The Yellow Rose of Texas
©Lee Paul

 

Editor's note: We get a lot of comments on this story, and we are not going to change it to suit individual theories. This is the original story as was published back in the 1980's, and it was based on research conducted then. Research today may change a lot of the facts. We do not know the truth and only present this story for your reading pleasure.

"She’s the sweetest rose of color this darky ever knew. Her eyes are bright as diamonds. They sparkle like the dew...." Few people know that this popular folk ballad honors a twenty-year-old slave girl named Emily Morgan. The mulatto beauty of song rode into history at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, as the heroine of the Texas Revolution.

Few Texan tales are as full of fascination as that of the fabled "Yellow Rose." Her presence in the quarters of Mexican President and Dictator General Antonio de Lopez de Santa Anna on April 21, 1836, at the Battle of San Jacinto is now approaching international legend, yet very few know how she got there. Or why. Or even her name. It is a fact, however, that without her, Texas might not exist---nor New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma. The "Yellow Rose," or Emily Morgan as she is called, is the heroine of the Texas Revolution.

There’s a great deal of controversy surrounding Emily Morgan, probably because her contribution to Texas history lay hidden in the pages of a series of diaries written in 1842 by an Englishman named William Bollaert, a small portion of which finally reached American shores in 1956 in a book titled WILLIAM BOLLAERT’S TEXAS. Legend says she was a member of the household of Colonel James Morgan, but no one really knows her exact status for sure. Since it was Colonel Morgan who first told her story to others---as well as to Bollaert who, as an ethnologist, carefully wrote it down---Emily became embroidered into the fabric of Morgan’s family. It is known that Colonel Morgan assumed responsibility for her welfare, which is probably why Emily is associated with his name. However it came about, she is firmly ensconced as a permanent aspect of Texas legend and folklore.

Beautiful Emily Morgan was born Emily D. West on an unknown date in an unknown part of New York near Albany where she spent her childhood. If she was born to a slave mother after July 4, 1799, she was free by July 4, 1827, when virtually all New York slaves were emancipated. At any rate, most historians agree that she had free papers when she arrived in Texas in December 1835.

In those years, Texas lay in a gray area on slavery. As part of the Mexican state of Coahuila-Texas, slavery was outlawed, but as part of the South, Texas could not give up its own culture. Most Texans skirted the issue by utilizing an 1828 law which allowed immigrants to "liberate" their slaves by making them indentured servants for life. Colonel Morgan had thus turned his sixteen slaves into servants for ninety-nine years.

Since Emily was a light-skinned Mulatto, she may have thought it more prudent to travel with a Texan family to avoid being mistaken as a runaway slave from another State. It’s also just as possible that she worked for the family she traveled with, the Lorenzo de Zavala family. In any event, she set sail from New York City on November 2, 1835, with Emily West de Zavala, the three Zavala children, and an Irish servant girl on board the schooner FLASH bound for Galveston.

It should be mentioned at this point that at least one descendant in the de Zavala family claims there was only one Emily West, and that she was his ancestor, Emily West de Zavala, that Emily D. West [Morgan] did not exist. It should also be mentioned that researchers have been trying very hard for years to prove that Emily West de Zavala WAS the Yellow Rose, something the de Zavala family has been trying equally as hard to dispute, since it would interject racial tones into their ancestry. So far, all that has been proved is nothing, and which party, if either, is on the right track is not known.

The FLASH, as well as another schooner named KOSCIUSKO, were owned in partnership by Colonel Morgan, Lorenzo de Zavala, and several New York financiers. With the backing of the financiers, Morgan and de Zavala had laid out the town of New Washington on a point of land just north of Galveston Island near the mouth of the San Jacinto River in the summer of 1835. The area lay just south of Harrisburg which had been acting as the seat of Texan government for several months. To populate the new colony, Morgan, who was himself a mercantile businessman from Philadelphia, imported Scot Highlanders along with blacks from Bermuda and New York. Morgan’s Point became the port colony for its sister cities further inland.

Although the point of land is named after Colonel Morgan, who commanded the Texan Volunteers at Galveston, it is Lorenzo de Zavala who is best remembered here. Much honored and beloved in his native Mexico, de Zavala brought liberal Mexicans to the Texas cause. He loved democracy and individual freedom. Born in the Yucatan, he rose in prominence until he was elected to the Mexican National Congress. He was even the first to sign the Mexican Constitution of 1824 and had twice served as Governor of Mexico before resigning during his last term and fleeing the country in 1835 with a price on his head after realizing that Santa Anna was a dictator who would not follow the liberal constitution. At the time he helped build New Washington, he was also in partnership with a young lawyer from New Jersey named David Burnet in the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company of which Sam Houston also belonged.

