Who Was the Yellow Rose of Texas?
“The Yellow Rose of Texas” has come down to us as an innocuous ditty, popularized by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Mitch Miller. The earliest, handwritten version of song, dating to 1836 reveals a deeper meaning.
The song was an ode to Emily D. West (usually referred to as Emily Morgan) a 20-year old, free person of color, who migrated to Texas from New York City in late 1835 as an indentured servant under contract to the agent James Morgan. She was captured in Galveston by Mexican forces during the Texas War of Independence. “Yellow” in this case refers to her mixed-race “high yellow” skin color. The song, adapted in a few short years for vaudeville and strutters repertoire was written from the alleged perspective of a person of color:
There’s a yellow rose in Texas, that I am going to see,
No other darky knows her, no darky 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 your Dearest May, and sing of Rosa Lee,
But the Yellow Rose of Texas is the only girl for me.
The legend of the Yellow Rose tells how she used her wiles to seduce General Antonio López de Santa Anna, President of Mexico and commander of the Mexican forces, in his tent beside the battlefield in San Jacinto in 1836. The Texans, led by Sam Houston, handily won the battle in minutes– with almost no casualties. The battle for the Alamo, 47 days earlier, had been a complete rout for the Texans after a 13-day siege. A trinity of heroes perished in the Alamo, the site of the former Misión de San Antonio de Valero: William Travis, James Bowie and Davy Crockett.
With the victory at San Jacinto, the war was won for Texas – but the Alamo is considered the shrine of Texas Independence. “Gentlemen remove your [cowboy] hats,” states a sign at the entry. But what is the complex of emotions for Chicanos and Mexicanos who visit these sites of occupation? Annexation of Texas and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded more than a third of Mexico’s territory to the United States.
What is the twisted logic that would suggest that the sexual appetite of the “racial other[s]” is the cause for a nation’s defeat or that patriotism erases diversity. (Post-colonial Mexico has its own complex racial history with the blatant suppression of indigenous identity in the Porfiriato a few decades later that has had a strong foothold in the media and public life.) And where are the women here? From the “Yellow Rose” to the “Maid of Monterrey” the women are largely absent, their names are not remembered and their role is to use back channel strategies to aid the victors. Ultimately exploited to promote the site, “The Emily Morgan Hotel – a DoubleTree by Hilton” is the Official Hotel of the Alamo and a great place to sleep.