True story: Yellow Rose of Texas saved Texas at the Battle of San Jacinto

This is mostly an encore post, for the 179th anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto.

After suffering crushing defeats in previous battles, and while many Texian rebels were running away from Santa Anna’s massive army — the largest and best trained in North America — Sam Houston’s ragtag band of rebels got the drop on Santa Anna at San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836. Most accounts say the routing of Santa Anna’s fighting machine took just 18 minutes.

San Jacinto Day is April 21. Texas history classes at Texas middle schools should be leading ceremonies marking the occasion — but probably won’t since it’s coming near the end of the state-mandated testing which stops education cold, in March.

Surrender of Santa Anna, Texas State Preservation Board

Surrender of Santa Anna, painting by William Henry Huddle (1890); property of Texas State Preservation Board. The painting depicts Santa Anna being brought before a wounded Sam Houston, to surrender.

San Jacinto Monument brochure, with photo of monument

The San Jacinto Monument is 15 feet taller than the Washington Monument

How could Houston’s group have been so effective against a general who modeled himself after Napoleon, with a large, well-running army? In the 1950s a story came out that Santa Anna was distracted from battle. Even as he aged he regarded himself as a great ladies’ man — and it was a woman who detained the Mexican general in his tent, until it was too late to do anything but steal an enlisted man’s uniform and run.

That woman was mulatto, a “yellow rose,” and about whom the song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was written, according story pieced together in the 1950s.

Could such a story be true? Many historians in the 1950s scoffed at the idea. (More below the fold.) Careful sleuthing then, and since, has failed to poke holes in the story, and has instead turned up a fair amount of corroboration. Historian Kent Biffle wrote a column about the story in the Dallas Morning News on April 8, 2007:

The Yellow Rose of Texas is fancifully famous for bedazzling Santa Anna out of his fancy pants at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.

Increasing evidence suggests the story may be true.

On San Jacinto Day, her believers in Texas saloons will lift their glasses to the star of the battle’s sideshow – a mixed-race woman named “Emily” who distracted the tyrant in his tent while Gen. Sam Houston’s grim-eyed skirmishers advanced on the Mexican camp.

Hollering “Remember the Alamo,” the avengers charged across the breastworks, stampeding the nodding Mexicans. The outnumbered Texans, at the cost of nine lives, killed more than 600 soldados and overran the rest.

More than a century after the battle that won Texas independence, pop historians learned about Emily from a long buried footnote and divined that she was a gorgeous seductress.

The story escaped historians for more than a century. In 1956 the University of Oklahoma Press published an account of Texas and its independence written by an English scientist named William Bollaert, sort of a precursor to Michael Palin and Rick Steeves. In his 1842 essay, Bollaert had a footnote on how Houston’s group emerged victorious at San Jacinto, over a much more powerful army:

“The battle of San Jacinto was probably lost to the Mexicans, owing to the influence of a Mulatta Girl (Emily) belonging to Col. Morgan who was closeted in the Tent with G’l Santana, at the time the cry was made ‘the Enemy! They come! They come!’ & detained Santana so long, that order could not be restored readily again.”

Adding to the titillating properties of the story, the song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” had been rescued from archives about a decade before, and rose to great popularity in the 1950s. Emily, the woman who detained Santa Anna and handed Houston’s forces a battlefield victory, was said to be that “yellow rose.”

Biffle’s column offers details of the work to confirm or refute the story. As it stands, most evidence lends great credence to the story. Today the story is generally accepted by historians, details continue to surface corroborating the key points, and Emily West is celebrated on San Jacinto Day and in museums across Texas.

The story, and the work done to unearth it and corroborate it, demonstrate how historians work, and how history is written even long after the events recorded took place. Yellow Rose of Texas, 1858 sheet music cover

A brave Texas history teacher could put together a very good lesson plan, providing the TEKS required history factoids, the Sons of Texas-desired reverence for Houston and the veterans of San Jacinto, a story of frontier music made into Top 40 hits in the 1950s, and a little bit of sex thrown in for spice. If the lesson was done well, students may well recall the events, years later.

The battlefield at San Jacinto is today the site of the San Jacinto Monument, a towering monolith 15 feet taller than the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

How will your classes mark San Jacinto Day?

Lesson plan note: The San Jacinto Monument and Museum publish a teachers’ guide, with lesson plans, to accompany a visit to the Monument, but certainly also useful for Texas history classes that will not visit the site. They also provide a very useful list of organizations that support and honor Texas history, complete with web addresses.

Clearly, Santa Anna had not benefited from the “abstinence only” education that current Texas middle schoolers get — had he had such a course and taken it to heart, might Texas be part of a Greater Mexico today?

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