Cover image for Lay the mountains low : the flight of the Nez Perce from Idaho and the Battle of the Big Hole, August 9-10, 1877
Lay the mountains low : the flight of the Nez Perce from Idaho and the Battle of the Big Hole, August 9-10, 1877
Johnston, Terry C., 1947-2001.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
xxii, 495 pages, 2 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
X Adult Fiction Western
X Adult Fiction Western

On Order



Five proud Nez Perce warriors are determined to force the tribe and the encroaching white settlers into a deciding conflict spurred by misunderstanding, fear, and greed.

Author Notes

Terry C. Johnson was born in 1947 on the plains of Kansas and has lived a varied life as a roustabout, history teacher, printer, paramedic, dog catcher, and car salesman, all the while immersing himself in this history of the early West. His first novel, CARRY THE WIND, won the Medicine Pipe Bearer's Award from the Western Writer's of America, and his subsequent books, among them CRY OF THE HAWK, WINTER RAIN, and THE SON OF THE PLAINS TRILOGY, have appeared on bestseller lists throughout the country.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

The 15th volume in Johnston's Plainsman Series, second in a trilogy of works based on the Nez Perc‚ War of 1877 (after Cries from the Earth) and first of the author's westerns to be published in hardcover, this grim novel tells a true tale of butchery and massacre. Supplying his real-life characters with fictionalized dialogue, Johnston has cleverly arranged the historical narrative to produce a graphically violent portrayal of the army's brutal campaign to move the Nez Perc‚ Indians from their rich lands in Oregon and Idaho to a desolate reservation. The Nez Perc‚, led by Chief Joseph, resist fiercely, and the war commences. Johnston tells this gripping story from several angles, following the Nez Perc‚ as they try to escape to Canada, the soldiers who pursue them and the settlers who thirst for revenge. Covering the period from June 24 to August 10, 1877, this day-by-day account of ambush, atrocities and anguish is not for the squeamish. The soldiers and civilian volunteers who pursue the Nez Perc‚ are a mixed bag of frontier veterans and nervous recruits led by the one-armed Civil War hero, General O.O. Howard. Joseph is a master tactician and his warriors repeatedly deal the soldiers bloody defeats as the tribe moves ever closer to sanctuary in Canada. What Joseph does not understand, however, is that the soldiers will never give up, no matter how many die in fights echoing with gunfire and the screams of the wounded. Clearly, there are no victors in this struggle, and neither side can claim much honor or glory. This installment concludes with the soldiers and Nez Perc‚ butchering each other at the Battle of the Big Hole in Montana. Johnston is a skilled storyteller whose words ring with the desperation, confusion and utter horror of a fight to the death between mortal enemies. This is uncomfortable history, and it hits home like a blunt instrument. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Johnston, the best-selling historical frontier novelist, once again exhibits his mastery of portraying Western history in fictional form. This book, the first of his "Plainsmen" novels to be published in hardcover, takes place after the Battle of White Bird Canyon (June 17, 1877), depicted in his Cries from the Earth. In this tale of five Nez Perce tribal leaders who choose to resist the encroaching white settlers and who refuse to make treaties with the U.S. government, Johnston provides gripping, authentic details of historically accurate events; readers see the Nez Perce wars through the eyes of those involved and read actual letters and newspaper clippings of the day. Besides the historical details, the novel presents a compelling, action-packed story. This is a novel you will want to feature in your "New Books" displays and library newsletters. Essential for all public libraries and for libraries within academic institutions that support Western history.DMelody L. Ballard, Washoe Cty. Lib. Syst., Reno, NV (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One JUNE 21, 1877 BY TELEGRAPH * * * An Indian War in Idaho. * * * Twenty-Nine Settlers Killed--The Troops Pursuing. * * * IDAHO. * * * Still Another Indian War. WASHINGTON, June 20.