She is the traditional subject of the song “Yellow Rose of Texas” and one of the more compelling characters in the miniseries “Texas Rising” which just completed its debut run on the History Channel. The song itself was composed in the 1800s, though the name of the composer is unknown.
The lyrics as currently sung, are as follows:
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 banjo gaily,
And we’ll sing the songs of yore,
And the Yellow Rose of Texas
Shall be mine forevermore.
The original lyrics reportedly were not politically correct and referred to both the singer and his subject in a slang term (“darky”) no longer accepted for people of color. The song was first copyrighted in 1858 and was popular among soldiers. How it is associated with Emily Morgan/Emily West is likely from its original title, thought to be “Emily, the Maid of Morgan’s Point.” The question is, who was Emily?
There are at least three predominating theories concerning Emily West. One was that she existed and was a real person living in Texas, at least for a time. As far as we can determine, there was no female of her description who survived the Alamo, nor is there a mention of this person having a brother who died in the 1836 battle. There are records (possibly apocryphal) that refer to a female of mixed heritage associated with Santa Anna on the day of the Battle of San Jacinto and references to her being named Emily and “belonging” to Col. Morgan. With no last name given, this is likely the origin of using the name Emily Morgan for this person. The wording would suggest that she was either a slave or an indentured servant of this Col. James Morgan. There also exists a contract between an Emily West of Connecticut and a James Morgan of Texas wherein West agrees to work for Morgan for 100 dollars per year. However, there are no records of an indentured servant by the name of Emily West having ever resided in Texas, though definitive records may be lost to history. If she existed, this person is not documented elsewhere in Texas history.
A second theory is that Emily West may have been the wife of Lorenzo de Zavala, whose existence is well known. There are some hints of discrimination with regard to Emily West de Zavala, though the reasons are unknown. There are photographs of her that do not indicate that she was of mixed heritage, but that would not necessarily be obvious from a photograph. Emily was the second wife of Zavala, having married him in 1831 following the death of his first wife earlier in the year. They were married for five years until de Zavala’s death in late 1836. Two branches of this theory are that there may have been two Emily Wests and the names are coincidentally the same or that there was one Emily West and she was Emily West de Zavala. As far as we know, there is nothing to indicate that the wife of Lorenzo de Zavala, somewhat well placed, would have engaged in a relationship for any reason with the Mexican General Santa Anna other than her name, common to the legendary character, and the fact that the Zavala family resided somewhat near San Jacinto. After the death of her husband, Emily used her maiden name of Emily West until she remarried. Following the death of Zavala, she was married two more times, died in 1882 and is interred in the de Zavala Cemetery in La Porte, Harris County, Texas.
A third theory is that the Emily West of the legend is entirely hypothetical and never really existed at all, though arguments have been made that the record and account of any heroic actions of such a mixed race individual may have been eliminated or at least downplayed for racial reasons. There is no mention of Santa Anna being anything other than surprised by the attack of the Texans on that day in the Marques James biography of Sam Houston, “The Raven.” There is also no mention of Emily West in this biography, nor any other documentary evidence that there was ever a relationship between West and Houston at any time.
At this point, the records seem to be unclear that there was an actual individual by the name of Emily West who was involved in the Battle of San Jacinto, though more research may yet shed more light on this. The movements of the indentured servant by that name are lost to history at this time and the facts of her eventual death and burial are unknown.