[Warning: This post contains spoilers for Yellowstone and the finale of 1883. Read at your own risk!]
With every day that passes, the world of Taylor Sheridan's Yellowstone seems to grow bigger and brighter. While the Duttons maintain their hold on the largest piece of land in Montana, Sheridan is on his way to taking over television, with three prequels and a spinoff on the way (not to mention multiple other non-Yellowstone series, which we don't even have time to get into here).
With so many shows both on air and on their way and so many generations of Duttons getting introduced, it's getting hard to keep it all straight. Lucky for you, this guide exists. It's your ultimate explainer for the Yellowstone universe, from James Dutton to John Dutton I to John Dutton II to John Dutton III. It's a world of real-life history mixed with dramatic fiction, of deadly action taking place on beautiful landscapes and a family doing their best to hang onto what's theirs while also adapting to the changing times in a few questionable ways.
It's also a world increasingly packed with high-caliber stars and a lot of confusing numbers, all of which are laid out and explained below. Here, we endeavor to answer any questions you may have about one of TV's biggest worlds, whether you're just slightly curious, ready to dip a toe in, or you're all the way in and ready to watch every single show available. Welcome to the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. Watch your back, and maybe you can stay a while.
Premiered June 2018 on Paramount Network
Yellowstone, the show that started it all, stars Kevin Costner as John Dutton III, the current patriarch of a longstanding ranching family in Paradise Valley, Montana. The show chronicles the Duttons' fight to keep their ranch and their fortune intact while a Native American reservation and land developers encroach on their borders. Season 5 premieres on November 13, 2022.
Premiered December 2021 on Paramount+
1883 introduced an early generation of Duttons, led by James (Tim McGraw) and Margaret (Faith Hill), who first settled on the Montana ranch with their daughter Elsa (Isabel May) and son John (Audie Rick). The miniseries explained how they ended up there after a long, perilous journey across the country that ended in tragedy.
Premieres December 2022 on Paramount+
The upcoming prequel 1923 (formerly titled 1932) will star Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren and focus on "the next two generations of Duttons as they struggle to survive historic drought, lawlessness and prohibition, and an epidemic of cattle theft; all battled beneath the cloud of Montana's great depression, which preceded the nation by almost a decade."
TBD premiere on Paramount+
David Oyelowo stars as Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. Marshal who was legendary for his many arrests and the fact that he never got injured. The series was originally announced in 2021 as a standalone series about Reeves, but has now been absorbed into the Yellowstone universe. How Reeves connects to the Duttons has yet to be seen.
TBD premiere on Paramount Network
No stars have been announced yet for this spinoff, which is set on the historic Four Sixes ranch in Texas where Jimmy (Jefferson White) spent most of Season 4 of Yellowstone. It's a real and famous ranch, which was recently purchased by Sheridan after its last owner passed away. Here's all the information Paramount has given: "Founded when Comanches still ruled West Texas, no ranch in America is more steeped in the history of the West than the 6666. Still operating as it did two centuries before, and encompassing an entire county, the 6666 has inspired a new scripted series where the rule of law and the laws of nature merge in a place where the most dangerous thing one does is the next thing. The 6666 is synonymous with the merciless endeavor to raise the finest horses and livestock in the world, and ultimately where world-class cowboys are born and made."
After naming Yellowstone for the national park the central ranch borders, Sheridan seems to have decided that numbers work just fine for titles. 1883 takes place in 1883, and we can assume that 1883: The Bass Reeves Story does too. 1923 takes place in 1923, after first being announced with the title 1932, taking place in 1932.
6666 is where that naming convention gets slightly confusing, but do not be fooled: that show does not take place in the year 6666. It's named for its Texas ranch setting, known as the Four Sixes. It is not yet clear what year that show will be set in, but there is a lot of history to that ranch that would make for a pretty epic TV show.
Yellowstone is led by John Dutton III, played by Kevin Costner. For three full seasons, he was the patriarch of the Dutton family, managing the largest ranch in Montana, full of his troublesome adult children and a bunkhouse full of rowdy ranch hands. Then, in 1883, we met the first Dutton man to set foot on the soon-to-be legendary land: James Dutton, played by Tim McGraw.
