Travis County has had two locations named Montopolis. The first occurred north of the Colorado River during the Republic of Texas period. Montopolis is now a neighborhood south of the river in Austin, Texas. Today’s neighborhood is in ZIP code 78741 and is located southeast of the city’s urban core. Montopolis is bounded on the north by Lake Lady Bird, on the west by Grove Street and the Pleasant Valley neighborhood, on the south by Texas State Highway 71, and on the east by US Route 183. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is located in the southeast corner. Montopolis is located within City Council District 3.
Travis County contains two Montopolis locales that differ in formation and location, causing confusion when the two are confounded.
The first was a planned townsite north of the Colorado River, east and adjacent to what would become Austin, by Jesse Cornelius Tannehill during the Republic of Texas period, with a systematic design of building lots, farm lots, out lots, and streets laid out on a grid similar to Edwin Waller’s design of Austin.
The second was a town south of the Colorado River that began to take shape during Texas’ Reconstruction era and into the early twentieth century, evolving over several decades and eventually becoming the Montopolis area that most Austinites recognize today.
The historic river crossing that became a ferry and subsequently a bridge of the same name with a history that predates both is the common thread that connects old and new Montopolis.
Republic of Texas period
Jesse Cornelius Tannehill founded the Republic of Texas era townsite of Montopolis (1797-1863).
Tannehill’s Montopolis was founded in 1830, contrary to popular belief; Tannehill’s stay in Texas is fully documented, demonstrating that this is not the case. Tannehill and his family first arrived in Texas in 1828, living near Caney in Matagorda County. They moved to Bastrop as part of Stephen F. Austin’s “Little Colony”. During the Texas War of Independence, as Mexican forces threatened communities along the Colorado, the Tannehills and other families evacuated Bastrop in wagons eastward over the Old San Antonio Road towards Nacogdoches. This exodus was known as the Runaway Scrape. Following the war, the Tannehills moved to Huntsville and then to La Grange, where they remained until 1839.
Tannehill, his wife, Jane L. (Richardson) Tannehill (1803-1855), their children, and probably several enslaved people relocated to a headright of 4,428 acres on the Colorado River in 1839, from which 800 acres for the town plot were surveyed. Tannehill and five others recorded a partnership deed on July 2, 1839, establishing the location of a platted town on the left (north) side of the Colorado River. Tannehill never owned any part of the Santiago del Valle grant south of the Colorado River, nor was he responsible for any development or settlement south of the Colorado, where the current community of Montopolis is located.
Montopolis was the name given to the townsite (“mont” Latin for “mountain” and “polis” Greek for “city”). Montopolis has been interpreted as “city on a hill” recently. There was no primary or contemporary evidence supporting this throughout the investigation for the Montopolis historical marker. Several families established in the area. In 1838, the first settler was most likely James Smith (1790-1845). His 1841 mansion is still standing on Boggy Creek Farm.
Tannehill began putting out Montopolis before Edward Burleson planned out nearby Waterloo, which was renamed Austin after being chosen as the seat of government for the republic of Texas. There is evidence that Montopolis and the town of Comanche were also candidates for this accolade. However, the Waterloo location one mile from Spring Creek (Barton Springs) was chosen by the site selection commission, and the Montopolis effort died within two years of its conception. The firm that founded Montopolis had been dissolved by 1841, and the land had been sold.
Despite the fact that the collaboration that created Montopolis had terminated, Montopolis as a sense of place endured. The fictional short novel The Door of Unrest by O. Henry about a newspaper editor who lived in Montopolis refers to the hamlet of Montopolis, which is located near to Austin. William Sydney Porter, also known as O. Henry, resided in Austin from 1884 to 1898 and based his 1904 story on his memories of that time. His house, which is now the O. Henry Museum, was initially located at 308 East 4th Street, a block off 5th Street, which historian Mary Starr Barkley referred to as the “way of the pioneers”: the original entry to today’s Austin that passed through old Montopolis, adjacent to Austin on the east.
Roads like 5th Street show how the Montopolis town tract merged with Austin’s, and how the old Montopolis town tract did not “vanish,” but rather became a part of today’s Austin. Travis County Commissioners Court minutes from June 2, 1840 describe a road from Austin to Bastrop: “…the road shall go down Pine Street [today’s 5th Street] of the Town tract of Austin till you strike Broad Street of the tract of Montopolis & continuing Broad Street to Main Street in said Town of Montopolis then along Main Street [north] till it strikes the corner of farm lots no. Six and Seven then east with the line of said lots Six and Seven to the lower line of th Montopolis’ Broad Street is now part of Austin’s 5th Street; Montopolis’ Main Street is now Shady Lane; and today’s Springdale Route was the north-south road that ran the length of the Tannehill league, marking the western boundary of Montopolis. Boggy Creek and Tannehill Branch were streams in Montopolis, which is now part of Austin. Historians such as Mary Starr Barkley from the 1960s vividly remembered the first Montopolis, and Montopolis place names persisted in the area of the original town tract into the twentieth century, such as Montopolis Drive-In Theater and Howard’s Montopolis Nursery, both of which had roots in the nineteenth century. Tannehill’s “Montopolis town tract” is mentioned in court papers long into the twentieth century, demonstrating that the location of the original town tract is known with legal certainty.
The first map with the name “Montopolis” south of the Colorado appears to be a USGS topographic map of Austin and Travis County from 1894, which references the “Montopolis Ferry,” i.e. the ferry at the Montopolis river ford.
