Texas history is full of legend and lore. One such tale is the “Yellow Rose of Texas” – a legend commemorated in song. But is there such a rose? And if there is, which rose is it?
The Legend of the Yellow Rose of Texas
Emily West of Morgan’s Point refers to an indentured servant, somewhat forgotten in history for her heroism during the Texas war of independence from Mexico. Some contend the legend is a myth – not a part of history. The historical evidence, however, indicates otherwise.
The legend begins in 1830 with the immigration to Texas of James Morgan, an entrepreneur from Philadelphia with extensive holdings. Morgan was eager to capitalize on the cheap land and business opportunities in the Mexican colony which would ultimately become Texas. He formed several partnerships with New York speculators for land deals in the fledgling colony. However, Texas did not permit slavery and Morgan had 16 he wanted to bring with him. So to circumvent the law, he converted his slaves into 99-year contracts of indentured servitude.
In the years that followed, a scheme was conceived to flood Texas with non-Mexicans from the United States. To capitalize on that movement, Morgan returned to New York in 1835 to recruit more workers for his settlement. One such émigré was a twenty-year-old woman named Emily D. West – “an eastern import with extraordinary intelligence and sophistication.”
Emily West was mulatto and possibly from Bermuda since Morgan brought many of his workers from this Atlantic island. According to some records, West volunteered to be indentured, most probably to escape the prejudice against her mixed race. And, as was the custom for an indentured worker at the time, she changed her last name to that of Morgan’s.
By the following year in 1836, the war for Texas’ independence from Mexico was fully engaged and led by General Sam Houston. James Morgan’s now successful settlement, New Washington, was strategically located near the mouth of the San Jacinto River. He freely gave his famous oranges, various grains and fattened cattle to Houston’s men. One particularly strategic parcel of land named Morgan’s Point extended into San Jacinto Bay. From Morgan’s Point, flatboats were loaded with supplies for Houston.
Thus established as a “friend of Texas,” James Morgan was appointed a Colonel. And in March, 1836, he was assigned to the Port of Galveston (some 30 miles away) to guard Texas refugees and fugitive government officials. So that Houston’s supply line would continue, he left Emily West Morgan in charge of loading flatboats destined to feed the army.
By the afternoon of April 18, 1836, General Santa Anna had moved his men into position to attack the Texas rebels he knew to be nearby. On his approach was New Washington – now mostly deserted as its inhabitants fled before his marching army. One of those that remained behind, however, was Emily, and Santa Anna was immediately struck by her beauty.
The next morning, after his men helped themselves to the crops and cattle, Santa Anna set about securing one more “spoil of war” – Emily. He captured her and a young “yellow boy” named Turner loading yet another flatboat headed for Houston’s army. Santa Anna cajoled Turner to lead his Mexican scouts to the Houston encampment. But as they were departing, Emily convinced Turner to escape from Santa Anna’s men and rush to Houston’s camp to inform him of the Mexican general’s arrival.
General Santa Anna believed himself quite the ladies’ man. And although still married to a woman in Mexico, he remarried one of his teenage captives from his Texas campaign. But he had been without his most recent bride for two weeks now. Emily looked like she would make a very suitable replacement.
Thus, he ordered the immediate setting up of his encampment on the plains of the San Jacinto despite protestations from his colonels who insisted the location violated all principles of wartime strategy. And they were right. Houston, upon hearing of Santa Anna’s location from Turner, moved his troops into the woods within a scant mile of the beguiled general’s headquarters.
On the morning of April 21, Houston climbed a tree to spy into the Mexican camp. There he saw Emily preparing a champagne breakfast for Santa Anna, and reportedly remarked, “I hope that slave girl makes him neglect his business and keeps him in bed all day.”
By afternoon, the great final battle for the independence of Texas was engaged. The Mexican army was caught completely by surprise, and Santa Anna was literally caught “with his pants down.” Reports at the time said he was caught running away from the battle with his studded silk shirt opened and concealed under a dead soldier’s blue smock – hurriedly put on during his attempted escape.
Emily West Morgan survived the battle and made her way back to New Washington. Two days later, James Morgan, who had not heard of the battle, returned from Galveston, and Emily told him of her ordeal and the outcome of the last great battle. The colonel was so impressed with Emily’s heroism, that he repealed her indenture and gave her a passport back to New York – the final chapter of which we have no record.
