There’s a yellow rose in Texas that I am a going to see
No other darky knows 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
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. – Anonymous
The legend of Emily Morgan ties into so many of the topics we’ve discussed lately, such as Creole women, 19th century history of the American south, songs about sexy ladies and even “human trafficking”, that it’s been going around my mind for the past few days. And even though Miss Morgan is not known to have ever officially espoused our profession, her demonstration of the way a woman can use her sexuality to achieve a desired goal directly contradicts the modern dogma that such a strategy is “inherently degrading and humiliating”, which makes her a woman whores can admire and her story a fit topic for this blog. I use the word “legend” because most of the story’s details are derived from one original source and may have been embellished by tradition; indeed, some modern (male) historians claim that the story has no basis in historical fact at all, despite documentary evidence to the contrary. And since the idea that whoring oneself can be a positive and even heroic action is not politically correct, modern historians have a strong motivation to make such revisionist claims (as we talked about in the commentary on my August 18th column); my readers will therefore forgive me if I tend to lean a bit on the lady’s side.
In 1830 James Morgan, a businessman from Philadelphia, emigrated to Texas in order to speculate on the cheap land and other business opportunities available in what was then a Mexican colony. Since slavery was illegal under Mexican law, Morgan had his 16 slaves legally converted into indentured servants with 99-year contracts. Morgan and the other American settlers soon conceived of an idea to flood Texas with American settlers so they could then declare independence from Mexico and become an American state; to further this plan he travelled to New York in 1835 to recruit colonists. While on this trip he met a beautiful 20-year-old Creole woman named Emily West, possibly from Bermuda; Morgan described her as possessed of “extraordinary intelligence and sophistication.” Though born free Emily accepted indenture in order to cover her expenses and avoid the difficulties deriving from racial prejudice, and so changed her last name to that of her master (as was the custom at that time).
By the beginning of 1836 Texas had declared independence from Mexico and the rebellion, led by General Sam Houston, was fully in progress. James Morgan’s settlement, New Washington, was now fully established near the mouth of the San Jacinto River, and he donated oranges, produce and beef to Houston’s army; the grateful Houston therefore appointed him a colonel and assigned him to guard the Port of Galveston about 50 km away. Morgan left his trusted servant Emily in charge of loading the flatboats which carried the donated provisions, and on April 18, 1836 she was captured when Mexican troops under the command of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (pictured above) occupied New Washington. The General, who fancied himself a ladies’ man, was immediately taken by Emily’s beauty and so claimed her as one of the spoils of war along with the cattle and produce. Rather than waste her energy in unproductive demonstrations of protest, the clever young woman decided to play on her captor’s colossal ego in order to gain advantage for the Texans.
Santa Anna had also captured a Creole boy named Turner and had talked him into leading the Mexican scouts to Houston’s camp, but before they left the next morning Emily convinced Turner to escape from the scouts en route and rush ahead to warn Houston of Santa Anna’s approach. Upon hearing of the boy’s escape the general insisted on immediately setting up camp near the river, despite the protests of his officers that the spot was indefensible; Houston, upon learning of the army’s location from Turner, quietly moved his troops into the woods only a kilometer or two from the hasty Mexican encampment. But Emily was not yet done leading Santa Anna around by the balls; she pretended to find him irresistible and thus diverted him from the preparations he should have been making. On the morning of April 21, General Houston himself climbed a tree to spy into the Mexican camp and saw Emily preparing a champagne breakfast for Santa Anna; upon his return he told one of his officers, “I hope that slave girl makes him neglect his business and keeps him in bed all day.” And she did exactly that; when the Texans attacked a few hours later the Mexicans were taken completely by surprise and Santa Anna was literally caught with his pants down. He fled from the battle in his silk nightshirt, and when he was captured by Houston’s men the next day it was found concealed under the uniform he had pillaged from a dead Mexican soldier in order to disguise himself.
Emily made her way back to New Washington, and when James Morgan returned from Galveston a few days later Emily told him of the battle and her part in it. He was so impressed with Emily’s heroism that he repealed her indenture and gave her money and a passport back to New York; she left Texas in March of 1837 and unfortunately disappeared from history thereafter. But her former master refused to let her vanish into obscurity; for years afterward he told her story to anyone who would listen, and also recorded it in his journals. One of his business partners in New York, Samuel Swartwout, repeated the story in one of his letters, and it also appears in the journal of his friend, the ethnologist William Bollaert (whom Wikipedia dismisses as an “English tourist”). It was from Bollaert’s journal that the story was rediscovered in the 1950s and quickly spread into legend; Emily’s deeds are now commemorated at San Jacinto every April 21st by an organization called The Knights of the Yellow Rose of Texas.
But what does any of this have to do with the well-known song whose title this column shares? Soon after the battle, copies of the poem which forms my epigram began to circulate around Texas; it appears to have been written by one who was either a black soldier in the conflict or using the narrative voice of such a soldier. The poem expresses his love for a Creole woman (“yellow” was the adjective commonly used at the time to describe their skin color), and given its popularity it was perhaps inevitable that it quickly became associated with the story of the “yellow rose” named Emily Morgan. Within a few years the poem had been set to music and turned into a song; by the 1860s its lyrics had been altered and extended, and it became a marching song for Confederate troops from Texas:
There’s a yellow rose in Texas that I am going to see,
No other soldier knows her, no soldier only me;
She cried so when I left her, it like to broke my heart,
And if I ever find her we never more will part.
(refrain) She’s the sweetest little flower this soldier 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.
Where the Rio Grande is flowing, and the starry skies are bright,
She walks along the river in the quiet summer night;
She thinks if I remember, when we parted long ago,
I promis’d to come back 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 song 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 for evermore.
By 1955, when the Mitch Miller recording of the song made #1 in the US and #2 in the UK, its lyrics had altered still more, but neither the meaning nor the tune had altered for a century. And despite the fact that the song probably had nothing to do with Emily West Morgan, its association with her is still very strong and serves to remind us that a woman’s sexuality, rather than being a source of shame and degradation at the hands of “patriarchal oppressors”, is actually her greatest source of influence over men and can therefore be both a powerful force for good and an effective way for a woman to improve her place in the world.