“The Yellow Rose of Texas” took on a new and entirely different meaning in 1961 when the song was first publicly linked to an anecdote about the battle of San Jacinto. This anecdote, recorded by Englishman William Bollaert during a trip to Texas (1842–44), stated that the 1836 battle was lost to the Mexicans because a mulatto girl named Emily, who belonged to Col. James Morgan, was closeted in Santa Anna’s tent at the time the battle commenced.
According to this account, Emily detained Santa Anna so long that he was unable to restore order as the Texans attacked the Mexican camp. The story would have been unknown today except that Bollaert’s papers from his Texas trip, including the anecdote buried in an unpublished essay, were acquired by the Newberry Library in Chicago in 1911.
The story was discovered from those papers and initially appeared in print as a footnote by Joe Frantz in his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Texas (1946) and subsequently in the published version of his dissertation, entitled Gail Borden: Dairyman to a Nation (1951). W. Eugene Hollon and Ruth Lapham Butler, in William Bollaert’s Texas (1956), transcribed Bollaert’s papers and mentioned the story again, also in a footnote.
The mulatto girl, known in this anecdote only as “Emily” who belonged to James Morgan, was referred to during the 1960s and 1970s as Emily Morgan under the belief she was Morgan’s slave, but a passport record in the Texas State Library in Austin, first associated with Emily’s story in 1976, and an employment contract found in 1991 in a private collection and held since 2004 at the University of Texas at Arlington Library Special Collections, substantiated that she was a free woman named Emily D. West. She was hired by Morgan in New York City in 1835 to work for him for one year at his place called New Washington (now Morgan’s Point). Both names are often conflated today, as evidenced by the inaptly-named Emily Morgan Hotel which opened in 1985 across the street from the Alamo in San Antonio.
In the late 1950s R. Henderson Shuffler, head of the Texas A&M office of information and publication and subsequently the first director of the Institute of Texan Cultures, was bothered that this “unsung” heroine of Texas was not better-known or appreciated. Shuffler was determined to associate her with a song and initially felt that Emily should be connected with “Will You Come to the Bower?”—a bawdy tune that was played at the battle of San Jacinto.
But by July 1959 he focused his attention on “The Yellow Rose of Texas” instead. He wrote to folklore singer John A. Lomax, Jr., the oldest son of famed folklorist John A. Lomax, seeking confirmation of his latest “hunch” that this song “grew up around the stories of Emily.” Shuffler later wrote Lomax in February 1960: “if there is not, as I still suspect, a remote connection between the story of Emily and the original folk song version of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ there should be.”
Shuffler and Lomax related these thoughts to Shuffler’s close friend Frank X. Tolbert, a Texas history columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Tolbert obliged his friends by publishing the first reference to a putative link between Emily and the song in An Informal History of Texas (1961). After relating the anecdote about Emily as recorded by Bollaert, Tolbert wrote:
And what became of Emily? She lived to tell her story … and to inspire a wonderful song. Musical historians seem to agree that the folk song ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ was inspired by a good-looking mulatto slave girl. And in one set of original lyrics – not the ones popularized by Mitch Miller – the girl of the song is called ‘Emily, the Maid of Morgan’s Point.’
In 1970 Tolbert acknowledged that Shuffler and Lomax helped him with the “musical research,” although he qualified his 1961 claim by stating that Emily “may have inspired” the song. In a speech published in 1972, Shuffler himself was hesitant in making a direct link. He concluded that “there is some indication” that Emily was the original “Yellow Rose” and that she was a “fitting candidate” for the song, but the closest he came to asserting a direct link was to say that Emily “may well have been the original Yellow Rose.”
