Why Does the Yellow Ribbon Represent the Desire for a Loved One to Return Home Safely?

Jerry Anderson December 12, 2015 Comments Off on Why Does the Yellow Ribbon Represent the Desire for a Loved One to Return Home Safely?

A family in my neighborhood had a son serving in Afghanistan. Outside their house yellow ribbons were tied around the trunks of the numerous trees located along the street. It got me to thinking of how the yellow ribbon became a symbol for the concern families and individuals feel for those loved ones far away serving our country in life-threatening circumstances. It symbolizes the hope that those loved ones will return safely.

This is the story I discovered. In the years after the Civil War (1861-1865) the army was severely downsized while at the same time being faced with the need to protect settlers as they rapidly moved westward into the Great Plains, lands which had been promised “in perpetuity” to the Native Americans living there. (See my post concerning Andrew Jackson and the “Trail of Tears.”) The U.S. Army Cavalry was sent to the Plains to protect wagon trains going westward, homesteaders who had purchased cheap land from the federal government and to rein in the angry response Native Americans had to this encroachment upon what they considered their homelands.

Custer’s defeat in 1876 is the most famous expression of the outrage felt by the Plains Indians.

After training, soldiers who were to be posted to the frontier would get a brief leave to return home to say good-bye to families, loved ones and sweethearts. When the time for final departure approached, many of these soldiers would leave something behind with their loved ones as a reminder of them while they were away. The yellow bandana that was a part of the cavalry uniform became the item most often left behind, and, as time passed,it became almost a ritual to leave this colorful item with the one most dear to a soldier’s heart. Families or sweethearts of absent soldiers would wear the bandanas on clothing or in their hair, place them in windows, simply carry them in a pocket or handbag, or hang them from a tree or bush in the front of their homes. Listen to the words of the theme song for the 1949 classic John Ford film, “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.” It tells the story of a sweetheart and a cavalryman’s yellow ribbon (i.e., bandana).

Some sources report that this tradition started with the black cavalry soldiers on the Great Plains. They, supposedly, were the first to practice this custom, and it later spread to soldiers of all races and nationalities. These black cavalry units were some of the best fighting units stationed on the frontier. However, following policies begun during the Civil War, they were all led by white officers. They were the most highly decorated units in the entire frontier cavalry, had the lowest desertion rates of any other units and, because of their superior fighting ability, were greatly respected and feared by the Native Americans of the Plains.

“Buffalo Soldier” re-enactors. Note the yellow bandanas.
The Plains Indians so admired the bravery and fighting ability of these black troops that they honored them with the name “Buffalo Soldiers.” This was a gesture of recognition that was at first not understood by the U.S. Army. The buffalo was a sacred animal to the Plains Indians and it was only with a great deal of thought that they bestowed this name on their adversaries.

The American Bison, The sacred animal of the Plains Indians that gave the “Buffalo Soldiers” their name.

The buffalo was the basis of the entire life-style and culture of the nomadic Plains Indian tribes. The thick, kinky, wiry hair of the black soldiers reminded the Indians of the hair on the mane on their sacred buffalo. Thus can be understood the seriousness of the comparison made when they gave this name to their enemy. “Buffalo Soldiers” were to be respected, but feared as well.

Respected and feared both.
So the color yellow was established as the symbol of loved ones away fighting in wartime. This sets the stage for one of my favorite music videos, “Buffalo Soldiers” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The lyrics are replete with “Rastafarian” references, but that is another story that I will touch upon briefly below. Listen to the lyrics closely and you will hear mention of the black man as wandering in the wilderness of the Americas, longing for his homeland, Africa.


Marcus Garvey, the most influential black person in the U.S. during the 1920s.
The Rastafarian religion traces its roots back to Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant to the U.S. who founded the “back to Africa” movement during the 1920s. Garvey was a black nationalist who predicted that a black man would one day become a king in Africa. His prophecy was fulfilled in 1930 when Haile Selassie became King of Ethiopia. Rastafarians refer to Haile Selassie (he died in 1975) as the “Lion of Judah” and claim he was a direct descendant of King Solomon of the Old Testament and the Queen of Sheba (a black East African ruler).

King Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.”The Lion of Judah.” Rastafarians consider him a god-like figure.