We do know, however, Morgan made certain everyone knew of Emily’s heroism. He told everyone he encountered or anyone who would listen and recorded the story in his journals. Morgan “kept a running commentary on Texas affairs with Samuel Swartwout, one of Houston’s friends in New York City.” He also told his story to an English friend and ethnologist, William Bollaert, who recorded the story in every detail.
There are some in recent history who have suggested Emily’s efforts were made because she was attracted to the opulence and good looks of the Mexican general. But the accounts from those who were there indicate she was a loyal “Texian” who did what she could for the independence of Texas.
Today, the heroic acts of the young woman from New York are still reverently commemorated by the members of the Knights of the Yellow Rose of Texas each April 21 at San Jacinto.
Who was the Yellow Rose of Texas?
Emily West Morgan is thought to have been a free black woman who came to Texas in 1835 with Colonel and Mrs. James Morgan.
It follows, then, that we ask “Is there a rose named in honor of Emily and her heroic act?” Although a possibility, probably not.
In rose literature, the Old Garden Rose most frequently associated with the “Yellow Rose of Texas” is Harison’s Yellow. Let’s examine the possibilities.
In the 1830’s, George Folliott Harison was a New York lawyer and amateur rose hybridizer. He (or possibly his lawyer father, Richard) crossed what is believed to be Rosa foetida persiana (ÎPersian Yellow’) with R. spinosissima (= R. pimpinellifolia) (‘Scotch Briar Rose’). The resulting hybrid was named Rosa x. harisonii or ÎHarison’s Yellow.’ [Phillips and Rix] Although once-blooming, Harison’s Yellow was renowned at the time for its vigor, hardiness, resilience and resistance to disease.
The obvious link between the woman, the song, and the rose is New York City. Although I could find no record indicating George and/or Richard Harison were business partners with James Morgan, as “men of means” this may have been a possibility.
It is almost a certainty the New York press would have picked up on the tales coming from the Battle of San Jacinto and the subsequent independence of Texas – especially since James Morgan had business ties to the city. Almost as certain would be James Morgan’s account of his former servant’s heroism – especially since he would have been a “neighbor” from Pennsylvania with numerous business dealings in New York; and she would have been considered a New Yorker who had survived a Texas adventure and returned “home” as a “free woman” to tell about it.
Although I searched the index to The New York Times in great detail, I turned up no such tales. The index itself is handscribed and annotates only important stories as they relate to national and state events and people. “Features” about roses and adventures are not recorded.
The folksong that became so popular also became the theme song for settlers as they traveled long distances in search of a new homestead. In the ensuing decades after its hybridization, both preceding and following the American Civil War, Harison’s Yellow was reportedly carried westward by settlers who planted it wherever they stopped. Even today, naturalized stands of this rose can be found as far west as New Mexico and California. [Druitt and Shoup] But it is seldom seen naturalized in Texas.
Despite its vigor and resilience to the difficult growing conditions in northern climates, Harison’s Yellow does not grow well in Texas where the growth season is long and summer temperatures are high – most notably in the central and southern portions of the state. Likewise, it does not root well from cuttings – the preferred method of transporting roses by settlers in the nineteenth century.
And what of the comparison between the lyrics and the rose? Is it a “stretch” to connect the brilliant yellow blossoms of Harison’s Yellow with the lyrics “Her eyes are bright as diamonds, they sparkle in the dew”? Can we compare the fruity scent of the blossoms to “She’s the sweetest rose of color….”? Dare we associate the charming but ever-so-prickly canes of this rose to the Mata Hari-like deeds performed on behalf of the fight for Texas independence?
Again, possibly. There is no way of knowing for certain. But if this rose was so nicknamed by travelers in search of long-sought goals – goals commemorated in a wonderful folksong about a Texas heroine – then indeed Harison’s Yellow may well be the “Yellow Rose of Texas.”
Originally conceived as a folksong in early Colonial Texas history, the first recorded copy of the “Yellow Rose of Texas” was handwritten on a piece of plain paper circa 1836. Historical records indicate this copy was most probably transcribed either shortly before or just after General Sam Houston lead his brigade of Texas loyalists against the army of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.
The folksong’s lyrics tell of a black American (presumably a soldier) who left his sweetheart (a “yellow rose”) and yearns to return to her side. “Yellow” was a term given to Americans of mixed race in those days – most commonly mulattos. And “Rose” was a popular feminine nineteenth-century name; frequently used in songs and poems as a symbolic glorification of young womanhood. [Turner]
The original transcription was poorly made and full of spelling errors. This would indicate [that] the transcriber was somewhat uneducated but possibly influential, as it was signed with three embellished initials. This copy is now housed in the archives at the University of Texas in Austin.
