What Being Branded Really Means

Yellowstone Dutton Ranch hands and family members bear the stylized, hooked “Y” brand that represents the ranch. Since day one, Yellowstone has wowed fans with its dramatic take on the cutthroat American ranching business, drawing comparisons not just to other Westerns, but also to shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and even Ozark. One of the key reasons for these comparisons is the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch’s ritualistic branding of those who join its fold, a practice that’s typically reserved for cattle and other livestock.


Yellowstone Dutton Ranch hand Jimmy Hurdstrom (Jefferson White) had the honor of being branded in Yellowstone season 1. Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser) administered the painful brand. Jimmy’s experience suggested it was a punishment at first, but it’s later revealed that the “Y” brand makes Jimmy untouchable on the ranch. Those bearing the brand are afforded a mandatory level of respect. At the same time, as shown from the first season to Yellowstone season 5, anyone bearing the brand is expected to be wholly loyal to and responsible for the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. Although some real-life ranches also brand their workers, Yellowstone treats the ritual with utmost reverence and secrecy.

Related: Why Kayce’s Son Was Buried With A Horse

Why Does Yellowstone Brand Their Employees?


The brands on the Yellowstone ranch are a stylish narrative point for the show and also serve an in-narrative purpose. The branding system allows Kevin Costner’s John Dutton to have absolute control over ranch workers, many of whom are ex-convicts who can’t get employment anywhere else. Being branded means that the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch owns a person’s life – but it also means that they’re practically family — and the ranch does whatever it takes to protect their own.

Just like how ranch bosses brand cattle to mark their property and ensure that branded stock is returned to the ranch, the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch brands its workers, which comes with both responsibilities and privileges. This is why, after a rough night in which the branded ranch hand Walker (Ryan Bingham) got in trouble and was almost “taken to the train station,” he was instead brought back to the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch for a second chance.

It’s also notable how the ritual entails the sacrifice of bearing great pain. Similar to organizations like the Sicilian mafia and even the Sardaukar army in Dune, the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch uses the mystique of a secret covenant and the bonding experience of shared suffering to foster militaristic loyalty for John Dutton. At its core, the Yellowstone brand is a symbol of ownership, whether they are worn by ranch workers or actual Dutton family members.

Why Was Kayce Branded On Yellowstone?

Does John Dutton become governor of Montana

John branded his son Kayce (Luke Grimes) as punishment for when Kayce left the ranch to be with Monica (Kelsey Asbille), back when she got pregnant with Tate (Brecken Merrill). Kayce has since forgiven his father for what he did. However, after Kayce underwent an Indigenous ritual and received visions of the future from his spirit animal in the Yellowstone season 4 finale, Kayce chose Monica and Tate over the Dutton ranch in Yellowstone season 5. Despite John and Kayce’s uneasy relationship, this highlights the limits of how far John is willing to abuse the power of the brand, as John doesn’t fight Kayce for his decision.

Who Is Branded On Yellowstone?

Lloydand Jimmy in Yellowstone

Every character who is branded on Yellowstone is part of the Dutton’s extended family. Apart from John and Kayce, this includes Rip, Jimmy, Lloyd Pierce (Forrie J. Smith), and Walker. The bloody finale of Yellowstone season 3 also saw Dutton ranch hands Teeter (Jennifer Landon), Ryan (Ian Bohen), Colby (Denim Richards), Jake (Jake Ream), and Ethan (Ethan Lee) earn their respective brands by proving their loyalty to the family. Former ranch hand Wade Morrow (Boots Southerland) also wore a brand, but it was removed from his skin after he betrayed the Duttons.

Will 1923 Show The First Person Get The Yellowstone Brand?

brian geraghty and helen mirren in 1923

The cast of Yellowstone spinoff 1923 could shine a light on how the practice of branding began on the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. Jacob (Harrison Ford) and Cara Dutton (Helen Mirren) went through hell to establish a small ranching empire in 1923, and it’s possible that they began the practice as a way of consolidating power amid the frontier’s unpredictable conditions. There would be no better time to reveal how Yellowstone‘s branding ritual started than the setting of 1923, which, historically, was the harshest decade in the state of Montana.

1923 season 1 didn’t show how the first Yellowstone ranch hand to receive the brand got it, who gave it to them, or why. Season 2 of 1923 is on the way, so there’s still scope for the spinoff to shed light on this intriguing piece of Yellowstone lore. There are also further spinoffs planned in the Yellowstone universe which take place before the main show. It’s possible that the practice was introduced later in the Dutton’s history. Even if 1923 doesn’t reveal the history of the Yellowstone brand, there are other shows which could.

Is Yellowstone’s Branding Ritual Based On Real-Life Cowboys?

Kevin Costner with his head on top of a ranch fence in Yellowstone

There are aspects of Yellowstone inspired by true stories, but the branding does not seem to be one of them. Certainly, it is not hard to find examples throughout history of humans being branded, but most of those cases were done as punishment to criminals and slaves. There do not appear to be any stories of real-life cowboys voluntarily taking a brand as part of their job.

In fact, these sequences see the show being slightly unrealistic. The brands used in Yellowstone are meant for the thick skin of cattle. For such a brand to be used on a human, it would do a lot of damage and require immediate medical attention, rather than the characters simply drinking some whiskey and walking it off. The risk of infection alone would not make it worth it. However, the Yellowstone branding is one unrealistic element that does provide an interesting aspect to the show.

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