Rastafarians believe that black people in the Americas are ancestors of the ancient Israelites, and one of the lost tribes of Israel. Rastafarians see themselves as living in exile and see Africa, but especially Ethiopia, as their homeland and “promised land.” Marijuana (“ganja”) is referred to by Rastafarians as “the wisdom weed,” and they believe it was found growing on the grave of King Solomon. They believe that smoking “ganja” brings them closer to God. Most true Rastafarians, however, will not touch alcohol because they believe white men used it to get Africans drunk and, thus, more easily enslave them. True Rastafarians refer to themselves as “Ethiopian warriors” and grow their hair into long “dreadlocks,” a hairstyle believed to be borrowed from the Masai and Somali tribesmen of eastern Africa.

Masai women braiding their hair in East Africa. Dreadlocks perhaps came from this practice.

Dreadlocks have been adapted as a hairstyle by many who are not Rastafarians.

Rastafarians also believe that the black race is holy and beautiful, and the day is coming when a reversal will occur and the white man will become the black man’s servant. I wish to counter the impression that Rastafarians are merely a group of black people who wear dreadlocks and smoke marijuana. It is a serious political, religious and social movement that emphasizes liberation and has a rich and interesting history. And here is the connector: Reggae music has proven to be the most popular vehicle for transmitting the Rastafarian message worldwide. Bob Marley and the Wailers. Full circle. The message that Rastafarianism seeks to communicate is a positive one and is illustrated in the following song by,…guess who?



Fast Forward to the 1950s when, so the story goes, a man was released from the Georgia State Penitentiary after serving a five tear sentence and was unsure whether or not he would be welcomed back home by his wife and family. He wrote a letter to them saying that he would take the train back to his hometown and, if they wanted him back, they should decorate an apple tree near the station with a white ribbon. If there was no ribbon he would not get off the train but would continue on and start a new life elsewhere. As the train sped toward his hometown, he told the story of his imprisonment to a fellow passenger and the hope he had of seeing the ribbons on the tree which would signal his welcome home. As the train approached the town, the man became so full of dread that he could not bear to look for the hoped-for ribbons. He asked his fellow passenger to look for him, and he laid his head in his arms and awaited word. Soon, he felt a hand on his arm, and heard the words,”There it is! It’s all right! The whole tree is white with ribbons!”A happy ending to this story.

How did the “white” ribbon eventually become “yellow?”
Years later, in 1973, a song by Tony Orlando and Dawn, called “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” told this story in musical form but changed the color of the ribbons to yellow. The two men who wrote the song said they heard this story while in the military, which may be the reason for the color change. Perhaps they were aware of the story of the yellow bandanas of the cavalrymen previously mentioned. But here they are, Tony Orlando and Dawn, singing their 1973 hit song which, by the way, sold 3 million copies in 3 weeks:

The song had its run on the charts and faded away. Then, on November 4, 1979, the Iranian Hostage Crisis began while Jimmy Carter was entering the last year of his term as President. A group of militant Islamist students stormed and took possession of the United States Embassy in Tehran in support of the Iranian Revolution. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for a total of 444 days. Finally, on January 20, 1981, just minutes after newly elected President Ronald Reagan was sworn into office, the hostages were released into United States custody and returned home. Following is a short video summary of the crisis.

The loved ones and family members of the hostages quickly adopted the yellow ribbon as the symbol of their hope for a safe return of those held in Tehran. The song, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” shot, again, to the top of the charts and became an anthem of sorts, an expression of the hope for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Yellow ribbons appeared on trees and bushes throughout the United States and remained in place until the hostages had been returned safely home.

Penne and her son Bruce Laingen. Her husband/His father was held hostage in Tehran. The yellow ribbon was displayed until he came home safely. They donated the ribbon to the Smithsonian Institute in 1991.

And if I needed any more confirmation of the validity of the story I have just told you concerning the origin of yellow as the color of choice for the ribbons that have come to symbolize the safe return home of loved ones serving in hazardous situations, I offer you this one last piece of evidence. When our daughter was 8 years old our family went into a video store (now, these stores are a piece of disappearing history!) to look for a movie to watch on a Saturday night. A VHS movie on a shelf in front of us caught our attention. We had already seen the film “The Apple Dumpling Gang” and enjoyed it. So when we saw the title “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again” we thought we had found our selection for the evening. I immediately noticed the yellow bandanas around the necks of both Tim Conway and Don Knotts and was reminded of the story of the yellow bandanas I have related to you. Don’t film makers have historical consultants that make sure details such as this are accurate?

Walt Disney could not be wrong!

Done For Now!

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