--The following dispatch has been received by the commissioner of Indian affairs from the Nez Perces agency, Idaho: The non-treaty Indians commenced hostilities on the 14th inst. Up to date, the 16th, twenty-nine settlers are reported murdered, and four Indians killed. Gen. Howard is here in command. The hostiles are about one hundred strong. They are reported to have gone to the Solomon river country and are making for the Weiser Geysers, in southern Idaho. Troops are in pursuit twelve hours behind. The reservation Indians are true to the government. A company is formed under the head chief, and is protecting the settlement of Kamarah and employees. [Signed] WATKINS, Inspector, and Monteith, Indian Agent He had fought against the cream of the confederacy and chased, then hung, the leaders of the Modoc insurrection in southern Oregon years ago. So why did he find himself dreading this ride down into the canyon of White Bird Creek the way a frightened schoolboy would fear a midnight trek to a cemetery?     Deep in the marrow of him, Captain David Perry knew that what awaited him on that abandoned battlefield was far worse than anything a schoolboy might encounter in some haunted graveyard. Not only would he be forced to view the bloated, contorted bodies of those men he had led into the valley at dawn on the seventeenth of June, but he was coming to believe that he just might confront the restless, disembodied spirits of those soldiers who would forever walk that bloody ground.     If Brigadier General Howard, even that damnable, self-serving coward Trimble, didn't utter a public charge about his debacle in the valley of the White Bird, then Perry was afraid his greatest fear would come to pass: The ghosts of those men sacrificed to the Nez Perce would shriek aloud their charges of incompetence and timidity ... if not outright cowardice.     Oh, the hours and days he had brooded over every deployment of his forces, every action of his company commanders, each tiny reaction of his own during the short, fierce fight since that damp morning when he had been tested and somehow found wanting. Had he committed his one-hundred-man force to battle without trustworthy intelligence, taking only the word of the civilian volunteers that the Nez Perce wouldn't dare stand and fight?     David Perry, post commander at nearby Fort Lapwai, simply could not shake the unrelenting sleeplessness his doubts awakened within his most private soul, nor rid himself of the constant horror he saw behind his eyelids every time he shut his eyes and attempted to squeeze out the respite of a little rest from each endless night. He wondered if he would ever find a way to rid himself of this haunting.     Like an arrow a man would release into the air, aimed directly overhead--an arrow that might well fall back toward earth to wound or even kill that bowman--Perry understood his hasty, ill-considered journey into the White Bird Canyon would one day return to be his undoing. But the captain fervently prayed this would not be that day.     Before he led his men south from Grangeville that Thursday morning, the twenty-first of June, Perry confided in those fellow officers who, with him, had survived their humiliating defeat on the White Bird.     "We'll make a reconnaissance as far as the top of the divide," he instructed them. "And stop where we began to descend into the valley on the seventeenth ... halting where we can view the battlefield at a distance."     "We best keep our eyes skinned for them redskins" injected Arthur Chapman, a local rancher who was better known as Ad, bastardized from "Admiral," a name bestowed upon him for his uncanny ability to handle small craft on the region's swollen, raging rivers.     Perry turned to peer at that volunteer scout coming to a stop within the ring of officers. "You volunteering to lead us back across the ridge, Mr. Chapman?"     The tall civilian appeared to weigh that briefly, his eyes darting among the other soldiers who stood at Perry's elbows. Pushing some black hair out of his eyes, Chapman sighed. "I figger it's the decent thing to do, Colonel," he explained, using Perry's brevet, or honorary, rank earned during the Civil War. "But mind you, if them Injuns whupped us and drove your soldiers off once, they sure as hell can wipe you out now--they catch us in the open again."     Perry squinted his eyes, peering at that knot of horsemen who warily sat far off to the side of his column of blue-clad soldiers. "What of your recruitment efforts among the civilian populace, Mr. Chapman?"     "Maybe a dozen," the civilian replied. "No more'n that come along with me."     "That'll have to do---as many local citizens as you can muster." Perry did his best to sound upbeat. "Gentlemen, prepare your companies. We'll move out on our reconnaissance in thirty minutes."     