1883‘s season 1 finale killed off its most important character, and while the death is tragic, it’s necessary in order to move the story of the Duttons in a worthwhile direction. That character is Elsa Dutton (Isabel May), the daughter of Margaret (Faith Hill) and James Dutton (Tim McGraw) – the founders of the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. Elsa was the main protagonist of 1883. The beginning of the end for Elsa was when she was shot with a poisoned arrow when the caravan was attacked by Lakota warriors.
This scene was previewed in the pilot episode of 1883, and then fully fleshed out in 1883 season 1, episode 9 “Racing Clouds.” After a band of fierce Lakota warriors find their settlement destroyed and their families murdered, they find 1883‘s caravan of settlers traveling away from the scene of the crime, and logically assume that the caravan is responsible. However, the horse thieves who defiled the Lakota settlement were actually elsewhere and were even killed by James, Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), and Shea Brennan (Sam Elliot) for the Lakota. In the end, the misunderstanding results in most of the caravan getting brutally slaughtered, and Elsa taking a poisoned arrow to the liver.
At the end of 1883 season 1, Elsa finally succumbs to the infection and dies. Elsa’s last wish was for her to pick where she’ll be buried, and James and Margaret decide to settle whichever land Elsa chooses – the birth of the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. Elsa’s fate answers the question of what the family had to give up in order to stake their claim on the land, revealing why the Duttons have such a deep connection with Paradise Valley. Moreover, the location of Paradise Valley was revealed to James by an Indigenous man, who later warns James that his people will take the land back after the Duttons have owned it for seven generations – to which James replies that after seven generations, they can have it back. In short, the circumstances of Elsa’s death not only foreshadow the tensions between the Duttons and the Broken Rock Indian Reservation in Yellowstone, but also potentially spoils the ending of Yellowstone season 5. It’s also crucial to remember that Elsa wasn’t just the protagonist, she was also 1883’s narrator. Elsa was the heart and soul of the show, and her fate encapsulates the social commentary and overarching themes of 1883.
Indeed, it was neither the Lakota nor the Duttons who caused Elsa’s death. The Lakota warriors reacted logically to the situation. During the late 1800s, the Westward Expansion of America was enabled by the Louisiana Purchase, which gave white settlers legal precedent to not only claim Indigenous American lands but to do so by any means necessary, which often included displacing and slaughtering Indigenous settlements. The Lakota were simply defending their lands and people from white colonists, who have been slaughtering Indigenous Americans even before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In short, Elsa’s death can only truly be blamed on the white genocide of Indigenous America. Elsa’s final fate is a reminder that 1883 is based on the true stories and real lives of settlers in the late 19th century, however uncomfortable those true stories may be.
1883 may have killed off Elsa Dutton, but it only gives the show more space to develop its other compelling characters. Elsa had to die in order to close the first chapter in the story of how the Duttons found Paradise Valley, opening the next chapter which will reveal how they started their ranching empire. Elsa’s death is also a lesson in the dark, cruel history of white America, from which Taylor Sheridan borrows the conflicts that drive his Neo-Western universe.