Where Romance and History Meet - www.heartsthroughhistory.com/

Monday, June 6, 2011


Hi, Texan Caroline Clemmons here. This year is the 175th anniversary of the Texas Revolution. We were a nation for nine years before joining the United States. During that time, we had foreign embassies, a navy, and all the beuracracy that goes with a nation. When Texas joined the Union in 1845, it was with treaty that allowed the Texas flag to fly at the same height as that of the United States stars and stripes. Don't be irate if you see the two flags flying at the same height--it's not unpatriotic, just someone taking advantage of that unique clause.

       The Yellow Rose of Texas

How many times have you heard the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas?” Probably thousands of times. But did you realize the song was about a real woman who allegedly helped Sam Houston win the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive battle of the Texas Revolution?

Since I mostly grew up in and still live in Texas, I am a fan of all things Texan. The term “yellow rose” did not sink in until I was an adult and learned it referred to a woman who was a quadroon, a term I always thought rather offensive. In our society of blended ethnic and racial bloodlines, racial epithets should have long ago lost their usage and meaning. Should I identify myself as a Scot/Irish/English/Swiss/French/German/Cherokee? I'm one-eighth Cherokee, so does that make me a Native American quadroon? Should I add in the percentage of the other ethnicities represented? How silly. Oops, Caroline, get off the soap box and stop digressing.

As Emily MIGHT
have looked. No  known
photos of her exist.
The Yellow Rose of Texas was an attractive woman named Emily Morgan. According to the late Frank X. Tolbert, she looked Latin, had long black hair, and was exceptionally beautiful. She allegedly was instrumental in the Texas army’s victory over Santa Anna. Keep in mind how dangerous it was for a woman of color to be so attractive that men noticed her. In fact Emily was a free woman. Yeah, right. In those times, many men considered any woman of color free for the taking. In my opinion, Emily was a heroine, a woman who turned forced servitude/prostitution into an opportunity to fight her oppressor and defend her allegiance.

Signatures from the contract of indenture
She was born Emily West around 1816 in New Haven, Connecticut but moved to New York. She signed a contract with agent James Morgan in New York City on October 25, 1835 to work a year as housekeeper at the New Washington Association's hotel at Morgan's Point, Texas. Morgan was to pay her $100 a year and provide her transportation to Galveston Bay on board the company's schooner, scheduled to leave with thirteen artisans and laborers in November.

Lorenzo de Zavala
No one knows whether she actually adopted the Morgan family name, or if people referred to her by that name because they erroneously assumed she was the Morgans' slave. She arrived in Texas in December 1835 on board the same vessel as Emily de Zavala and her children. Emily's husband, Lorenzo de Zavala, was a Texas patriot who served as iterim Vice President until his untimely death and after whom Zavala County, Texas is named.

At the mouth of the San Jacinto River, Morgan had laid out the town of New Washington. However, Colonel Morgan was a soldier in the Texian army and soon was away building a fortification to defend Galveston. In Morgan's absence Santa Anna arrived at New Washington.

Colonel James Morgan
Due to lack of records, a lot of speculation and disagreement exist about the actual facts. No one knows how much is fact and how much is folk lore and/or fabrication. While historians continue to argue the story's validity, here’s my version of the tale based on the consensus:

Dictator and General Santa Anna saw a beautiful mulatto woman helping load supplies at the dock to help Colonel Morgan’s family join him at Galveston. Santa Anna, the womanizing “little Napoleon,” decided that Emily Morgan was to become his new “personal maid.” Soon twenty-year-old Emily occupied his three-room, candy-striped tent. But the Mexican dictator had chosen/forced the wrong woman! Emily was a Texian sympathizer and she had not signed on to be some dictator's plaything or servant.

 Santa Anna ordered a slave named Turner, whom he had taken at the same time he acquired Emily, to perform a reconnaissance of the Texian army. Before Turner and his escort of soldiers left on their mission, Emily secretly had a word with him. Since Morgan kept his family apprised of Texian activity, Emily knew where Houston was camped. She also knew Turner would be sympathetic to the Texians. She disclosed Houston’s location and instructed Turner to let Houston know the Mexican army was in pursuit. Through guile and good horsemanship, Turner was able to pass on Emily’s warning. In addition, he fed Santa Anna false information about Houston’s location.

All was quiet when Texian scouts observed the Mexican camp on April 21, 1836. Emily was serving Santa Anna lunch in front of his tent. Inside were a stolen piano, silverware, china, food, and chests of opium to feed the dictator’s addiction. Rifles stacked, the soldiers were having a siesta with limited guards on duty. 

By the time the Texian soldiers attacked, Santa Anna had retired into his tent with Emily. At the first sign of gunfire, the dictator rushed out and stumbled over cases of champagne stacked at the entrance. Clad only in silk drawers and red slippers, Santa Anna could not restore order among his officers and troops. He wrapped himself in a bed sheet, grabbed a box of chocolates and a gourd of water, and jumped on a horse to escape. He was caught the next day wearing peasant garb.

After the Battle of San Jacinto, a member of the victorious Texian army escorted Emily Morgan back to New Washington. She told Colonel Morgan of the victory. He later learned of the importance she had played in the event. He immediately released her from indenture and it is rumored he bought her a house in a community of free blacks in Houston. Remember, she'd only signed on for one year. In 1837, she returned to New York and faded into oblivion. In my opinion, she decided the Wild West was just too wild for her.

Folklore picked up on Emily’s heroics. Eventually, Mexican historians admitted to Santa Anna’s “quadroon mistress” during the Texas campaign. William Bollaert, an Englishman who visited Texas several times and was an acquaintance of the Morgans, kept a diary of his travels and recorded Emily’s actions. The diary was not made public until 1902.

