Emily D. West – A Historical Perspective

Statue of Emily D. West (Morgan) by Veryl Goodnight in Houston

The story of Emily West has been touted both as myth and as history, according to various sources. While it is accepted as fact that she lived in Texas during the war, the remembrance of her as a hero is often disputed.

She was born Emily D. West, a free black, reputably in New Haven, Connecticut; although some historians argue that she was born in Bermuda in the Caribbean Sea. She was a mulatto, and reportedly was the object of much prejudice in the eastern states at the time, although it was also reported that she was of extraordinary intelligence and sophistication.

From Emily D. West to Emily West Morgan

At the time, Texas was still a part of Mexico and the Texas war for independence from Mexico was just beginning. She signed a contract with agent James Morgan in New York City on October 25, 1835, to work a year as housekeeper at the New Washington Association’s hotel, Morgan’s point, Texas. Morgan was to pay here $100 a year and provide her transportation to Galveston Bay on the company’s schooner, along with various others. The schooner arrived in Galveston in December of that year, exact date unknown.

It should be noted that there are differences of opinion on this account, with some historians claiming that Morgan wanted to bring slaves with him to Texas, but Mexico did not permit slavery. To get around the Mexican law, Morgan made his slaves into 99-year indentured servants. Amongst those slaves was Emily West, who reputedly volunteered to be indentured in order to escape the prejudice against her mixed race. The existence of the contract she signed with Morgan has been proven; however, there are some that believe that it was just chicanery used by Colonel Morgan to circumvent the Mexican law.

It was customary at that time to change one’s last name to the name of their owners, and so it was she became Emily West Morgan. Strangers assumed Emily was Morgan’s slave because she was black.

Emily’s Role in the Texas Revolution

The story of her stay in Texas becomes quite cloudy and mysterious from this point on, as there is precious little in the way of written documents to verify her actions there. There are a couple of pictures that are represented as being of Emily Morgan, and there is in existence a journal that Colonel Morgan kept at the time. On examination of the journal, it appears that it was edited and footnotes have been added; whether these additions were in fact by Morgan’s hand is not known.

In those days, a story circulated in barrooms and around campfires that Emily had helped defeat the Mexican army by a coquetry she pursued with the Mexican General, Santa Anna. At the time of the Texas army attack at San Jacinto, where Santa Anna and his troops were camped, the General was reputably in his tent with Emily, and he and his army was caught with their guard down.

The Mexican army had captured Emily during a raid on New Washington, along with some others, including a young boy named Turner. While engaging Santa Anna with her charms, Emily persuaded the young Turner to escape and find General Sam Houston’s Texas Army, and inform them of Santa Anna’s whereabouts, thereby enabling Houston to get his army within striking distance of Mexican army.

The only known documentation of this story comes from the diary of one William Bollaert, who wrote of overhearing a conversation between a Texas veteran and an Englishman. The veteran claimed that the Mexican army was probably defeated due to the influence of a “mulatta girl” belonging to James Morgan. There is no record of the veteran’s or the Englishman’s name.

“The Yellow Rose of Texas”

Because of her mixed heritage and light skin, Emily is often remembered as The Yellow Rose of Texas, and is immortalized in the folk song of the same name. Although she returned to New York in 1837, her legend still lives on in Texas history, although the facts and real events of the time will never be fully documented.

Whether deservedly, or not, she will long be remembered in South Texas.