When the two schooners reached Galveston, the ships followed the course of the river inland to New Washington, a distance of about twenty miles or so, arriving at Morgan’s warehouse around December 15, where Morgan’s slaves helped unload the vessels at the dock. It’s been speculated that Emily was to be the housekeeper at Morgan’s plantation on Buffalo Bayou, which was near the plantations of Lorenzo de Zavala and David Burnet, but when the ships arrived, Morgan’s wife Celia and their three children were away in North Carolina visiting relatives. Emily went to live with the de Zavala family instead.

Emily West de Zavala was the young second wife of Lorenzo de Zavala, and the two women were good friends. Emily Morgan may have planned on being with the de Zavala’s only temporarily---the similarity in the two women’s names still haunts some people who attempt the research---however, with Texas in turmoil during those early months of 1836, her exact status in ANYONE’S household is unclear.

Shortly after Emily arrived in Texas, the General Council issued a call for a new convention. Since the citizens of Gonzales east of San Antonio had started the Texas Revolution in October by firing their borrowed Mexican cannon at Mexican troops, the convention was to determine, among other issues, the leadership of the Provisional government until independence was fully established. Fifty-nine delegates convened March 1, 1836, in an unfinished house during a frigid "norther" at a new ad hoc capital called, fittingly enough, Washington-on-the-Brazos. It lay northwest of New Washington about 120 miles.

The next day, on March 2, the men wasted no time adopting a declaration of independence. But they barely had time to appoint David Burnet Provisional President and Lorenzo de Zavala Provisional Vice-President before clearing out eastward before Santa Anna’s northern column could snag them. Four days later, the Alamo fell under an onslaught estimated at more than 5,000 Mexican troops.

After the fall of the Alamo, Santa Anna turned his enormous army east toward Gonzales and on toward San Felipe where he was to meet up with his 1,000-man northern column under General Antonio Gaona. San Felipe was where his spies had led him to believe that the 750-man Texan army under General Sam Houston was located. But General Houston had already retreated northward up the Brazos, looking for a position where, he assured his men, "you can whip the enemy ten to one."

Santa Anna then decided to turn south down the Brazos toward Fort Bend to await his 1,200-man southern army under General Jose Urrea before chasing the Texan government across the countryside. But General Urrea, whose army had just slaughtered 400 of the Texans at the La Bahia battleground at Goliad, was at least a day’s march away. And Santa Anna was impatient. Upon learning that the Texas government was still at Harrisburg, for the moment anyway, Santa Anna immediately raced east with 1,000 men, leaving most of his army at Fort Bend under his second-in-command, General Vicente Filisola, to catch up. The Dictator reasoned that if he could capture and execute the ringleaders, especially his hated archenemy Lorenzo de Zavala, the war would be over in one stroke. When he found Harrisburg deserted, he burned the town to the ground in rage.

All along Santa Anna’s route, civilians fled the revolution in a desperate race to reach the safety of the Louisiana border, a flight which became known as the Runaway Scrape. They left behind everything they could not carry on their backs, and the booty became fuel for the advancing Mexican army. Santa Anna even confiscated a fine piano from one of the houses in his path.

In New Washington, perhaps the richest settlement in Texas and only a stone’s throw south of Harrisburg, just the indentured servants remained to care for the plantations and personal belongings of their masters. While Colonel Morgan was away with his command on Galveston Island, Emily was at Morgan’s home on April 16 when Colonel Juan Almonte and a company of dragoons rode down from Harrisburg. She had been helping President Burnet and his family store their goods along with Colonel Morgan’s in Morgan’s warehouse prior to boarding the FLASH, which was anchored in the river, ready to ferry them all to safety. Although the Burnets and two other men managed to row to the schooner, Emily and a slave boy named Turner were captured.

Santa Anna arrived at Morgan’s house the following day and was immediately enamored with Emily. She had golden skin , and her long, flowing, raven black hair, coupled with her youth, made her resemble a Latin beauty. As his men plundered the area, Santa Anna, a consummate womanizer, made Emily a part of his loot. He ordered the frightened girl assigned as a servant in his presidential tent.

Emily traveled as a prisoner with Santa Anna for five days, five days in which she was privy to all his communiques and orders as he settled on a location on the plains of San Jacinto for his army to encamp. When he sent the captured slave Turner with a small detail of dragoons to find and reconnoiter the Texas army’s position, the intelligent Emily managed to covertly inform the slave of Santa Anna’s current army strength, saying that the general expected the rest of his massive army in a matter of days. She instructed Turner to warn the Texas general of the enemy’s exact location---if he could do so without divulging Houston’s position. Turner, taking advantage of the speed of his mount, managed to escape the Mexican surveillance.