Although no name is given as the song’s composer in any of the records, a hint may come from the fourth line in the chorus which infers the soldier is from Tennessee. Unfortunately, many men from Tennessee moved to (or were brought to) Texas during its colonization and war of independence.
In 1858, the first copyrighted edition of the song was published in New York. The cover states the song was “Composed and Arranged Expressly for Charles H. Brown by J.K.” It was common in the nineteenth century to keep “ghost” composers secretive, especially if the songs had slave folksong origins. Hence, we donât know who “J.K.” was, nor are we certain he was even the composer. And weâre not likely to find out.
Soon after it was published, the song increased in worldwide popularity and was sung by minstrels both in this country and Europe. As the American Civil War began, it was adopted as a marching song by soldiers everywhere – most often, as you might expect, by those soldiers from Texas. But since it referred to (and was to be sung by) a black American soldier, the song’s lyrics were changed. By the early 1860’s, the term “darky”[sic] was replaced with “soldier,” and the first line of the chorus was changed to “She’s the sweetest little flower….”
Finally, in 1864 with the end of the war nearing, a fourth stanza was added to reflect the dismay and hopelessness of General John B. Hood’s retreating Texas Brigade after its disastrous Tennessee campaign. [Abernathy] Some of his troops were so disoriented after the loss, they actually thought the war was over and started returning home – singing, of course, “Yellow Rose of Texas.”
So then, who was Yellow Rose? The answer comes from historical records which tell us the song’s original title was “Emily, the Maid of Morgan’s Point.” [Turner]
What are the lyrics to the Song, “Yellow Rose of Texas”?
From the handwritten transcript Stored in the archives at the University of Texas, Austin
There’s a yellow rose in Texas, that I am going to see,
No other darky [sic] knows her, no darky only me
She cryed [sic] 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 rose of color this darky ever knew,
Her eyes are bright as diamonds,they sparkle like the dew;
You may talk about your Dearest May, and sing of Rosa Lee,
But the Yellow Rose of Texas beats the belles of Tennessee.
When the Rio Grande is flowing, the starry skies are bright,
She walks along the river in the quite [sic] summer night:
She thinks if I remember, when we parted long ago,
I promised to come back again, and not to leave her so. [Chorus]
Oh now I’m going to find her, for my heart is full of woe,
And we’ll sing the songs togeather [sic], that we sung so long ago
We’ll play the bango gaily, and we’ll sing the songs of yore,
And the Yellow Rose of Texas shall be mine forevermore.
More than 25 years later, the lyrics were changed. “Soldier” replaced “darky.” And the first line of the chorus was also changed to read, “She’s the sweetest little flower….”
In 1864 General Hood and the Texas Brigade fighting in Tennessee, were defeated. His men retreated in such confusion they thought the war was over. Many headed home, and a fourth stanza was added:
And now I’m going southward, for my heart is full of woe,
I’m going back to Georgia, to see my Uncle Joe.
You may talk about your Beauregard, and sing of Bobbie Lee,
But the gallant Hood of Texas played hell in Tennessee.
Some versions have the third line changed to read, “…and sing of General Lee,” – an obvious reference to the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
From the 1955 Mitch Miller rendition, the song now reads:
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 Rosalee,
But the YELLOW ROSE OF TEXAS Is the only girl for me.
When 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 promise to return again, And not to leave her so.
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 bango gaily, And we’ll sing the songs of yore,
And the Yellow Rose of Texas Shall be mine forevermore.
Abernathy, Francis Edward. Singin’ Texas. E. Hearst Press, Dallas, TX. 1983.
Beales, Peter. Classic Roses. Henry Holt & Co., New York, NY. 1985.
Cairns, Thomas, Ed. Modern Roses 10. The American Rose Society, Shreveport, LA. 1993.
Druitt, Liz and G. Michael Shoup. Landscaping with Antique Roses. Taunton Press; Newtown, CT. 1992.
Garner, Claude W. Sam Houston: Texas Giant. Naylor Co., San Antonio, TX. 1969.
Phillips, Roger and Martyn Rix. The Quest for the Rose. Random House, New York, NY. 1993.
Turner, Martha Anne. Yellow Rose of Texas: Her Saga and Her Song. Shoal Creek Publishers, Austin, TX. 1976.
Wisehart, M. K. Sam Houston: American Giant. Robert B. Luce, Inc., Washington, DC. 1962.
Sons of Dewitt Colony – sonsofdewittcolony.org/adp/archives/yellowrose/yelrose.html