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Texas History

The Legend of the Yellow Rose

Does the Yellow Rose, immortalized in the namesake song, refer to a particular woman?

The story of a woman dubiously but persistently referred to as the Yellow Rose of Texas, Emily West, is one of those legends that a lot of popular historians have decided is too good to verify. Her tale, or rather one story that grew up around her, is a combination of lore and song sprinkled with a few facts. Where fact and legend intersect, or whether they do at all, has long been a matter of debate.

Emily West is sometimes identified as Emily Morgan. The confusion stems from Emily possibly taking the name of her contract employer, the land speculator James Morgan. He brought Emily, a free black woman, from New York to New Washington near Morgan’s Point. She arrived in Texas in 1835, a bad time for anybody unwilling to tangle in the Texas Revolution.

In April 1836, Emily and others were seized at New Washington by Mexican soldiers looking for Republic of Texas President David Burnet, who had fled. Morgan was away, commanding Fort Travis in Galveston. Mexican Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna rested at New Washington while his soldiers looted warehouses. Three days later, with Emily and other captives in tow, he led his troops in search of Sam Houston’s ragtag army.

The two armies met on the San Jacinto battlefield on April 21, 1836, when the Texians caught the Mexican army by surprise. The reason, as the story goes, is because Santa Anna’s attention was diverted by Emily, who was “closeted” in Santa Anna’s tent. The meeting is often referred to as a “dalliance,” though other descriptions have been less abstract.

Whether there was actually a meeting of Emily and the Mexican general—ah, there’s the problem.

The story made its way to a traveling Englishman named William Bollaert in 1842, who noted it in his journal. The original record in Bollaert’s own handwriting is archived in the Newberry Library in Chicago. The entry reads as follows:

The Battle of San Jacinto was probably lost to the Mexicans, owing to the influence of a Mulatta girl (Emily) belonging to Col. Morgan who was closeted in the tent with g’l [i.e., General] Santana, at the time the cry was made, ‘The Enemy! They come! They come! and detained Santana so long, that order could not be restored readily again.

But it wasn’t until 1956 that Bollaert’s journal, in edited form, was published. From there the story took on a life of its own, appearing in popular histories that served as the source for more popular histories. Before long, Emily was being identified as the subject of the song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” There’s no evidence that this is the case, but the notion persists.

In 1997, researcher James Lutzweiler presented a paper to the Texas Historical Association suggesting that Sam Houston himself was the source of the original Bollaert story. Bollaert had actually cut a letter from some other document and pasted it into the narrative. Lutzweiler also found a page saying Emily’s story was “a copy of an unpublished letter written by G’l [General] Houston to a friend after this extraordinary battle.”

Alas, that does not solve the mystery. We don’t know to whom the letter was written, when Houston wrote it, or where Bollaert got it. Honestly, we don’t even know if the story is true.

We do know that the Battle of San Jacinto was barbaric to the extreme, and if Emily was there it must have been a gruesome sight. Judge Isaac Moreland noted in a letter that he had met Emily in April 1836. Emily told Moreland she had lost the documentation of her “free” status on the San Jacinto battleground and wanted to go back to New York. Some historians think she did.

Emily might have tried to forget what she experienced at the Battle of San Jacinto, but legend and song have gone out of the way to remember her as the Yellow Rose of Texas.

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Clay Coppedge is a frequent contributor.