Meanwhile, General Houston was having trouble controlling his hot-tempered and hot-blooded troops. They totally resented retreat, especially after the devastating defeats at the Alamo and La Bahia. When his spies informed him of Santa Anna’s action at Harrisburg, Houston had no trouble ordering the army south where he let his men get a good look at the smoldering ruins. Captured dispatches soon told him that Santa Anna was somewhere south of the San Jacinto River near Vince’s Bridge on Buffalo Bayou, and he promptly marched his men to Lynchburg, eight miles east of the bridge, where there was a ferry.

It was at Lynchburg that Turner found the General on the morning of the twentieth and gave the Texan commander Emily’s urgent message. Since she warned of Mexican reinforcements on the way, Houston decided on immediate attack. With the inflaming words of "REMEMBER THE ALAMO! REMEMBER LA BAHIA!" he ordered his men to quietly raft over the south bank of Buffalo Bayou.

The plains of San Jacinto afforded the worst possible military advantage. In fact, it violated all military rules. It was a pennisula, surrounded by water, and the only means of quick entry---or escape---was either the ferry at Lynchburg or the rickety bridge over the bayou. All other means of reaching the area was from the south, a low delta which at that time of year was a boggy quagmire swarming with mosquitoes, alligators, and other unsavory pests.

If Santa Anna chose unwisely for his men, the spot he selected for himself and Emily was beautiful. It had a romantic view overlooking San Jacinto Bay. Like a man on his honeymoon, he ordered his gaudy, silk tent set up on the low rise. When informed at nine o’clock on the morning of April 21 that his brother-in-law, General Martin Perfecto de Cos, had arrived with 500 more men, men who had marched all night to get there, Santa Anna ordered the entire compound to sleep and rest for the day, much to the horror of two of his generals who tried to contradict the orders. With a swish of his hand in dismissal, Santa Anna promptly returned to his opium plugs and his dalliance with Emily in his red-striped headquarters filled with silverware, fine crystal, china, champagne, and gourmet food.

Early in the morning of April 21, General Houston ordered one of his scouts, Erasmus "Deaf" Smith, to destroy Vince’s Bridge, thus sealing the fate of everyone on the pennisula. There would be no escape once the battle began, as the Texans were determined it would be a win or die situation. But before destroying the bridge, Deaf Smith trained his spyglass on the enemy camp from a position so close that he could observe everything taking place. By counting the tent tops, he estimated the Mexican troop strength at approximately 1,500 men.

Deaf Smith also reported more than numbers to Houston. He reported the stacked guns and the Mexican officers and soldiers partying with their women in their tents. Houston was well aware of the presence of the women. Indeed, he had climbed a tree and watched as the imprisoned Emily served breakfast to Santa Anna, who was wearing a bright red silk robe at the time....

When Houston finally got his army into position to attack at four o’clock that afternoon, not a single Mexican was in sight. Caught by surprise with his pants down, Santa Anna was one of the first to attempt an escape. Seizing a magnificent black stallion named Old Whip, which he had confiscated only the day before from the farm belonging to Allen Vince, who lived next to and had built the bridge, the disoriented dictator gave the big horse his head.

The animal made a mad dash toward his barn, only the bridge was now gone, having been blown up by Deaf Smith a few minutes earlier. With the bayou a wide, deep body of water at flood time and Santa Anna being deathly afraid of water, the Mexican General found himself trapped. Unable to get away, he hid in the tall grass along the river’s bank where a color bearer named Jim Sylvestre, out hunting deer, found him the next day. For his services, Sylvestre was awarded 640 acres of land in North Texas. He later traded it all for a scrawny mule, which he rode to New Orleans to set type for the PICAYUNE newspaper. That mule has since turned out to be the most valuable animal ever in history---Sylvestre’s 640 acres is present-day downtown Dallas.

The majority of Santa Anna’s army offered only shocked resistance. The bloody battle lasted about eighteen minutes with the Texan army fighting like they never had before. They rose out of the ground a couple hundred yards from the Mexican tents like hounds from hell. Dressed in rags and tatters and with faces contorted with rage, they screamed an unintelligible "grito." Moments later, over the din of battle, amid the terrible screams, came a booming roar: "RECUERDEN EL ALAMO! RECUERDEN LA BAHIA!" It was the deep, bass voice of Antonio Menchaca, a sergeant in Captain Juan Seguin’s troop of Tejanos, the native-born Texans of Mexican heritage who fought with gusto in Houston’s army. Only then did the terrified Mexicans know what the Texans were screaming, and it turned their blood to ice, freezing them with fear.