James and his wife Margaret settled there as a way to honor their daughter, Elsa, who died in the 1883 finale after an attack by some Lakota men who mistakenly believed the Duttons' caravan had murdered their wives and children.
James and Margaret also had a son named John, born in 1878, who ended up being the first in a long line of John Duttons. He had a son named John Dutton II, who became the father of Costner's John Dutton III.
John III and his late wife Evelyn had three biological children: Lee (Dave Annable), Kayce (Luke Grimes), and Beth (Kelly Reilly). They also adopted a third son, Jamie (Wes Bentley), after his father Garrett murdered his mother Phyllis, but no one knew Jamie was adopted until Season 3 of Yellowstone.
Evelyn died after falling off of a horse in 1997, and golden child Lee was killed in a ranch feud in the first episode of Yellowstone, leaving a big question mark in the line of succession, since Kayce had essentially left his family in favor of his Native wife, Monica (Kelsey Asbille) and their son Tate (Brecken Merrill). Jamie later learned that he had fathered a son with his former assistant Christina (Katherine Cunningham). Beth is married to Rip (Cole Hauser), and while she is not able to have biological children, she has essentially adopted an orphaned teen named Carter (Finn Little).
While it's unclear if 1883: The Bass Reeves Story or 6666 will include Dutton family members, we know that 1923 will focus on two generations of Duttons. If James and Margaret were in their late 30s or early 40s in 1883, it makes sense that the 80-year-old Harrison Ford and 76-year-old Helen Mirren will be playing James and Margaret 40 years later. Casting for John Sr., who would have been in his 40s in 1923, has yet to be announced, but it sounds like the series will be filling in a lot of blanks in the middle of the Dutton family tree.
It was hard to tell exactly what 1883 was doing when it first began, but it soon became clear that it was the story of how the adventurous and fearless 18-year-old Elsa became her family's unlikely leader as they trekked across the plains, accompanied by a group of German immigrants and two Pinkerton agents (Sam Elliott and LaMonica Garrett). Elsa fell in love with and married Sam (Martin Sensmeier), a Comanche warrior, and their marriage helped keep her and her family safe on their journey. Unfortunately, the one time she wasn't wearing the protective vest Sam had given her, she was shot with a Lakota arrow. Her wound was cauterized with a cattle iron but there was no saving her, and as she was about to die, her father took her to a valley suggested by Spotted Eagle (Graham Greene). That's where she died, and so that's where the Duttons settled and it became the ranch at the center of all the drama in Yellowstone.
However, the Duttons couldn't just take the land forever. Spotted Eagle told James that in seven generations, his family would return for the land. Planning ahead seven generations, or the Seventh Generation Principle, is an ancient Iroquois concept that means every decision has to be considered in terms of the impact it will have in seven generations. In Native American terms, it's about 140 to 150 years. One hundred and forty years after 1883 just so happens to be 2023, so basically, Spotted Eagle's people could come back any time. James said he'd gladly give the land back, but will the current Duttons stick to that promise? That feels unlikely given how hard they've fought so far, but that will no doubt be part of the future of Yellowstone.
1883 also addressed race and gender in a way that Yellowstone has yet to do. It gave center stage to Elsa, a teenage girl who constantly walked the line between societal expectations and her own heart, and also featured LaMonica Garrett as Thomas, a Pinkerton agent and former slave who had spent most of his life trying to find a place to belong in a harsh world. Elsa and Thomas, like most of the men and women on the show, ended up on parallel opposite journeys. While she toughened up, he softened, and both ended up being saved, in a way, by their open hearts. Both found love out on the plains, and both of their lives were changed by that experience. Garrett told TV Guide that this was not lost on the actors, and they found it "refreshing" to see that 1883 was heading in a different direction than many other Westerns and allowing the men to cry when they needed to.
"When people see it in the beginning, they think it's like any other Western, where the women are doing their thing and the men are spitting and they're gruff, and then you start watching more and more episodes and going, wait a minute, that's new," he said. "It's something you might not know you needed, and you might not know why you're really gravitating towards this show. And it's not too much where it's like we're doing it for the sake of being different. You see it gradually building."
