...but Bonnell, however, ordered a retreat home, and so it happened the murder of the Morgan's family took place..."

Following this debacle George Bonnell moved to Austin. Having evidently lost his appointment as Commissioner of Indian Affairs and without any rank in the militia, he reverted to being a publisher, printer, and author.

In December 1839 he and Jacob W. Cruger were selected as government printers. On January 15, 1840, Bonnell started publication of the first Austin Texas Sentinel which he sold in December of that year. He later took part in the ill-fated Santa Fe expedition and was imprisoned in Mexico until the summer of 1842. He returned to Texas and joined the Mier expedition as a lieutenant. On December 26, 1842, while serving in the militia, Bonnell was assigned to a position on the Rio Grande. When ordered to withdraw, he disobeyed the order. He was captured and shot by a Mexican soldier, on or about December 27, 1842.

Why George Bonnell?

George Bonnell was the only Bonnell living in Austin in 1839 and 1840. He was listed in the first census of the City of Austin. Thus, it would be reasonable for someone at a later date to conclude that the peak was named for the only Bonnell listed at the time, although in 1840 George Bonnell wrote of the fact that there was a mountain named Bonnell in Austin but he made no claim that it was named for him.

It was nearly four decades later, beginning in 1876, that various writers suggested a connection between the newspaperman and Mount Bonnell, by which time the heroism and stature of Lieutenant Joseph Bonnell during the War for Texas Independence seem to have been forgotten.

The anonymous author of a long reminiscence in the May 7, 1876 Galveston Daily News, 37 years after the establishment of the city in 1839, opines that Mount Bonnell was named after George Bonnell, and Mount Teulon was named after the editor of the Austin City Gazette. The author stated, “I had been told that the two mountain peaks, Mount Bonnell and Mount Teulon, were named for the two editors.” In 1839, when Mount Bonnell was probably named by Albert Sidney Johnston, the only newspaper owner, publisher and editor in Austin was Sam Whiting. There is no Mount Whiting in Austin and there is no Mount Teulon in Austin. One must doubt the credibility of this hearsay, which is often cited as conclusive proof!

Later, in the 1880s John Holland Jenkins (1822-1890) wrote his recollections and also stated that Mount Bonnell was named after George Bonnell. Jenkins, a teenager in 1839, was living in Bastrop and could not have known what was going on in Austin at the time.

Francis Richard Lubbock (1815-1905) published his memoirs in 1900. He had known George Bonnell personally while they both lived in Houston. Lubbock believed Mount Bonnell was named for George Bonnell. When George moved on to Austin, Lubbock continued to live in Houston and could not have known what was going on in Austin in 1839.

John Henry Brown, Frank Brown, Mary Starr Barkley, James Mulkey Owens, and Nat Henderson were other writers who also speculated that Mount Bonnell was named for George. But that was pure conjecture based on no supporting evidence.

Conclusion

There is no direct evidence regarding the naming of Mount Bonnell. Contemporary circumstances suggest, however, that it was more likely named by Albert Sidney Johnston in 1839 for his colleague Joseph Bonnell – Hero of the Texas Revolution, Officer in the Texas Army, and Aide de Camp to General Houston, who was on the West Point Board of Visitors that supervised academy operations when Bonnell and Johnston were cadets.

There is abundant hearsay and later speculation that Mount Bonnell was named for George Bonnell, but no direct evidence – and no contemporary circumstantial evidence - to support that assertion.

Comrades in Arms: A Reunion

During August of 1836, four remarkable soldiers gathered in Nacogdoches, Republic of Texas. It was only three months after the Battle of San Jacinto in which Texas won its independence from Mexico.

One was General Sam Houston, the greatest hero and most prominent individual in Texas at the time, being the victorious general at the decisive Battle of San Jacinto. He had returned home to Nacogdoches after convalescing in New Orleans, then later in San Augustine, from the wound he received at San Jacinto.

One was Lieutenant Joseph Bonnell, the U.S. Army officer who had been sent alone into Texas during the Texas War for Independence by U.S. General Gaines to quell an uprising of some 1,700 Indians, and who had accomplished that dangerous mission for the benefit of General Houston's Texas Army, thereby making Bonnell a hero of the Texas Revolution. Bonnell was a friend and Aide to General Houston and had given Houston the sword he carried at San Jacinto. Bonnell had been sent by the U.S. Army on official business to Nacogdoches to help Texans counter the Indian threat.

Another was Hugh McLeod, Major of the Army of the Republic of Texas, and the military commander of Nacogdoches. On March 7, 1836, McLeod had requested and received a ten day leave of absence from his duties as a 2nd Lieutenant, 3rd Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Jesup, Louisiana where he and Bonnell had served together. McLeod went across the international border to Nacogdoches and never returned to the U.S. Army. He was discharged from the U.S. Army in June. He would later become the Adjutant General of the Republic.

The other was Albert Sidney Johnston who had recently resigned his commission as an officer in the U.S. Army with ten years of experience and had come to Texas to talk with General Houston about joining the Texas Army. Bonnell and Johnston had known each other for over fifteen years, having served together as Cadets at West Point, and as officers in the US Army. Johnston would soon rise from Private to Commanding General of the Texas Army, and later become the Secretary of War of the Republic.

Houston, Bonnell, McLeod, and Johnston were four friends and comrades-in-arms. That August in Nacogdoches was a wonderful opportunity to renew old friendships. Undoubtedly, talk among these four friends during August of 1836 would have gotten around to talking about Indian threats, past and present, for that was what had brought Bonnell to Texas. It would be only natural that when his friends, Houston, Johnston and McLeod, thought of Indians in the future, their friend, Joseph Bonnell would come to mind.

After this meeting in Nacogdoches, Houston became the first elected President of the Republic of Texas. Johnston would rise rapidly to Secretary of War. McLeod would become Adjutant General. Bonnell would be promoted to Captain in the U.S. Army on July 7, 1838, and assigned to the 8th U.S. Infantry Regiment in the State of New York on the Canadian frontier. He died at his family home in Philadelphia in 1840 at the age of 38.