In Houston’s report of the losses, which was as close to the truth as anyone knew, he stated: "In the battle our loss was two killed and twenty-three wounded, six of them mortally. The enemy’s loss was six hundred and thirty killed...prisoners seven hundred and thirty....Santa Anna and General Cos are included in the numbers." In what has been called one of the most decisive battles in history, General Houston not only won independence for Texas, but he paved the way for expansion to the Pacific which added a million square miles of territory that more than doubled the size of the American Nation at the time.

Emily escaped during the battle, but in the process, she lost her free papers. She sought asylum with the Isaac Moreland family at New Washington because the de Zavalas and Burnets were on Galveston Island with James Morgan. She related her story to Colonel Morgan on April 23 when he and Vice-President de Zavala stopped at New Washington enroute to the battle site with reinforcements and supplies for Houston’s army. Unaware that the battle had been fought two days earlier, the two men heard the first news of the victory from the servants at the plantation. De Zavala immediately offered his palatial home as a hospital.

Historians aren’t sure of Emily’s exact "freedom" status after San Jacinto, and it’s probably because William Bollaert wrote in his diary that the battle was lost due to the "influence of a Mulatto Girl belonging to Colonel Morgan, who was closeted in the tent with General Santana." It implied that Emily was Colonel Morgan’s indentured servant, hence the name Emily Morgan. In any event, Colonel Morgan bought Emily a home in a community of free slaves in the new city of Houston, which was constructed upriver from New Washington and made the new capital of the Republic in honor of General Houston’s victory over Santa Anna.

When Lorenzo de Zavala became ill that June and returned to his home on Buffalo Bayou, Emily immediately rejoined the de Zavalas to nurse the Vice-President. That November of 1836, still in bad health, de Zavala contracted pneumonia when a boat he was riding in capsized near his dock. He died days later, still wanting the freedom and democracy for his beloved Mexico that he had helped achieve in Texas. He’s buried in a small family plot in San Jacinto Battlefield Park .

Today, the town and county of Zavala honor his name, and just east of the Texas Capitol in Austin stands the Lorenzo de Zavala Texas State Archives Building. One of his granddaughters, Adina de Zavala, raised $50,000 of the $75,000 price tag to buy the Alamo Convent and Long Barracks from a merchant in 1904. (The Chapel had reverted to the Catholic Church, which sold it to the State in 1883. Miss Clara Driscoll provided the last $25,000, and is known as the "Savior of the Alamo.")

Following de Zavala’s death, Emily chose to return to New York with the great man’s widow, only she had lost her free papers and could not secure transportation without them. She turned to Isaac Moreland for help, and he secured a passport for her. Sometime between March and July 1837, the two women left Texas. Emily de Zavala eventually returned to Texas, but Emily Morgan probably never did. Although Texas lost her to New York, her days as the observant prisoner of the self-proclaimed "Napoleon of the West," earned her a sacred place in the annals of Texas history. If her name is forgotten, what she did is not. She’s the heroine of the Revolution, the "Yellow Rose of Texas."

ADDENDUM

The earliest known copy of the song "The Yellow Rose of Texas" appeared soon after the Battle of San Jacinto. This handwritten version was addressed to "E.A. Jones" and signed by an unidentified "H.B.C." The lyrics are as follows:

There’s a yellow rose in Texas
That I am going to see
No other darky know her
No one only me

She cryed so when I left her
It like to broke my heart
And if I ever find her
We nevermore will part.

Chorus (1 of 3)

She’s the sweetest rose of color
This darky ever knew
Her eyes are bright as diamonds
They sparkle like the dew

You may talk about dearest May
and sing of Rosa Lee
But the yellow rose of Texas
Beats the belles of Tennessee.

Another version of the song soon appeared about "Emily, the Maid of Morgan’s Point." The first published version of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" in sheet music was copyrighted in September 1858. Confederate soldiers marched to the tune during the Civil War. David Guion composed a concert transcription of it in 1936 to commemorate the Texas Centennial, and he dedicated it to President Franklin Roosevelt, who had it played at the White House. Finally, in 1955, Mitch Miller and his Chorus recorded an arrangement by Don George for Columbia Records. Miller’s version quickly became the best-known version of the tune, only all the lyrics were amended. For instance, the chorus is now:

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 Rosalee,
But the Yellow Rose of Texas
is the only girl for me!

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