Here at the top of the White Bird divide, the captain had halted his depleted, nervous command. Gathering both left and right at the front of Perry's column Chapman's civilians sat atop their horses, letting their animals blow. At their feet lay the steep slope Perry's doomed battalion had scrambled back up on the morning of 17 June. Only four short days ago.     His heart pounded in his chest. Surely the victorious Non-Treaty bands had abandoned the area.     "Don't see no smoke, Colonel," Chapman advised as he eased back to Perry's side.     Civilian George M. Shearer, a veteran of that all-too-brief White Bird battle, agreed, "Likely moved their village."     "Where?" Perry demanded.     With a shrug, Chapman answered, "Gone up or down the Salmon, I'd reckon. They whupped you already. Took what they wanted from your dead soldiers, then moved on."     "Surely Joseph has put out some war parties to roam this country, Colonel," Captain Joel G. Trimble asserted with an unmistakable air of superiority.     "At the least," added Second Lieutenant William Russell Parnell, "the chiefs assigned some spies to remain in the area to watch for us."     As some Of the officers prattled on, Perry gazed into the canyon, not completely sure what he had spotted below. His eyes might be playing tricks on him the longer he stared. A dark clump here and there across that narrow ridgeline he had attempted to hold without a trumpet. More of them scattered back in this direction. Bodies. The unholy dead, their spirits raw and restless--     "Mr. Chapman." Perry suddenly turned on the civilian. "Select from your men a number of volunteers to accompany you for a brief reconnaissance."     The civilian cleared his throats his eyes narrowing. "You ain't bringing these soldiers of yours down there with us?"     Perry straightened in the saddle, feeling every pair of eyes heatedly boring into him this warm midmorning. "No, Mr. Chapman. Make your search brief. Determine if there are any war parties left behind, then return to this position. We'll await your return"     For a moment Chapman glanced over the faces of the other citizens gathered from the nearby communities of Grangeville and Mount Idaho. Shearer, the Confederate major who, so it was said, had served on General Robert E. Lee's staff, shook his head. Eventually, Chapman wagged his head, too, his eyes boring into Perry's. "You ain't goin' down there with us, ain't no reason for me and my friends to stick our necks out neither"     "You won't search the valley?" Perry asked, his voice rising an octave.     "No, Commander. Not without what few soldiers you got left coming along with us, what soldiers can still fight if them Injuns show up again."     With a sigh of finality, Perry said, "I can't chance that, gentlemen. My battalion is diminished in strength as it is. I dare not lose any more--"     Almost as one, the civilians turned away behind Ad Chapman without uttering another word, starting back down the slope for Grangeville and Mount Idaho. A few of them peered over their shoulders at those relieved officers and soldiers nervously sitting there with their cavalry commander. Overlooking what had become a field of death.     Perry shuddered with the frustration he swallowed down, reined his horse around, and signaled with his arm for his battered, beaten battalion to follow him back to the settlements. BY TELEGRAPH * * * An Indian War in Idaho. * * * IDAHO. * * * Official from General Howard. WASHINGTON, June 20.--The following telegrams in regard to the Indian troubles in Idaho were received at the war department: From Gen. McDowell, San Francisco, to Gen. Sherman, Washington.--The steamer California arrived at Fort Townsend this morning with all the troops from Alaska. I have ordered them to go to Lewiston Friday morning. Gen. Hully will go to Lewiston by that date. [Signed] MCDOWELL, Major-Gen. SAN FRANCISCO, June 19.---General Sherman, Washington--The following from General Howard at Laparoi to his staff officer at department headquarters is just received. There is rather gloomy news from the front by stragglers. Captain Perry overtook the enemy, about 2,000 strong, in a deep ravine well posted and was fighting there when the last messenger left. I am expecting every minute a messenger from him. The Indians are very active and gradually increasing in strength, drawing from other tribes. The movement indicates a combination uniting nearly all the disaffected Indians and they probably number 1,000 or 1,500 when united. Two companies of infantry and twenty-five cavalry were detached at Lewiston this morning and an order was issued to every available man in the department, except at Forts Harney and Boize, to start all the troops at Harney or Boize except a small guard. They may receive orders en route turning them.     