Tolbert’s claim that “one set of original lyrics” names the girl in the song “Emily, the Maid of Morgan’s Point” is baffling. Such lyrics, if they exist, would buttress the link between Emily and the song, but the source of those lyrics was never publicly revealed by Tolbert, Shuffler, or Lomax. Historians have yet to find any such source or any lyrics that refer to the “yellow rose” as “Emily” or lyrics referencing a “Maid of Morgan’s Point.” The lyrics from “The Yellow Rose of Texas” published in 1853 and 1858 bear no resemblance to Emily’s story as related by Bollaert, or what is known about her from the passport record and employment contract. Those lyrics do not mention “Emily,” James Morgan, Morgan’s Point, Santa Anna, the battle of San Jacinto, or any incidents relating to the Texas Revolution. The only geographic feature mentioned is the Rio Grande which is located more than 300 miles from Morgan’s home and San Jacinto battleground. While the mulatto girl named “Emily,” as mentioned in Bollaert’s account, and the unnamed “yellow rose of Texas,” as mentioned in the song, were both of mixed race, that fact is a coincidence rather than evidence of an association.
In articles published in 1970 and 1971, followed by a book in 1976 published by Shoal Creek Publishers, Martha Anne Turner gave the fictional link between Emily and the song an aura of scholarly respectability. Turner was a Texas history author and English professor at Sam Houston State University. Her book, The Yellow Rose of Texas: Her Saga and Her Song (1976), was the first full-length work focused on both the song and Emily’s story. Turner unabashedly accepted the authenticity of the link between Emily and the song, relying on nothing more than the assertions made by Tolbert and Shuffler. She also accepted Tolbert’s claim that one set of lyrics referred to “Emily, the Maid of Morgan’s Point,” but did not cite any authority for that conclusion other than Tolbert.
Turner also contended, by what she referred to as a logical deduction based on the absence of a postal cancellation, that an undated manuscript of the lyrics found in the A. Henry Moss Papers at the University of Texas was carried by a courier predating the establishment of the Texas postal service in 1838. She concluded that this manuscript, whose author is presumably identified by the initials “H. B. C.,” was therefore “possibly” written in 1836. This assertion implies a closer-in-time cause-and-effect connection between Emily and the song, but she cited no documents to substantiate her theory. Moreover, with the exception of five misspelled words, the lyrics on that manuscript are identical to the 1858 lyrics, suggesting that the author apparently had no knowledge of the 1853 lyrics and was likely transcribing the words from a publication of the 1858 sheet music.
The published works of Shuffler, Tolbert, and Turner thus completely changed the meaning and origins of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and laid the foundation for one of the most enduring and sensational inaccuracies of Texas history. They also embellished Emily’s story to the point that it became difficult to discern truth from fiction. Margaret S. Henson in the 1980s and 1990s was one of the most outspoken historians who attempted to raise an awareness of their flawed analysis and exaggerations, but the link between Emily and the song continued unabated in popular literature. James Michener’s Texas (1987), the bestseller that combined history and fiction, gave credibility to the link, as did Anita Bunkley in her novel Emily, The Yellow Rose: A Texas Legend (1989).Texas Folklore Society secretary and editor F. E. Abernethy (2001) observed: “The Emily-YRT connection was good copy and journalists jumped on it like a duck on a June bug in feature stories and Sunday supplements.” Abernethy published a remarkable article in 2001 in which he blamed himself (mea culpa in his words) for the Texas Folklore Society’s publication of articles in 1972, 1981, and 1996 that helped foster “this popular misinformation linking Emily and the YRT song.” Abernethy acknowledged that no documents support the link and that the song was not a “folk song.”
Margaret Henson’s article on Emily D. West in The New Handbook of Texas (1996), though not without errors of its own, emphatically refuted the connection between Emily and the song as the product of “twentieth-century myth-makers.” Nonetheless, the imagery associating Emily’s story with the song became so powerful that many scholars unwittingly accepted the link as authentic. For example, a short history of the song published in the first edition of The Handbook of Texas Music and copied into The Handbook of Texas Online (as of 2011) assumed the historical connection as unquestioned fact. It is unlikely that the invalid association between Emily and the song will ever fully diminish because the link has now itself become part of modern Texas lore. Henderson Shuffler could not have imagined the consequences in 1960 when he first proposed the idea that Emily may have been the inspiration of the song when he wrote to John Lomax: “Surely, such a genuine heroine of the battle for Texas freedom should not go unsung.”