Garrett loved that he didn't know where Thomas' story was going, even though Thomas' backstory was familiar to a lot of other Black cowboys. He was a former slave who fought in the Civil War, and after the Emancipation Proclamation, he moved to Texas because there was "more of an equality amongst cowboys and slaves." They were all in fields and handling horses, and "cowboy culture wasn't so much Black or white, even though there was still racial tension…your worth was based around how well you can handle yourself in the field." That was true for Thomas, but what set him apart from many other Black cowboys was the fact that he was working closely with a white man and having to shoot other white men in his work as a Pinkerton agent. Plus, he got the girl. Thomas' adorably awkward and uncontroversial romance with widow Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi), a Roma immigrant, was an unexpected bright spot on a relatively bleak show, and helped create a 360 character who breathed new life into the idea of a Black cowboy in the 1800s. "For Black actors, we don't get a lot of shots to tell these stories, so for me, this is my one shot to get it right. So the preparation I put into it was like, don't mess this up, because a lot of people are looking at this," he said.
Thomas ended 1883 with a bright new future ahead of him as he and Noemi and her two children began their own settlement. There is no word yet on whether Thomas will make an appearance in 1883: The Bass Reeves Story, but it won't be surprising if he does. His tale is the perfect segue into the story of Reeves, the legendary first Black deputy U.S. Marshal, a man known for making thousands of arrests and never being injured. Perhaps he could use a friend or colleague like Thomas, with his newfound vulnerability.
Elsa also fell in love on the trip across the country, and she did it twice. First, it was with a ranch hand who she fully intended to marry, until he was killed in a fight. She then essentially operated as a widow, until she met Sam—a Comanche warrior who had lost his first wife and took the name of the man who killed her. He and Elsa fell for each other quickly, and declared themselves married. He even gave her a vest to mark her as his wife and protect her on the journey, and Elsa's connection to Sam essentially protected her family, even if her mother Margaret never seemed to fully understand that. Margaret really struggled with letting her daughter abandon the rules they all followed when they lived in Tennessee, but by the end, Elsa was barely recognizable as the same girl who originally got off that train in Texas. She was wearing pants, herding cattle, and having quite a bit of premarital sex out in the wilderness, living more life than Margaret could probably even imagine.
Hill told TV Guide that after Episode 1 of 1883, it was clear to Margaret that all the rules she once followed were "out the door," because out on the trail, "we are all on the same playing field." Women, men, Americans, immigrants, Black, white, everyone. It was about survival, and protecting your family, which is what Margaret thought she was doing when she told Elsa to change out of the Comanche vest and into a much more proper dress. Hill knew that as of the finale, Margaret had not yet realized that Elsa's death could be considered her fault, but as far as we know, Margaret survived, and she's got a lot of time to make that devastating realization, and maybe to learn from her strong-willed daughter. And perhaps we'll see that on 1923, if Helen Mirren is in fact playing an older Margaret.
May also told TV Guide that she hoped the Dutton family would walk away from their grief with a new lease on life. "Put your heart on your shoulder, and maybe it'll be torn off, but you can always stick it back on, because life's too short," she said of Elsa's biggest lesson. "Put yourself out there and embrace all, no matter how painful it is. That's really what the Duttons are known for, their perseverance against all odds."
Now, on Yellowstone, you can see Elsa's impact, in a way. The Duttons are fighting hard for their land, even though they may not totally know why, and the only Dutton daughter Beth is the one who is sometimes secretly leading the way, manipulating her father, her brothers, and the many people trying to take the land for themselves. You could imagine that Elsa might have grown up to be a very similar person to Beth, had she lived long enough to end up back in a society that told her she was unequal to the men around her.
Just as we knew very little about the plot of 1883 before it aired, we don't know much about the plots of the other Yellowstone spinoffs. 1923 will likely fill in more Dutton family history and introduce John III's father, while The Bass Reeves Story has the real-life story of one man to follow. 6666 doesn't even have a time period yet, but the Four Sixes ranch certainly has enough interesting history to fill a whole TV show. Up until her death in 2020, when the ranch went up for sale and Sheridan purchased it, the Four Sixes was owned by a woman named Anne Windfohr Marion. She was a billionaire who inherited the ranch and three others, and served as president of Burnett Ranches. She had four husbands and one daughter (also named Anne, the third Anne in a row), and owned seven homes. She also founded the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and was inducted into multiple cowboy halls of fame. She sounds like a soap opera just waiting to be written, and maybe that's what we'll get when 6666 finally arrives.