Dear Merciful God in heaven--did he feel all of his forty-six years at this moment.     Commander of the Military Department of the Columbia, headquartered at Portland, this veteran Civil War brigade leader, this survivor of the Apache wars in Arizona Territory, Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard stepped into the midday light and onto the wide front porch of the joint Perry-FitzGerald residence here at Fort Lapwai, slapping some dust from his pale blue field britches with the gauntlet of the one leather glove he wore at the end of that one arm left him after the Civil War.     The ground of the wide parade yawning before him teemed with activity this Friday, the twenty-second of June, as company commanders and noncoms hustled their men into this final formation before they would dress left and depart for the seat of the Indian troubles. As the officers and enlisted were falling into ranks here at midday, the incessant dinging of the bell-mare as her mule string was brought into line, a little of the old thrill of war surged through him anew.     If ever Otis had hoped to be given one last chance to redeem himself after the shame unduly laid at his feet with the scandals at the Freedmen's Bureau down south ... then Otis, as he had been called ever since childhood, would seize this golden opportunity to bring a swift and decisive end to this Nez Perce trouble. A foursquare and devout believer in the trials and the testing the Lord God would put only before those men destined for greatness, Howard was all the more certain that this was to be his moment.     The days ahead would yank him back from the precipice of obscurity, redeem him before Philip H. Sheridan and especially William Tecumseh Sherman himself--commander of this army--and win for Oliver Otis Howard a secure niche in the pantheon of our nation's heroes. This was right where he should have remained since losing his right arm in battle during the Civil War. The winding, bumpy, unpredictable road that had seen him to this critical moment had been a journey that clearly prepared him for, and allowed him to recognize, this offered season of glory.     Born in the tiny farming village of Leeds along the Androscoggin River in the south of Maine on the eighth of November, 1830--the same day his maternal grandfather turned sixty-two---his mother dutifully named Oliver Otis for her father. His English ancestors had reached the shores of Massachusetts in 1643, migrating north to Leeds no more than a score of years before he was born.     After passing the most daunting entrance exams, he was admitted to the freshman class at Bowdoin College in September of 1846. Four years later found him beginning his career in the United States Army as a cadet underclassman at West Point. In the beginning he suffered some ostracism and ridicule because of his regular attendance of Bible classes, as well as his abolitionist views, being openly despised by no less than Custis Lee, the son of Colonel Robert E. Lee, who himself became superintendent of the academy in 1852. Nonetheless, one of Howard's fastest friends during his last two years at West Point proved to be Jeb Stuart, who would soon become the flower of the Confederate cavalry.     While Custis Lee was ranked first in their graduating class in June of '54, Howard was not far behind: proudly standing fourth in a field of forty-six. After those initial struggles, he was leaving the academy in success, a powerful esprit d'corps residing in his breast. Back when he had begun his term at the academy, Otis had little idea exactly what he wanted to become when he eventually graduated. But across those four intervening years, Oliver Otis Howard had become a soldier. It was the only profession he would ever know.     It had come as little surprise that the autumn of 1857 found him on the faculty of West Point, where he would remain until the outbreak of hostilities with the rebellious Southern states. Just prior to the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter, the spring of 1861 found Howard considering a leave of absence to attend the Bangor Theological Seminary. Until the opening of hostilities, the very notion that the North and South should ever go to war over their political squabbles was hardly worth entertaining.     