- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Bit by bit, historians add to history. They exchange findings. And, along the way, they make new friends.
And look at what Richard Denney and Lanny Ottosen, two history buffs working separately, found: Two burgs dubbed Montopolis. One on each side of the Colorado River.
In an American-Statesman article published Jan. 31, 2015, I described a personal tour of today’s Montopolis neighborhood on a muddy, chilly day. My intrepid guide was Fred McGhee, author of “Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood.” As we zoomed around the semirural district in Southeast Austin by car and on foot, McGhee, a noted activist who trained as a marine archaeologist, pointed out remnants of the old settlement’s past.
We talked about how the town, which antedates Austin, had been proposed by pioneer Jesse Cornelius Tannehill as a possible alternative location for the Republic of Texas capital. McGhee also recounted the area’s frequent floods and damaged bridges; the church and a cemetery established by freed slaves at Burditt’s Prairie; and the wrenching changes that accompanied each new wave of development in the area.
“Austin began annexing Montopolis in 1952,” the story concluded, “and it has been something of a political, cultural and social hot potato ever since, the site of pitched battles over affordable housing, fair education and equitable amenities.”
Almost as soon as the article was published, Denney and Ottosen began sharing their fresh findings about Montopolis with me. Denney — who writes a blog under the pen name Dick O’Dennehy — recently posted a long, immaculately sourced version of the early Montopolis years. Meanwhile, Ottosen shared with me some of his insights from research for a book on southeastern Travis County.
Among their conclusions: Montopolis today sits on high bluff above the south side of the Colorado River, but in fact, it almost assuredly was originally laid out on Tannehill’s land on the north shore.
Not one, but two spots
“You know the old jokes about ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’” Ottosen asks. “In the context of Montopolis, it might be ‘Why did the town cross the river?’”
Ottosen and Denney agree that the first documented evidence of the name “Montopolis” appearing on the south side of the river did not come until 1890s, when a U.S. Geological Survey map shows the location of the “Montopolis Ferry.” Another topographical map, from 1897, shows buildings clustered on the south bank identified by the word “Montopolis.”
They also agree that lots for a town on the north side — in Tannehill’s headright league — were sold in July 1839, just months before Austin was incorporated.
To be fair, McGhee also acknowledged that Montopolis, as a neighborhood, traditionally also included a swath of land north of the river, including the location of the long-gone Montopolis Drive-In.
On his blog, “Trails, Tales and Old Roads of Austin and Travis County,” Denney starts his story with a brief biography of Travis County pioneer Jesse Tannehill, whose name survives on landmarks all over East Austin, north of the river.
Originally from Kentucky, Tannehill arrived with his family in Bastrop County as early as 1828. When Mexican forces threatened the area in 1836, they joined the “Runaway Scrape” to East Texas. They also lived in Huntsville and La Grange.
In 1832, Tannehill had purchased 4,428 acres on the Colorado River in what is now Travis County near what today is the Montopolis Bridge on the north side of the river. In the same year, Santiago Del Valle received his 10-league grant south of the river.
In 1836, Capt. Robert M. Coleman built a hillside military stockade on the northern part of Tannehill’s land. Some accounts suggest it originally stood at the mouth of Walnut Creek.
Fort Coleman was abandoned in 1838. Using logs from the old structure, the Tannehills constructed a complex of buildings nearby in 1839. Their more permanent home, still standing as late as 1971, was made of Bastrop sawed lumber. Jesse Tannehill then laid out the townsite of Montopolis and offered it as a competitor to Waterloo, now Austin, for the new capital of Texas.
Denney sorts out the accounts about the upland military spot on Tannehill’s land, sometimes called Fort Colorado, and a nearby community called Fort Prairie, including reports on an archaeological dig done in the 1960s at a spot near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Webberville Road.
Its high, hilly point might have given the original Montopolis, which means “city on a hill,” its name.
Denney turns next to Mary Starr Barkley’s “History of Travis County and Austin: 1839-1899” to place Montopolis on the old road from Austin to Bastrop that ran entirely north of the river, along today’s FM 969. Barkley called it the “Path of the Pioneers,” and annalist I.E. Brown referred to as the “Old Dirt Road.”
Barkley recalls old stories of a settlement on the northern banks of the river amid cottonwood, elm, hackberry and pecan trees. It was here, she says, that Tannehill sold lots in July 1839.
But by 1840, after Austin became the capital, some buyers were already selling their land back to Tannehill. Although he was involved in all sorts of later activities in the area, Tannehill sold off half of his league in the 1840s and divided the rest among his children after his wife’s death in 1855.
Denney next turns to accounts of long-lived pioneer Julia Lee Sinks (1817-1904), who wrote about an Indian raid in 1843 along the “old Montopolis road” from Hornsby in the east to Robertson Hill — where the French Legation still stands — in the west. In 1895, she also wrote article in the Galveston Daily News about crossing Walnut Creek — located on the north bank of the Colorado — along that same Montopolis road.
Denney goes on to build his case by looking closely at the geography of East Austin, its place names and maps, going back to the time when Austin and Bastrop were part of Stephen F. Austin’s “Little Colony.” A key point: A version of an 1839 survey of Travis County, housed at the Texas General Land Office, shows Tannehill’s land grant lying entirely on the north side of the river.
Even the “true and correct plan” of Montopolis, recorded in the Bastrop County deed records and then transcribed for Travis County’s files, if turned so that the main caption runs left to right, would place the town north of the river.
Denney argues that the topographical map from the 1890s that includes the word “Montopolis” south of the river, marked the spot of the ferry by that name, not the town.
Eventually, as folks also settled on the prairie above the bluffs south of the river, the name Montopolis drifted to the south.
Why haven’t we found more physical remains of the original Montopolis?
“(My source) places it on land directly in the flood plain,” Ottosen says. “If there were any trace of the original town, it would have been completely inundated and destroyed in the monumental 1869 flood.”
Again and again, Denney and Ottosen tend to amplify, not negate most of McGhee’s efforts.
“What the evidence produces about Montopolis is really somewhat an extension of the story McGhee laid out in his book,” Ottosen says. “The town that would never be a town was cursed from the very beginning by natural disasters and political neglect for more than a century. It’s a new perspective on its troubled history.”