woman mistakenly but persistently referred to as the Yellow
Rose of Texas, Emily West, is one of those stories that a lot
of popular historians have decided is too good to verify. Her story,
or rather one story that grew up around her, is a combination of legend,
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.
In some accounts Emily West is identified as Emily Morgan. The confusion
stems from Emily being deemed a free woman of color in New Haven,
Ct., where she contracted to work for land speculator James Morgan
at his place called New Washington near Morgan’s Point, Texas. She
arrived in Texas in 1835, a bad time
for anybody unwilling to fight in the Texas revolution to show up
In April of 1836, Emily and other black servants, along with a fair
number of whites, were seized at New Washington by Mexican soldiers
looking for President David Burnet, who had hightailed it out of there.
Morgan was away, commanding a fort in Galveston.
Santa Anna rested up at New Washington while his soldiers looted the
warehouses. Three days later, with Emily and the other captives in
tow, he led his troops off in search of Sam
Houston’s rag-tag army.
The two armies eventually met on the San Jacinto battlefield where
the Texans stormed the Mexican camp on April 21 1836 and caught the
Mexican army very much by surprise. The reason why, the story goes,
is that Santa Anna’s attention was diverted by Emily, who was “closeted”
in Santa Anna’s tent. The meeting is usually referred to as a “dalliance,”
though other descriptions have been considerably less abstract.
Whether or not there was actually a meeting of Emily and the Mexican
general – ah, there’s the rub.
story, a campfire favorite for years, made its way to the ears of
a traveling Englishman named William Bollaert in 1842, who noted it
in his journal. The journal, edited for publication in1956, included
of San Jacinto was probably lost to the Mexicans, owing to the
influence of a Mulatta Girl belonging to Col. Morgan (Emily) who was
closeted in the tent with G’l Santana at the time the cry was made,
'The enemy! They come! They come!' & detained Santana so long that
order could not be restor'd again.”
From there the story took on a life of its own, appearing in various
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 of this, but the notion
1997, at a meeting of the Texas Historical Association, researcher
James Lutzweiler presented a paper suggesting that none other than
Sam Houston himself
was the source of the original Bollaert footnote. Lutzweiler dug through
the archives because he had a hunch that Bollaert’s papers might provide
a clue as to the source of the story, and it turned out to be Ol’
Sam himself, in a letter with the word “Private!” underlined three
Bollaert had actually cut the 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 General
Houston to a friend after this extraordinary battle.” The unedited
version of the journal noted the source as “an officer who was engaged
in it (the Battle
of San Jacinto) in his own words.”
Alas, that does not completely solve the mystery. We don’t know who
the letter was written to or 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
– and the evidence is pretty good that she was – it must have been
a gruesome sight for someone who had contracted to come to Texas
to do housework.
Isaac Moreland, a judge, noted in a letter to the secretary of state
that he had met Emily in April of 1836. He described her as a 36-year
old free woman who had come to Texas
in 1835. Emily told Moreland she had lost the documentation of her
“free” status on the San Jacinto battleground and very much wanted
to go back to New York, which we assume she did.
We can also assume that what happened to her in Texas
– what she saw and experienced – was something she tried hard to forget
while the Republic and state that evolved from San Jacinto has gone
out of its way to remember.
© Clay Coppedge
January 19, 2013 Column
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