John U. Terrell, 87; Ex-Cowboy Wrote Acclaimed Histories of the Old West

Times Staff Writer

John Upton Terrell, who ran away from home in his teens to become a cowboy and later gained critical acclaim as a historian of the Old West, died Thursday. He was 87.

Terrell suffered a heart attack after being hospitalized for less than a week with chest pains, his daughter said. He had most recently lived in Claremont before moving in November into a retirement home in San Bernardino County.

The author of more than 40 books, Terrell’s work included war reportage, novels and children’s stories. But the silver-maned writer was best known for his histories of the Old West, a region for which he had a particular affinity.


The late Times book critic Robert Kirsch called Terrell’s “Life Among the Apaches” “one of a small number of indispensable works in Western Americana.”

His other books include: “The Arrow and the Cross: A History of the American Indian and the Missionaries,” “Furs by Astor,” “Journey Into Darkness” and “Faint the Trumpet Sounds” (with George Walton). A novel, “Plume Rouge,” briefly made the New York Times best seller list before World War II.

Born in Chicago in 1900, Terrell spent time on an uncle’s ranch in Montana, engendering a love for the receding American frontier. In the eighth grade, he once told an interviewer, he grew bored, ran away from home and headed west, where he worked as a ranch hand.

He later wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, was a West Coast editor for the old United Press and covered Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army in World War II for Newsweek.

Restless in spirit and curious by nature, Terrell traveled to more than 30 countries and moved about the Southland for almost 30 years. He lived in the Pasadena area since the 1960s.

He continued publishing generally well-received books into the begining of this decade. Many of his histories explored the rich Indian culture that early settlers tried to destroy and urbanization eventually subsumed. But his ken was wide-ranging.

“His eye and ear are remarkably responsive,” one reviewer said upon publication of a two-volume set documenting the fight over water rights, “War for the Colorado River.”

Terrell is survived by daughter Nina, son Charles and a brother, Charles.

There are no services.