Yellow Rose of Texas
[Reprinted by permission of the author, Denise McVea. This essay summarizes the inspiration and basis for her book “Making Myth of Emily: Emily West de Zavala and the Yellow Rose of Texas Legend, ISBN: 0-9773465-0-1--Editor DG]
My most significant life journey began one sunny spring day in San Antonio, Texas.
My precocious six-year-old niece Ashly and I were on our way to visit the Alamo when I noticed we were standing on the sidewalk fronting the Emily Morgan Hotel. Glancing up at the striking architecture that defines the historic building, I recalled the story that I had heard about the hotel’s namesake, Emily Morgan.
“Did you know,” I asked my young charge, “that Emily Morgan helped save Texas from the Mexican Army and she was black? They called her The Yellow Rose of Texas!”
Ashly, at the time my biggest fan, was riveted. I regaled her with the G-rated version of the tale. “Emily Morgan was a beautiful slave,” I told her, “and she was captured by the Mexican Army during Texas’ fight for freedom! Because she was so beautiful, she was able to distract the Mexican general Santa Anna and so the Texans were able to attack. Even through they were outnumbered, the Texans won the battle of San Jacinto. Because of this battle, Texas became its own country! After that, it became a state in the United States!"
That was about all I knew, but Ashly’s fascinated interest could not have pleased me more.
then began to barrage me with questions:
Jeez. It seemed I knew very little about Emily Morgan after all. I hemmed and hawed a bit before distracting Ashly with a walk around Alamo Plaza. By the time we actually entered the Alamo, I was sure my young tormenter had forgotten all about the Yellow Rose of Texas legend.
She hadn’t. Looking up at the grand portraits of Alamo heroes on the stone walls, she posed this question: “Where’s the girl?”
“You know,” I said, looking around, “I don’t see her here. I’ll have to come back and investigate.”
To keep my promise and also to satisfy my own growing curiosity, I returned alone to the Alamo weeks later. I visited the well-kept historical archives that sit in a small stone building on the grounds. My sole interest was learning more about Emily Morgan.
That archival visit introduced me to some aspects of the legend that I didn’t know and compelled me to keep searching for more. Thus began my journey into the Yellow Rose of Texas legend and the question of the racial identity of a prominent Texas pioneer, Emily West de Zavala. My research would take me deep into historical archives in the United States and Mexico. I looked at thousands of records, some so old and faded that I sometimes had to use gloves to handle them. Later, I wisely invested in a large magnifying glass.
Accustomed to conducting research for daily newspapers, I found historical research unexpectedly thrilling. It really is like traveling back in time. Looking through thousands of old and fading papers, some several centuries old, I found myself imagining the inside of a carriage, the deck of an old schooner. There is something remarkable about visiting the past; you find that despite the differences between contemporary and colonial lifestyles, human nature does not change.
I spent more than 10 years visiting Emily’s world, and this is what I learned: Secrets are very hard to keep.
This is certainly the case with Emily Morgan. Oh, by the way, that wasn’t her real name, although she will forever be recognized by that moniker. Her true identity, I learned, is Emily West de Zavala, and she was the wife of the interim Texas vice-president Lorenzo de Zavala. He was a liberal Mexican politician exiled from his home country. She was beautiful, cultured, educated-and of African descent.
As I began to write this essay, I struggled. How can one condense a life as secretive, complex, and eventful as that of Emily West de Zavala into a few paragraphs? Not easily and not completely, for sure. It’s best to show how she became known as Emily Morgan. The rest of her story, the extraordinary life lived through extraordinary times, will have to be expounded on elsewhere.
Who was Emily West de Zavala and how did she come to be known alternately as Emily Morgan and the Yellow Rose of Texas?
Evidence suggests that Emily West de Zavala was a free woman of color who lived in New Orleans during the early 1830s and that she met her husband there. Beautiful, educated and sophisticated, she almost certainly belonged to that city’s quadroon set, a community of mixed race courtesans who studied to become the lifelong mistresses of the prominent Anglo and Creole men of the time.
The quadroons, as the women were generally called, constantly enjoyed the attention of the rich and powerful white men from the area and beyond. Once matched, they often raised a second family for their chosen mate, bore him children, and maintained a second household for him. It was a crime, punishable by death, for a white man to marry a free woman of color in Louisiana. Still, many Europeans and Latin Americans would propose legitimate marriage to their beloved and rescue them from the violently racist society that at once reviled and revered people of their rank and class.
After leaving New Orleans and conceiving their son Augustin during a brief stay in France, Lorenzo de Zavala married Emily in a small Catholic Church in New York City. (Here, the documents reveal another secret: Before she married Lorenzo, Emily’s first name was Miranda. Her husband changed her name after learning that he could be put to death for marrying a free woman of color.)
The couple lived in New York and France for a time before returning to Mexico, where Lorenzo served as statesman and diplomat. Although evidence shows she suffered indignities and discrimination in the United States territories, she seemed to have enjoyed much more freedom and acceptance in France and Mexico.
But Lorenzo soon fell out of favor with Mexican President Antonio Lopez Santa Anna. Learning that Santa Anna had rolled back reforms and appointed himself emperor of the nation, Zavala resigned his diplomatic post to France and fled to Texas. There he joined the rebel Texans. Emily traveled from New York to join her husband. She arrived in Texas in December 1835 with Lorenzo’s business partner and close friend aboard the schooner Flash.
