How Did Margaret Dutton Die & When? Here’s What Happened to Her

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Margaret Dutton was the first matriarch to ever live on the Yellowstone ranch after she and her husband, James, founded it in 1883. That being said, come 1923, we don’t see Margaret nor James appearing in the new Yellowstone spin-off series 1923. So, how exactly did Margaret Dutton die, and when?

Margaret Dutton died in 1893, ten years after the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch was founded and only a few days after her husband, James, passed away as well. Margaret died due to ‘the cold,’ getting caught in a blizzard, as explained by the narrator in the pilot episode of 1923.

The more you dive into Margaret’s life and death, the more you realize just how devastating and tragic it was. First, she lost her only daughter, Elsa. Then, she lost her husband. Then, she died in such a horrible way, and on top of that, she left two young boys orphaned and alone in the harsh Montana conditions. And, one detail about Elsa’s death might make it all the worse…

Who was Margaret Dutton?

The show that started it all, Yellowstone, was the first to introduce us to the Dutton family and their ranch in Montana. We meet them in modern-day circumstances, as the fifth or sixth generation of the Duttons living on the ranch. Well, the first prequel spin-off series titled 1883 introduces us to the very first generation of the Duttons – the ones who founded the ranch.

The first matriarch of the Dutton family was Margaret Dutton, who founded the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch in Paradise Valley with her husband, James Dutton. Interestingly, the actors/singers who portray the characters – Faith Hill as Margaret, and Tim McGraw as James, respectively – are spouses in real life, too, and have three kids, just like in the series.

Well, at least they had three children altogether, but never at the same time. It sounds horrible because it is. Their daughter, Elsa, passed away before their third child, Spencer Dutton, was even born. Let’s backtrack here a bit.

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James and Margaret were living in Texas. After the Civil War, they decided to venture onto a long journey out west, following the Oregon Trail, trying to find a more peaceful life and the land they could call their home.

Margaret was a classic 19th-century wife to her husband, but she was just as strong and tough as any cowboy you might’ve met. Along the journey, however, the family suffered a great loss. Their only daughter, Elsa, was shot by a poisonous arrow from the Lakota, a Native American tribe they encountered on the way.

The wound wouldn’t heal, so the Duttons cut their trip to Oregon short and chose to set roots in Montana. They situated right on the spot that Elsa chose as her grave site. It would eventually become the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch, and the family never left – not even five or six generations later.

How and when did Margaret Dutton die?

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We know that James and Margaret suffered a terrible loss – one that no parent ever wishes to go through. After their daughter died, the family was situated in Montana instead of Oregon, and a few years later, they had another child – a young boy named Spencer. 

So, how did it come from that to the boys being orphans, taken in by their uncle Jacob in the news spin-off series 1923? How did Margaret Dutton die, and when?

Well, in a flashback during Season 4 of Yellowstone, we learn how Margaret’s husband died. In 1893, he was shot by horse thieves and died from his wounds in his family home on the ranch. But that wasn’t the end of the horrors for the first generation of the Dutton family in Montana.

In the pilot episode of 1923, the narrator is Elsa Dutton – the deceased daughter of Margaret and James – who explains how her mother passed away only a few days after the tragic loss of her husband.

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Margaret died due to ‘the cold’ after being caught in a snowstorm. The two young boys, John and Spencer, were left all alone on the ranch until their uncle Jacob came to visit months later in 1894. He found Margaret’s frozen body, James’ grave, and the two boys almost starved to death.

Jacob and his wife Cara decided to take the boys in and raise them as their own while also keeping the family legacy and continuing to develop the ranch. We jump 30-ish years later, to 1923, and see that both Spencer and John are now grown, men. John even has a wife and a son, Jack, who is also soon-to-be married to a beautiful young woman, Elizabeth Strafford.

Margaret was buried next to her husband, James, right there on the ranch. Her life was tragic, then beautiful, and then tragic again. However, you don’t even realize just how tragic it was until you think through Elsa’s death. Then you realize how much pain Margaret probably endured – because she was partially responsible for Elsa’s death.

Was Margaret responsible for Elsa’s death?

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It wasn’t like Margaret shot the arrow or neglected her daughter’s wounds. However, she DID play a part in Elsa’s tragic demise, and even Faith Hill – the actress who portrayed Margaret – acknowledged that. In an interview with TVLine, Hill said: 

“It didn’t even occur to me when I read the script. I read it a million times. It didn’t occur to me even after we filmed it. It only occurred to me after I saw it: My God, it’s my fault she was shot and killed, because had she had her vest on that was meant to protect her, given to her by Sam, maybe she could have survived.”

So, what is she talking about here? Well, at the beginning of the 1883 series, Elsa was wearing dresses, being a ‘proper’ young lady. However, during their journey out West, she began horseriding and actually became a cowgirl.

She also met her husband, Sam, who was a Lakota Native America. Elsa started wearing pants instead of dresses, and Sam also gifted her a traditional Lakota vest made out of thick, protective leather.

However, right before being shot, Margaret asked Elsa to change back into a dress, as they have been as close to civilization as they were in a very long time, so she ought to be dressed ‘properly’ if they stumbled upon someone. Little did she know that could very well be the reason why Elsa was shot to death with the poisonous arrow.

Had she worn her vest instead of a dress, maybe the arrow wouldn’t be able to pierce her so deeply and into her liver. Even if there was a wound, it would likely be a flash wound that would heal despite the poison. Or, perhaps the Lakota wouldn’t even shoot as fast as they did, had they seen a vest they were familiar with.

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Of course, perhaps it wouldn’t even make a difference, but it seems Faith Hill felt responsible for that happening to Elsa, as she even teared up during the interview, not even wanting to think how awful it would be to lose a child. As for Elsa’s death, Hill added:

“I mean, we became those characters, and it never once occurred to me, ever, until I saw it. I turned to Tim, and I said, ‘My God, it’s my fault! It’s Margaret’s fault she’s shot!’”

So, there you have it. Before Margaret Dutton died by freezing to death, only a few days after her husband was shot to death, leaving her two boys alone and orphaned on the ranch, she also felt responsible for the death of her daughter, Elsa, a few years back. Talk about a heartbreaking, tragic storyline for such a beloved, wonderful character.

As for the new spin-off show, 1923, it’s currently airing, and the next episode is coming out on December 25, 2022, on Paramount+.

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