According to unsubstantiated legend, the "yellow rose of Texas" quietly played a crucial role in the Battle of San Jacinto, helping Texas gain its independence from Mexico. But who was that "yellow rose," memorialized in a 19th-century ballad, and what's actually known about her?

In the fall of 1835, a free African American woman from Connecticut named Emily D. West signed a one-year contract with Colonel James Morgan to work as a housekeeper in New Washington (later known as Morgan’s Point), a small settlement in Texas. In mid-April 1836, weeks after laying siege to—and defeating—a small group of rebellious Texans at the Alamo, Mexican troops commanded by General Antonio López de Santa Anna arrived at New Washington. After looting and burning the settlement, Santa Anna and his soldiers forced Emily West to accompany them when they left several days later.

According to legend, West was in Santa Anna’s tent on April 21, when Sam Houston’s Texian Army surprised Santa Anna's troops, charging the Mexican camp in what came to be known as the Battle of San Jacinto. The Texians took hundreds of prisoners, Santa Anna included, who soon after secured his freedom by signing a treaty recognizing Texas's independence.

Some believed Emily was acting as a Texian spy, and had intentionally helped the rebel cause by keeping Santa Anna occupied before the attack.

There is little historical evidence to support this story, which was first linked to the song in 1961, more than a century after its writing. If West was in fact with Santa Anna when Texians charged the Mexican camp, it was likely not by choice. And it is highly unlikely she could have known of Houston’s plans or intentionally delayed the Mexican general.

The only written record of the incident is a diary entry written by William Bollaert, a British traveler, in 1842, identifying the woman in question as “a mulatta girl (Emily) belonging to Col Morgan” and his note that the battle had been lost because Santa Anna was "closeted" in his tent with her. No official record from the Battle of San Jacinto corroborates a woman being found in Santa Anna’s tent; and though a number of Santa Anna’s officers publicly criticized him for losing Texas, not one ever accused him of being distracted by a woman at San Jacinto.

For her part, Emily West applied for and received a passport to return home to New York in 1837.

Only much later, in the mid-20th century, would West (sometimes misidentified as Emily Morgan) be linked with the popular song “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” which was apparently composed in the 1850s by a songwriter identified only as “J.K.” Though West’s connection with the song has no basis in fact, the association became so powerful that some scholars accepted it as authentic.

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