Let's hear it for the ladies. There may only be one to choose from in History's new miniseries, Texas Rising, but unlike her fictionalized co-stars — Brendan Fraser's "white native" Billy Anderson or Ray Liotta's vengeful Alamo-survivor, Lorca, for example — Emily D. West is a real-life folk heroine steeped in true Texas history. As a New York City dweller, Emily West (or rather, Cynthia Addai-Robinson's Texas Rising portrayal of her) has been staring me down in the subway every time I walk between the S train and the 4/5/6 for the last two months; but as a Texas native, Emily West's name has been in my lexicon for much longer than that.
The story of Emily West and how she purportedly played a part in the Texas revolution is a little more complicated than just her being a real person, though. While West was very much the free woman of color living in Texas during the Texas Revolution that she's portrayed as in Texas Rising, the specifics of her storyline are more shrouded in myth and mystery than textbook fact. As a free woman in New York City, West signed a contract with James Morgan to be a housekeeper in Galveston Bay, Texas in 1835. While West and other of Morgan's servants were in transit to Galveston in 1836, the Mexican cavalry arrived in New Washington, looting the town and and seizing many of its inhabitants, along with the traveling servants. General Antonio López de Santa Anna then set fire to the town, killed many of its people, and West was forced to accompany the Mexican cavalry as they left New Washington.
This much is verified history — now comes the possibly less true, but definitely bad-ass stuff:
The truly fictionalized part of West's story in Texas Rising is that Santa Anna killed her brother and from that came her vengeful mission to presumably kill Santa Anna, and on a larger scale, bring down the Mexican army altogether. But the idea that Emily West contributed to the fall of Santa Anna is not entirely fictionalized, though it's based mostly on one man, William Bollaert's, journal entry about Sam Houston's charge of Santa Anna's camp in 1836. Wrote Bollaert, "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."
According to the famous song (more on that below), legend goes that West distracted Santa Anna by having sex with him long enough for the Texans to infiltrate the Mexican camp. There's no documented history of how West could have possibly known Houston's plans, or if she truly developed a relationship with Santa Anna, calculated or not, but the story Texas Rising is going with — that she purposefully seduced Santa Anna in order to aid the Texas Revolution — is the commonly believed myth.
The Yellow Rose of Texas
And that's why Emily West is often believed to be the original inspiration for the woman in the classic folksong, "Yellow Rose of Texas." You might've been listening to it for years without knowing the amazing story of the woman behind it!
Image: Prashant Gupta/HISTORY