A Connecticut rose in the Tex-Mex wars

Fans of old-time westerns may recall a now-classic line from the 1962 film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” regarding the blur between myth and reality: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

This reel-life quote has a real-life resonance in the case of Emily West, a woman who has been elevated to legendary status as the heroic, glamorous “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” But the reality of what happened in West’s life was far removed from the wild incidents attributed to her time in the Lone Star State — and the journey from fact to legend offers several strange lessons in American social and racial history — and the way men view women.

Cynthia Addai-Robinson as a highly romanticized version of Emily West in the History Channel’s “Texas Rising.” No picture of the real Emily West is known to exist. Courtesy the History Channel.

The woman known as The Yellow Rose of Texas was actually born in New Haven around 1815. Emily West was mixed-race, and her residency in the North enabled her to live as a free woman of color. Through circumstances that remain unclear to this day, West entered into a one-year contract of indentured servitude in 1835 to James Morgan, a property owner who sought to establish a colony called New Washington in the Texas territory of Mexico. West’s contract had her working as a housekeeper in a hotel in the colony.

From today’s perspective, West’s journey to Texas was strange. Although she was not being enslaved by Morgan, she would have limited legal protection in a foreign territory where her freedom could not be guaranteed. Mexico banned slavery, but many of the Anglos who moved into Texas from the United States ignored the law and brought black slaves with them. Morgan was believed to be among the slave owners of the territory and this created confusion with future historians who mistakenly believed West was his slave. Indeed, for years she was referred to as “Emily Morgan,” as per the custom that slaves automatically adapted the surname of the slave master.

West also faced a second problem: Morgan was a colonel in the Army of Texas, a military movement that agitated to break the Texas territory out of Mexican control. Whether she knew this before leaving Connecticut is unknown, but West arrived in the territory as the Texas Revolution was starting, which placed her in the middle of a war zone. 

On April 16, 1836, West and other residents of New Washington were kidnapped in a raid by Mexican cavalry. The captives were placed with the forces following Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, the Mexican president who doubled as the military commander planning to stamp out the Texas Revolution. 

West’s captivity was relatively short-lived. On April 21, 1836, Army of Texas forces led by Sam Houston launched an attack on the Mexican soldiers in what became known as the Battle of San Jacinto. It wasn’t much of a battle. Within 18 minutes, the conflict was over, with the Mexican forces suffering heavy casualties. The vanquished Santa Anna was taken prisoner the next day by Houston’s forces and three weeks later a treaty was signed that enabled Texas to become an independent republic.  

Military historians blamed Santa Anna’s defeat on several tactical errors, including the positioning of his too-small force along a watershed that left them open for an attack by Houston’s men. Over the years, another theory was floated: Santa Anna became smitten with West while she was his prisoner and he brought her into his tent for a rendezvous while Houston was readying his onslaught. Whether West’s presence in the general’s tent was voluntary or not is cloudy, but this story finds Santa Anna literally caught with his pants down when the battle began. Thus, the general’s infatuation with West’s beauty distracted him to the point that he allowed his army to go down in ruin.

This story can be traced to British writer William Bollaert, who was traveling through Texas in 1842 to gather information for a report to the British Admiralty on the newly independent republic. Bollaert wrote in a July 6 diary entry that he received a letter from Sam Houston offering a salacious explanation of why Santa Anna fell to defeat so quickly: “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 Santana at the time the cry was made, ‘The Enemy! They come!’ and detained Santana so long that order could not be restored readily again.”

Bollaert’s diary entry on this aspect of the battle was never seen by the public until 1951, when it was included as a footnote in a book by historian Joe Frantz on the life of Gail Borden, a surveyor and inventor who co-plotted the cities of Galveston and Houston during the 1830s. This odd tidbit was mostly ignored, but it caught the eye of R. Henderson Shuffler, who was in charge of Texas A&M University’s public information office and would later become the first director of the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio. And this is where things go off the rails.

In 1955, Mitch Miller had a pop music hit with a new recording of the folk song “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Shuffler knew that the song had its roots in pre-Civil War minstrel shows, where a male performer in blackface offered a musical ode to “a yellow girl in Texas” — a reference to the phrase “high yellow,” which was used to describe light-skinned African-Americans. The original song had no connection to the Battle of San Jacinto and Miller’s version — which also made no mention of the brief battle — scrubbed out the offensive racial elements of the minstrel show original for a benign celebration of race-free Texas womanhood. 

Nonetheless, Shuffler began to push the theory that the yellow rose of the song was none other than the biracial Emily West, whom he held up via the Bollaert diary entry as the carnal distraction that sealed Santa Anna’s fate. Shuffler shared his idea with Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert, who shared it with his readers. And, as noted at the beginning of this article, the legend was printed instead of the fact.

Today, Emily West is venerated in Texas as the folkloric beauty whose charms helped to defeat Santa Anna and free Texas from Mexican control. The Emily Morgan Hotel is located across the street from The Alamo in San Antonio, bearing a plaque that incorrectly identifies her as both a slave and a spy who sent messages from Santa Anna’s tent to Houston’s forces. A statue depicting a somewhat Caucasian version of “Emily Morgan” can be found in the center of a garden full of yellow roses in an office complex across from Memorial City Mall in Houston. 

Even serious historical writers got in on the act. Martha Anne Turner, an English professor at Sam Houston State University, advocated the story at a presentation during the 1969 annual conference of the American Studies Association of Texas and in her 1975 book “The Yellow Rose of Texas: Her Saga and Her Song.” James Michener dropped a crass version of the legend into his 1985 epic novel “Texas,” noting how “a beautiful mulatto slave girl named Emily from the Morgan plantation…was delighted at the prospect of spending yet another siesta with the general.” The History Channel, included the story in the 2015 production “Texas Rising,” with Cynthia Addai-Robinson as a self-confident West who was caught in a love triangle with Santa Anna and Houston.  

It is impossible to know what West actually looked like, as no picture of her exists and the surviving records related to West’s time in Texas fail to offer any physical descriptions. And no one ever bothered to interview West about her experiences during this time.

However, in the aftermath of the Battle of San Jacinto, West was not treated like a hero. The new Republic of Texas did not grant citizenship to people of color, and West’s liberty was at risk because her papers identifying her as a free person of color were lost during her abduction. Mercifully, she gained the protection of Maj. Isaac Moreland, commandant of the garrison at Galveston, who vouched for her status in her application for a passport to leave Texas and return home. 

It is believed that West left Texas in early 1837 for a trip back to New Haven. What became of her after exiting Texas is unknown. The legend of The Yellow Rose of Texas, however, lives on.

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