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The Yellow Rose of Texas

by Barbara Duvall Wesolek
Barbara Duvall Wesolek

Emily silently stands, her long, dark hair swept slightly back, her prairie skirt gently billowing in the breeze. In her right hand she holds a yellow rose to her heart.

As Emily gazes over her shoulder into the distance, she strikes a romantic pose, perhaps watching for a lost love, perhaps not.

For thirteen years, Emily has stood, cast in bronze, in The Yellow Rose Garden, on a stone waterfall pedestal surrounded by more than 200 yellow rose bushes reflected on black glass-clad office buildings on Barryknoll Lane at Gessner across from Memorial City Mall in Houston. Her story is shrouded in legend and myth beginning in the rough times of 1836 during the Texian struggle for independence from Mexico.

Yellow Rose Of Texas Statue in Houston, TX
Photo courtesy Barbara Duvall Wesolek

Many stories have been told about this mysterious woman, some of them true.

However, much truth is lost in the mist of 177 years, in the smoke of campfire stories and in the exaggeration of battlefield braggadocio about Emily Morgan, The Yellow Rose of Texas, said to be a beautiful mulatta seductress, a camp follower present on the battlefield at San Jacinto when General Sam Houston defeated Mexican General Santa Anna to win Texas Independence from Mexico in April 1836. Legend credits Emily with distracting Santa Anna in his tent so the Texian army could spring a surprise attack and quickly defeat the Mexican army. If Emily were there, she was not there willingly. And she could not have known the Texians were planning a surprise attack.

Moreover, her name wasn't Emily Morgan; it was Emily D. West. She was not a Mexican army camp follower. She was a woman of color, of mixed race, newly arrived in Texas as one of several indentured servants of Colonel James Morgan, a promoter and entrepreneur from Philadelphia with business interests in New York and Texas.

Emily stated to Morgan she was born free in New Haven, Connecticut, when he hired her in New York in late 1835 to come to Texas to work for $100 a year in his hotel at what was then New Washington, now Morgan’s Point. Noted abolitionist, Reverend Simeon Jocelyn, witnessed the New York indenture papers she signed with Morgan.

Emily boarded a boat in New York belonging to Morgan and arrived in Texas where she became known by Morgan's surname as was the custom at the time for indentured servants and slaves. It was noted by locals in New Washington that she was an eastern import of intelligence and sophistication. She was said to be beautiful and attracted admiring attention in New Washington.

Shortly after Emily's arrival in New Washington, Santa Anna's army, on the way to San Jacinto, captured her at Morgan's Hotel. She was now a prisoner of war and held at San Jacinto for two days until the Battle of San Jacinto.

Santa Anna, the arrogant, self-styled Napoleon of the West, was a notorious womanizer although he had a wife in Mexico, and the Mexican army did not take prisoners unless they had a use for them. On the day of the battle, one of General Houston's officers, using a spy glass to watch the Mexican camp, reported seeing a handsome mixed race woman entering Santa Anna's tent during afternoon siesta.

Santa Anna failed to post sentries while he was engaged with Emily in his tent, giving the Texians opportunity to slip unobserved through the tall prairie grass and launch a surprise attack on the casually camped Mexicans. The Mexicans were caught completely off guard. The first warning was Mexican troops shouting, "The enemy, they come, they come!" But it was too late.

With shouts of "Remember the Alamo" and "Remember Goliad," two recent battles where the Mexican army had slaughtered the outnumbered Texian soldiers, the rag-tag, still outnumbered Texians furiously attacked the Mexican camp. Confusion and panic reigned over the surprised Mexicans and they were never able to restore order. One Mexican officer, Colonel Pedro Delgado, later wrote that Santa Anna ran around in confusion, wringing his hands, unable to give an order.

History records that the fiercely fighting Texians defeated the Mexican army in just eighteen minutes, although it took until well into the next day to round up the Mexican soldiers who were in hiding after they ran away from the battlefield. Those eighteen minutes live in history as one of the most decisive battles in U.S. history because Santa Anna, hiding in disguise, was captured the next day and forced to sign the two Treaties of Velasco. In the treaties, soon to be violated by both sides, Texas gained independence from Mexico which eventually led to the U.S. annexation of Texas as a state, as well as the U.S. acquisition of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, California and parts of Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma in the Mexican American War, in all more than one million square miles. The only money that changed hands was $18.5 million the US paid Mexico and assumed $3.5 million in Mexican debt owed to the United States. Perhaps an unknown, unpaid debt was owed to Emily.

Documented evidence that Emily was at the battle was found in a chance conversation in 1842 between a visiting Englishman named William Bollaert and General Houston. Bolleart recorded in his journal, "The Battle of San Jacinto was probably lost to the Mexicans, owing to the influence of a Mullata girl (Emily) belonging to Col. Morgan, who was closeted in the tent of G'l Santana." Bollaert had marked the story "Private" and underlined it three times. General Houston had related the story to Bollaert soon after visiting Isaac Moreland on his deathbed in June 1842.

Emily had told her story to Moreland, the artillery officer present at the Battle of San Jacinto who had obtained her replacement passport for her return to New York in 1837. Moreland wrote a letter to the secretary of state saying he had met Emily in April 1836, a thirty-six year old free woman, who had lost her "free papers" on the San Jacinto Battlefield, and she was anxious to return home to New York. This passport application is housed in the Texas State Archives. No official record of Emily D. West exists after the New York 1840 census.

Immediately after the Battle of San Jacinto, soldiers, slaves and indentured servants began embellishing stories and singing a romantic song about The Yellow Rose of Texas. The song's popularity spread to the parlors of Texas and beyond, and it was later sung by soldiers in the War Between the States from 1861-1865. The University of Texas Center for American History has an unpublished early handwritten variation of that song, perhaps dating from the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. The first published version is 1858.

Emily's legend endured through the years, and in 1955 musician Mitch Miller's reworked version of the old song hit the top of the best seller charts. Miller's version was featured in the motion picture Giant. The words, in part, are:

"Where the Rio Grande is flowing, the starry skies are bright,
She walks along the river in the quiet summer night:
I know that she remembers when we parted long ago,
I promised to return again and not to leave her so….
The Yellow Rose of Texas will be mine forevermore"

Emily Morgan statue plaque
Photo courtesy Barbara Duvall Wesolek

No photos of Emily have been found, but the only known statue of Emily, The Yellow Rose of Texas, sculpted by Veryl Goodnight, continues the legend standing in her courtyard garden across from Memorial City Mall in Houston, waiting for a lover who may never have existed except in song.

Sculptor Veryl Goodnight
Artist Veryl Goodnight with her husband Roger Brooks, and statue "A New Beginning" in the History Colorado Museum in Denver
Courtesy Veryl Goodnight

Emily's life-size bronze statue was created by the internationally acclaimed artist, Veryl Goodnight, a distant relative of Charles Goodnight, famous rancher of the Goodnight cattle drives near Amarillo and Palo Duro Canyon. She currently works and resides with her husband, Roger Brooks, in Mancos, Colorado.

Goodnight's work, dedicated to the American West and featuring pioneer women and animals, is in many museums including the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University in College Station. The Bush Library statue is titled "The Day the Wall Came Down," and a sister statue is at the Allied Museum in Berlin, Germany. Many statues to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall were offered to Berlin, but the only statue they chose was Goodnight's "The Day the Wall Came Down."

© Barbara Duvall Wesolek
September 8, 2014 column

"The Yellow Rose of Texas" Related Articles:

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