But now it was war. Oliver Otis Howard had stepped forward to exercise his duty as a professional soldier. Rather than remaining as a lieutenant in the regular army, he instead lobbied for and won a colonelcy of the Third Maine Volunteers. Before that first year was out he had won his general's star, and scarcely a year later he became a major general.     Few men in the nation at that critical time had the training or experience to assume such lofty positions of leadership in either of those two great armies hurtling headlong into that long and bloody maelstrom. While Otis had indeed been an outstanding student during his time at the U. S. Military Academy, it was over the next four years that he, like many others, would struggle to learn his bloody profession on-the-job.     Ordered to lead his brigade of 3,000 toward the front in those opening days of war at the first Battle of Bull Run, on the way to the battlefield he and his men passed by the hundreds of General McDowell's wounded as they were hurried to the rear. The nearness of those whistling canisters of shot, the throaty reverberations of the cannon, the incessant rattle of small arms---not to mention the pitiful cries of the maimed, the sight of bloodied, limbless soldiers--suddenly gave even the zealous Howard pause.     He later wrote his dear Lizzie that there and then he put his fears in the hands of the Almighty, finding that in an instant his trepidation was lifted from him and the very real prospect of death no longer brought him any dread. From that moment on, Oliver Otis Howard would never again be anxious in battle.     Not long after George B. McClellan took over command of the Union Army, Howard was promoted to brigadier general of the Third Maine. In action during the Peninsula Campaign, his brigade found itself sharply engaged on the morning of the second day of the Battle of Fair Oaks as the Confederates launched a determined assault. Ordered to throw his remaining two regiments into the counterattack rather than holding them in reserve, Howard confidently stepped out in front of his men and gave the order to advance. Although Confederate minié balls were hissing through the brush and shredding the trees all around them, Howard continued to move among the front ranks of his men, conspicuous on horseback, leading his troops against the enemy's noisy advance.     When he was within thirty yards of that glittering line of bayonets and butternut gray uniforms, a lead .58-caliber bullet struck Otis in the right elbow. Somehow he remained oblivious to the pain as his men closed on the enemy. When they were just yards from engaging the Confederates in close-quarters combat, a bullet brought down his horse. As Howard was scrambling to his feet an instant later, a second ball shattered his right forearm just below the first wound.     With blood gushing from his flesh, Howard grew faint, stumbled, and collapsed, whereupon he turned over command of the brigade to another officer. Later that morning he was removed to a field hospital at the rear, where the surgeons explained the severity of his wounds, as well as the fact that there was little choice between gangrene--which would lead to a certain death--and amputation of the arm. By five o'clock that afternoon, the doctors went to work to save Howard's life.     Fair Oaks had been Otis's bravest hour.     Across these last few days, while panic spread like prairie fire across the countryside as word of the disaster at White Bird Canyon drifted in, townspeople, ranchers, and even the white missionaries from the nearby reservation had all streaked into Fort Lapwai, seeking the protection of its soldiers,     Now at last, five days after Perry's debacle on the White Bird, his army was ready to move into the fray. While he was leaving Captain William H. Boyle and his G Company of the Twenty-first U. S. Infantry to garrison this small post, Howard would now be at the head of two companies of the First U. S. Cavalry, one battery of the Fourth U. S. Artillery, and five companies of the Twenty-first--a total of 227 officers and men. One hundred of these were horse soldiers, and once Howard had reunited with Perry and his sixty-six survivors of White Bird Canyon, Otis would be leading a force of some three hundred after the Non-Treaty bands.     Oliver Otis Howard had a territory and civilians to protect and a bloody uprising to put down. To his way of thinking, he had just been handed what might well prove to be something far more than even his bravest hour had been at Fair Oaks.     This war with the Nez Perce could well be the defining moment of his entire life and military career. Excerpted from LAY THE MOUNTAINS LOW by TERRY C. JOHNSTON. Copyright © 2000 by Terry C. Johnston. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.