His name? James Morgan.
The Zavala family lived on Buffalo Bayou in what is now Harris County. The Texans elected Lorenzo vice president of the rebel government of Texas and he signed the Declaration of Independence from Mexico. But records also showed that Lorenzo lost a great deal of his popularity when his wife arrived on Texas shores.
By April 1836, South Texas had erupted into full-fledged war. Santa Anna quickly led a vast army to Texas, hoping to capture and execute Lorenzo de Zavala. Soon, he was hot on Zavala’s trail. Ignoring Texas General Sam Houston’s troops, Santa Anna divided, confused and further weakened his already exhausted troops trying to capture Zavala.
Meanwhile, according to some records, Lorenzo de Zavala and members of the Texas government escaped to Galveston Island, but Emily West de Zavala did not. Santa Anna then reportedly captured a mulatto women named Emily near New Washington and took her with him to the fields of San Jacinto, where the pivotal battle between the Texas rebels and the Mexican army took place. San Jacinto was a beautiful and romantic spot, but it was a disastrous choice for an invading army. The camping ground, according to one Mexican soldier, was “in all respects, against military rules. Any youngster could have done better.”
The primary document supporting the Yellow Rose of Texas legend is a journal entry made by an English traveler, William Bollaert. According to the book Bollaert’s Texas:
“The Battle of San Jacinto was probably lost to the Mexicans, owing to the influence of a Mulatto Girl- [Emily] belonging to Colonel Morgan, who was closeted in the tent with General Santana (sic), at the time the cry was made “the enemy! They come! they come!” and detained Santana so long that order could not be restored readily again.”
Because the journal erroneously stated that Emily belonged to Morgan, she became known as Emily Morgan. But several other discoveries refuted the notion that Emily was the property of James Morgan. In particular, researchers discovered a passport application for a mulatto woman named Emily who was on the battlefield, identifying her as Emily D. West. That document, found in the Texas State Library, stated the following:
"The bearer of this, Emily D. West, has been since my first acquaintance with her a free woman," Moreland wrote. "She immigrated to this country with Col. James Morgan from the state of New York in September of 1835 and is anxious to return."
Historians, missing the fact that Emily Zavala’s maiden name was Emily West, decided that the mulatto woman must have worked for Emily West de Zavala since she came to Texas with her in 1835 and left Texas with her in 1837. Stubbornly convinced that only a white woman could have been the cultured wife of the wealthy vice president of Texas, Texas historians could not see that Emily West de Zavala had ample reason to apply for a passport using her maiden name.
As it turns out, Emily had to stop at New Orleans on her way to New York in 1837. By this time, her husband had already died, and because of the part he played in the Texas Revolution, his name was well-known in Texas and United States. If she had shown up in New Orleans as the colored widow of the now famous Lorenzo de Zavala, she would have essentially broadcast to the authorities that she had broken the law.
One such law, in part, reads:
Whoever…shall do or say anything that may have a tendency to produce discontent among the free colored people…of this State…shall suffer…the penalty of public works for not less than three years, nor more than twenty, or death.
I know about these laws because Lorenzo de Zavala spent a lot of time in his travelogue obsessing about them.
Having categorically rejected the possibility that a black woman could be wealthy and educated in the 1830s, historians ignored important evidence and missed an extraordinary opportunity to explore the complex and varied experiences of black people during the Texas Revolution. Emily is only one example of that truth, but there are many, many other stories out there, waiting to be told.
Another document that purports to shed some light on Emily West is a purported indenture agreement between Emily West and James Morgan. Although that document could be viewed as one of the many subterfuges that defined Emily West de Zavala’s struggle to survive her environment, the document has no provenience. (That’s fancy history-speak for, “no one knows where it came from.”)
So let’s move on to Adina De Zavala (she capitalized the “d”), Emily and Lorenzo’s granddaughter and the Zavala family historian. To put it bluntly, Adina De Zavala is the primary reason that some people still think there were two women in Texas with the name Emily West. Adina spent a good portion of her life hiding her grandmother from public view. A prominent historical preservationist and a one time member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, Adina is best known for saving the Alamo from destruction in the early 1900s. Evidence shows that Adina, during what became a protracted fight with the DRT, altered, withheld, and destroyed numerous family records relating to her grandmother, including the diary of her illustrious grandfather, Lorenzo de Zavala.
For what I'm sure were quite legitimate reasons at the time, Adina obviously felt that if her grandmother’s racial identity were widely known, she would be prevented from pursuing her passion: preserving the Alamo and other historical structures in Texas. A 1990s controversy underscores that belief. For several years, DRT members sustained resolute opposition to honoring Adina with a plaque on or near the Alamo, a resistance that confused and distressed members of Texas historical institutions for years. Adina eventually got her plaque, and Emily’s story is finally being told, at least what is left of it.
My niece Ashly, who is also biracial, is now 17 years old. Like Emily, she is a great beauty, and like Emily she lives in a time that struggles with the notions of race, social equality, truth, and honor. But I expect that, like Emily, Ashly will overcome the challenges that life and society throw her way because, after all, what else is there to do?
SONS OF DEWITT COLONY TEXAS