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The Yellow Rose of Texas

Let’s look at a little Texas history and culture; one can hardly think of Texas without having the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas” come to mind. Who wrote the song and why?

The Yellow Rose of Texas is a song that was written by a black American soldier from Tennessee in 1836. It is said that he fought in the battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836 with Sam Houston against the Mexican army lead by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

The first copyrighted edition of the song was published in New York in 1858 with the composer as “J.K.” It was originally handwritten and can be found on display at the University of Texas in Austin. It has been revised several times due to the terminology contained within the original song. The original title was “Emily, The Maid of Morgan’s Point.” I will show you the original lyrics below:

[Chorus]
There’s a yellow rose in Texas, that I am going to see,
No other darky knows her, no darky only 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 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 quiet 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 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. [Chorus]

The lyrics were changed over 25 years later. “Soldier” was used to replace the term “darky” and on the first line “The sweetest rose of color” was revised to read “She’s the sweetest little flower.” The last time it was altered was by Mitch Miller in 1955 and is the current known version.

The song is not about a rose at all, but a beautiful mulatto woman who worked for James Morgan as an indentured servant. Her name according to legend was Emily D. West. Yellow was a term used in the 1800’s to describe a person of European and African heritage. Rose was said to be a popular female name at the time the song was composed and used as an expression to glorify a girl coming into womanhood. So the Yellow Rose was actually describing a young mulatto woman, rather than naming her. I wonder if perhaps the composer could think of nothing more to compare her to than the beauty of a rose flower itself. However, as with legends, one never really knows the true story.

Because this woman was not only beautiful but very intelligent, she was left in charge of overseeing operations of the plantation while Morgan attended to business matters in Galveston. Boats were to be loaded with supplies for General Sam Houston’s brigade of soldiers, who were stationed across the river from James Morgan’s plantation.

Meanwhile, the Mexican army was advancing into Texas and taking over strategic locations. When the brigade led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna realized the strategic location of the plantation on Morgan Point that extended out into the San Jacinto bay, they captured the plantation. Santa Anna took Emily as spoils of war along with other slaves. The legend states that she so beguiled the General he was more interested in her than carrying out his duty. One of the slaves managed to escape and warn Houston as to the Mexican general’s whereabouts and his plans to attack. Houston surprised the Mexican army before they could attack him. He ambushed them in an evening attack and caught the Mexican general unaware because his attention was on the woman Emily, winning Houston the battle.

Emily survived the battle and went back to the Morgan estate awaiting Morgan’s return. She relayed the tale to James Morgan who was so elated by her efforts to thwart the Mexican general that he released her from her indenture and allowed her to return to New York. James Morgan was so proud that he was actually responsible for the repeated telling of the tale and the legend was born.

Is there a yellow rose named after her? Sadly, no, not that anyone has determined for sure. The most likely possibility is Harrison’s Yellow. It’s an Old Garden Rose that is most often in rose literature associated with the Yellow Rose of Texas. It was created by a New York lawyer by the name of George Folliott Harison, who was an amateur rose hybridizer. He crossed a Persian Yellow (Rosa foetida persiana) with a Scotch Briar Rose (R. spinosissima) and got the Harrison Yellow (Rosa x harisonii). But the only correlation between the woman and the rose is the city of New York. It seems a bit of a stretch to me. There are no records indicating that the woman, Emily, ever returned to New York or that Harrison ever knew her or her story.

Well, there you have it, a little bit of Texas history. The Knights of the Yellow Rose of Texas get together to commemorate the heroic acts of Emily D. West on April 21st of every year at San Jacinto. If you are ever in the neighborhood in April you might want to check it out for yourself.

Yellow Rose of Texas: The Myth of Emily Morgan

Cowboy Songs

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