Daniel Sharfstein: Thunder in the Mountains


Noted author and historian Daniel Sharfstein will be coming to Gonzaga Law April 25th, to discuss his latest work THUNDER IN THE MOUNTAINS: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War. Sharfstein shines a light on these two larger-than-life figures, Howard and Chief Joseph, and on a clash of ideals that still defines our nation today.

While writing his Lukas Prize-winning first book, The Invisible Line, Sharfstein stumbled on a detail that ended up illuminating and complicating one of the most enduring and tragic struggles in American history. After finding an 1878 letter to Oliver Otis Howard, a major post-Civil War champion of African American freedom and equality for whom Howard University is named, Sharfstein realized that the same Howard had waged the brutal, epic campaign known as the Nez Perce War, which forced a fiercely brilliant young Native American chief and his people out of their homeland in far eastern Oregon.

Oliver Otis Howard was a one-armed Union Army general who became one of Reconstruction’s most important and controversial figures. As head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the first big federal social welfare agency,  he was charged with turning four million newly freed slaves into full citizens. But as Reconstruction failed in the mid-1870s, Howard turned away from the progressive vision of government he had pioneered. Rejoining the army and moving with his family to the Pacific Northwest, Howard assumed the task of protecting another group of Americans—white settlers who claimed ownership of the new frontier. In the summer of 1877, Howard commanded the U.S. Army to attack, pursue, and ultimately capture Chief Joseph and about 750 Nez Perce men, women, and children after they refused to abandon their ancestral homeland for a reservation.

Chief Joseph remains one of history’s most celebrated Native American leaders, having outrun Howard’s army for more than three months, over 1,500 miles of the roughest terrain in the nation, before surrendering. After the war, Joseph became an international icon of civil rights and nonviolent activism.

Today’s conflicts over diversity, national identity, immigration, foreign policy, and “big government” have their roots in America’s pivot from Reconstruction to Western conquest, when a demand for civil rights and a fear of “others” were routinely at odds. THUNDER IN THE MOUNTAINS (a title inspired by Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce name) is the story of a defining American struggle, brought to life by two of the most remarkable men in American history. By taking these debates back to their earliest days, Sharfstein helps to clarify how we continue to live in the world the Civil War made.


Daniel J. Sharfstein is a professor of law and history at Vanderbilt University and a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow. His first book, The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America, received the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Copies of the book will be available.

Sponsored by the Gonzaga Law School, Gonzaga History Department, Gonzaga Native American Studies Department, Gonzaga’s Center for Public Humanities, and Auntie’s Bookstore.

Event date: 
Tuesday, April 25, 2017 - 6:00pm
Event address: 
Gonzaga Law School, Barbieri Courtroom
721 N Cincinnati St.
Spokane, WA 99220
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Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War Cover Image
ISBN: 9780393239416
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - April 4th, 2017

Oliver Otis Howard thought he was a man of destiny. Chosen to lead the Freedmen's Bureau after the Civil War, the Union Army general was entrusted with the era's most crucial task: helping millions of former slaves claim the rights of citizens.