However, the ferry was called after the passage rather than a town. We know this because a GLO map from the same year, 1894, shows tiny villages east of Austin along the Colorado River such as Del Valle, St. Elmo, Garfield, Hornsby, Dunlap, and Webberville but not Montopolis south of the river. It also does not appear on the Travis County road survey of 1898-1902, but neighboring communities with and without post offices do. Montopolis, a post office on the south bank of the ferry crossing, was later created in 1897 (discontinued in 1902). The Texas Almanac, which was initially published in 1857, does not identify a Montopolis hamlet until the 1907 issue, when the 1900 US Census data is presented (1900 being the only census when the post office was in operation). Montopolis is also not mentioned in the Texas census of 1887-1888, although neighboring Travis villages such as Manchaca and Merrelltown, both with populations of less than 50 people, are.
Despite its brief existence, the Montopolis post office most likely marks the beginning of the use of the name Montopolis for the settlement south of the river. When Austin began annexing that hamlet in the early 1950s, memories of the original townsite began to vanish.
Following the Civil War, the area south of the Colorado River became a freedmen’s town, with recently freed slaves working as sharecroppers.
Burditt Prairie Cemetery is a Texas historic burial ground. The application for historic designation indicates Jesse F. Burditt, a plantation owner, established the cemetery for burial of enslaved persons and their families and that “burials range from the mid-19th century to current”.
Montopolis Post Office was established in 1897, with Jefferson D. Randolph as postmaster; the post office was closed on April 10, 1902.
Around 1891, the Colorado School District created school No. 34 for African American children. In 1935, a storm demolished the structure. The St. Edward’s Baptist Church then donated land, and a second school was built using a structure relocated from Camp Swift. That school joined the Austin Independent School District in 1952 and closed in 1962 as part of the city’s desegregation efforts.
The neighborhood experienced a major influx of Mexican immigrants in the early twentieth century. San Jose Cemetery (Cemeterio San José) was created as a Mexican and Mexican-American cemetery in the 700th block of Montopolis Drive between 1919 and 1922. The cemetery has the distinction of being a Texas historical cemetery. A second part can be seen south of Ben White Boulevard on Hoeke Lane.
No road is more symbolic of today’s Montopolis neighborhood than Montopolis Drive, which depicts the community’s transformations during the twentieth century. Residents of the hamlet petitioned the Travis County Commissioners Court in 1950 to rename two roads, Miller Lane and Boothe Lane, both of which date from the nineteenth century. These routes linked the Montopolis bridge to Burleson Road, which was three miles southwest. The amendment was authorized by the Commissioners Court, giving birth to today’s Montopolis Drive and establishing the character of the expanding Montopolis area.
Despite its close vicinity, Austin did not annex Montopolis until 1952, and it was not entirely annexed until the 1970s. The working-class area has long been one of Austin’s poorest, with almost two out of every five residents living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. Educational achievement is likewise much below the city average – in 2000, 53% of Montopolis residents over the age of 25 did not have a high school diploma.
Given Austin’s rapid growth, the Montopolis area has seen considerable construction in the twenty-first century. The hamlet is strategically positioned in Austin, near the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and along two important highways: Texas State Highway 71 and US Route 183. The City of Austin was working on a Master Plan for the whole East Riverside Drive corridor, from the East Riverside-Oltorf Combined Planning Area to Montopolis to ABIA, in 2005.
Fears of gentrification have grown as construction has increased. Although opponents successfully blocked a zoning change in early 2014 that would have allowed the construction of condominiums instead of duplexes, the condos were granted in late 2014. Google announced in 2015 that its Google Fiber internet service would be accessible in the area.
Crossing of the Colorado
The historic river crossing, which became a ferry and eventually a bridge of the same name, connects old and new Montopolis. The name “Montopolis” was given to a river ford during the Republic of Texas era. It became a geographical place name in its own right, persisting long after the Montopolis town and partnership were dissolved during the Republic of Texas era, and before the community today took the name. The river crossing is a recurring feature that connects the two Montopolis.
During the Reconstruction period, one of Texas’ most valuable economic assets was an abundance of longhorn cattle that could be sold in Kansas and other northern markets. From around 1867 through 1884, the Montopolis ford was one of the principal Colorado River crossings for the Chisholm Trail. “Cattle drives through Austin were a familiar sight, and the cattle bawled as they crossed at the two principal crossings, Montopolis and Shoal Creek,” historian Mary Starr Barkley wrote. The Galveston Daily News reported from Austin in 1878: “TRAVIS COUNTY is a county in Texas. Austin Statesman, March 30: Three cattle droves of 2500 to 399 head each crossed the river at Montopolis ford on Sunday, and approximately 15,000 head have crossed that site in the last week.”
However, the crossing predates either of the two Montopolis. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, indigenous peoples lived in and moved through the area for thousands of years. The historic El Camino Real de los Tejas, built by the Spaniards along Native American pathways, skirted the eastern boundary of today’s Montopolis district, crossing the Colorado east of the Montopolis Bridge.
The Montopolis Bridge, which commemorates the location of the historic Montopolis ford, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The bridge was deactivated in 2018 in order for it to be restored as a hike and bike pedestrian traffic bridge with historical interpretative signage. In 2020 Travis County Historical Commission met with members of the National Park Service (NPS) from Santa Fe, NM who were in Austin working with El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail Association to document and commemorate the trail’s route through Travis County. Working with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, signage acknowledging the crossing as part of El Camino Real de los Tejas is proposed as part of the pedestrian bridge.
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