Perhaps the most complicated part of the world of Yellowstone is how to watch it, thanks to a deal the company then known as ViacomCBS made with Peacock over a year before the launch of Paramount+. Yellowstone has always aired first on Paramount Network, but is not available on Paramount's streaming service. Back in January 2020, a licensing deal was announced that made Peacock the exclusive streaming home of Yellowstone.
While 1883, 1883: The Bass Reeves Story and 1923 will all premiere and live on Paramount+, Yellowstone continues to only be available on Paramount Network and Peacock. 6666 will also air on Paramount Network alongside the flagship show, though its streaming home is still unclear. So, to recap:
Yellowstone: New episodes on Paramount Network, all seasons available on Peacock
1883: All episodes available on Paramount+
1883: The Bass Reeves Story: All episodes will debut on Paramount+
1923: All episodes will debut on Paramount+
6666: Episodes will debut on Paramount Network
Q: Is the Yellowstone Dutton ranch real?
A: Yes and no. It's a real ranch called the Chief Joseph Ranch in Darby, Montana. It was actually settled in the 1880s, but was bought by glass tycoon William S. Ford and Federal judge Howard Clark Hollister in 1914. They built the giant log cabin that John Dutton now lives in, and it became a guest ranch run by Ford's wife and daughters after his death. It was named the Chief Joseph ranch in the 1950s to honor the Nez Perce chief who led his people through the ranch to escape the U.S. Army in 1877.
Q: Can I go to the ranch?
A: Yes! You can rent the cabins that also serve as the homes of the show's characters, and every reservation includes a tour of the ranch and the show's sets. However, you can't stay there during production, so reservations depend on the shooting schedule. You also have to have a cabin reservation in order to get the tour, and there are only two cabins to rent, but they do each sleep eight guests and have full kitchens.
Q: Do actual ranches brand their cowboys?
A: They certainly brand their cattle, but it seems like branding the ranch hands is more of a fictional tradition unique to the Duttons that sort of makes them a cowboy mafia. One theory is that they originally started doing it as a way to honor Elsa Dutton, whose arrow wound was sealed with a cattle iron to stop the bleeding. But that is just a theory!
Q: Is anyone on the Dutton ranch a real cowboy?
A: Yes! Taylor Sheridan grew up on a ranch in Texas, and now is a part owner of the famous Four Sixes ranch. Bunkhouse actors Forrie J. Smith (Lloyd), Jake Ream (Jake), Ryan Bingham (Walker), and Ethan Lee (Ethan) are also all real-life cowboys, with plenty of experience on ranches and in rodeos. The rest of the cast all get to participate in an immersive cowboy camp before filming begins to help them pretend to be real cowboys.
Q: What else has Taylor Sheridan done?
Sheridan started as an actor on shows like Veronica Marsand Sons of Anarchy. He then transitioned to screenwriting and wrote the movie Sicario. He also wrote Wind River and Hell or High Water, and in addition to Yellowstone and its spinoffs, he co-created Mayor of Kingstown and the upcoming shows Tulsa King, Land Man, and Lioness. He writes essentially every episode of all of his shows, and appears on screen as minor characters. On Yellowstone, he plays Travis, a horse trader.
Q: Was Tom Hanks really in an episode of 1883?
A: Yes. He was in Episode 2, but he didn't speak, and he only appeared in a flashback to the Civil War as a Union general who approached James after a rough battle. He was easy to miss, but his wife Rita Wilson was unmissable in a later episode as a shopkeeper who got very drunk with Margaret.
Q: Has anyone from 1883 been on Yellowstone?
A: In the first episode of Season 4, which aired before the premiere of 1883, Tim McGraw appeared as James with two sons in a flashback. Set in the year 1893, the scene shows James confronting a camp of Native Americans on his land. A man asks to lay his father to rest on the land, and James allows it and offers the camp beef and a place to graze their animals.
Q: Do I need to have watched Yellowstone to watch 1883?
A: Not at all. 1883 is a prequel taking place almost 140 years before Yellowstone begins, so while they are related, there's nothing you need to know before diving into 1883. And if you don't think you like Yellowstone (first of all, why are you here), you may still fall in love with 1883.