By then the Yellow Rose of Texas had already become established in Texas lore. Although many modern historians have insisted Emily could not have known Houston's location, could not have warned him, yada yada, Texans have stalwartly refused to be swayed. (Don't confuse us with the facts, our minds are made up!)

Confederate soldiers marched to
"The Yellow Rose of Texas"
Emily’s story inspired “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” one of the best known songs about Texas. Texas Confederates marched off to the Civil War singing this song. For the Texas Centennial of 1936, a concert arrangement was offered by David W. Guion and dedicated to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ordered a White House performance. In 1955 Mitch Miller recorded an arrangement for Columbia Records that made the song popular with Americans. Many other performers, including Elvis Presley, have recorded the song. (Elvis changed the lyrics to have the rose living in Armarillo.) The basic lyrics were altered from the original Negro spiritual to the more politically correct version of today. Here are the current "The Yellow Rose of Texas" lyrics:

There’s a yellow rose in Texas, that I am going to see,
Nobody else could miss her, not half as much as me
She cried so when I left her it like to broke my heart,
And if I ever find her, we nevermore will part.

She’s the sweetest little rosebud that Texas ever knew,
Her eyes are bright as diamonds, they sparkle like the dew
You may talk about your Clementine and sing of Rosa Lee,
But the Yellow Rose of Texas is the only one for me.

When the Rio Grande is flowing, the starry skies are bright,
She walks along the river in the quiet summer night:
She thinks if I remember, when we parted long ago,
I promised to come back again, and not to leave her so.

She’s the sweetest little rosebud that Texas ever knew,

Her eyes are bright as diamonds, they sparkle like the dew
You may talk about your Clementine and sing of Rosa Lee,
But the Yellow Rose of Texas is the only one for me.

Oh now I’m going to find her, for my heart is full of woe,
And we’ll sing the songs together, that we sung so long ago
We’ll play the banjo gaily, and we’ll sing the songs of yore,
And the Yellow Rose of Texas shall be mine forevermore.

She’s the sweetest little rosebud that Texas ever knew,

Her eyes are bright as diamonds, they sparkle like the dew
You may talk about your Clementine and sing of Rosa Lee,
But the Yellow Rose of Texas is the only one for me.

As long as there is a Texas, and as long as the melody of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” lingers, Emily Morgan and her part in the short-lived battle on April 21, 1836 will be remembered.

Thanks to FROM ANGELS TO HELLCATS: LEGENDARY TEXAS WOMEN 1836 TO 1880 by Don Blevins for part of the above information. Also, thanks to Wikipedia, http://www.lyricsmode.com/, and to the Texas State Historical Association’s HANDBOOK OF TEXAS online.

Visit Caroline Clemmons at http://carolineclemmons.blogspot.com/ and http://www.carolineclemmons.com/


Virginia C said...

Hi, Caroline! Thank you for a wonderfully interesting post! This a terrific "story behind the song" : ) My mom loved the song and she often played it on her keyboard. You have added so much to my enjoyment of "The Yellow Rose of Texas"!

Caroline Clemmons said...

Thanks for stopping by, Virginia. I love your cat photo. You have so many cute photos, and that one looks like my late kitty, Delilah.

Paty Jager said...

This is a great story! I love when someone passionate about their state feeds us some little known history. I didn't realize the song was about a person.

Unknown said...

Caroline--I couldn't wait to read this-I wrote a similar post a couple of years ago, and found the research so fascinating, I had about four times the amount I needed. I adore this story, and admire Emily West so much. I think all Texans do, especially women.

Short story:Years ago, we lived in another house that had a patio on the side.One day, I sat on my patio reading, and I heard the new neighbor next door talking to her relatives--she had moved to Texas from Minnesota, and he sibling and wives were visiting Texas. One man asked my neighbor:"What's the state flower of Texas?" Her answer--"Oh, that would be the Yellow Rose of Texas." They all agreed, and yes, they remembered that now.
I was laughing to myself.
Wonderful post--Celia

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

What a great accounting. I've never heard it before. Texas certainly has a lot of history for historical writers who love it as much as you Caroline. No wonder your stories are such fun reads. :)

Sandra Crowley said...

Great post, Caroline. I've never heard that one and I love to learn something new everyday.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I have always been intrigued by the history and character of Texas - which is why I wrote Under A Texas Star. Now I know a bit more and you've inspired me to research further.

Thanks, Alison

Unknown said...

is emily d. west morgan considered a turning point in history or not? if so, how?

Unknown said...

is emily d west morgan considered a turning point in history or not? if so, how?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

'High yellow' is in reference to mullattos (or light skinned blacks) not quadroons. Quadroons are only 1/4th black, so the chances of them having any color left are unlikely.

malpalsx5@yahoo.com said...

Thank you Caroline Clemmons for this bit of history. I always knew that the "Yellow Rose of Texas" was a woman of color, but I did not know her story. She was indeed "high yellow," a term used to describe very light-skinned Blacks, who may be mullatos, quadroons (1/4 black) or octoroons. Black color tends to hang around for generations after out-crossing with other races. I know this well because I am Black of mixed ancestry and have all shades of black in my family.

Barbara H. horter said...

Thank you for such a wonderful poem...love the way you envision through your words...the poem, in addition, sent me for further info and learned so much about the Yellow Rose....you started it all....this search and satisfying reading!

Unknown said...

That is not always the case many quadroons were and are able to pass as olive complected Whites...