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I know that it means "run for your lives", but why would running to the hills be a good idea to hide? Aren't the hills the easiest place for the enemy to spot the peasants/people who "run for the hills" or "run to the hills"?

Why isn't the saying:

Run and hide in the forest!

Or even:

Run and hide!

?

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    Sound advice if there's a tsunami warning. Commented May 3, 2020 at 17:59
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    They did not have aeroplanes or spy satellites in the days when that phrase was coined. You could hide in the hills but not on the plains, where you can be see from... hills. Commented May 3, 2020 at 18:03
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    If the origin is the Great Plains of the Old West, where a molehill constitutes a change of landscape, the actual hills would be a better place to hide. The flatness of the land is unchanging. Commented May 3, 2020 at 18:05
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    A hundred men could search the hills for weeks without find a person in hiding. But a hundred men spead out 100 metres apart on the plain would find anybody. Commented May 3, 2020 at 18:07
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    Most places have no forest. True, many places also have no hills and don't you think there's a huge difference between "many" and "most"? Did you notice how many documentary or fictional movies about the military tell their heroes: "Take the high ground"? If your primitive society was threatened by people or by nature, why would the hills not be the best place to which to flee? Commented May 3, 2020 at 18:09

4 Answers 4

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I know that it means "run for your lives",

No, it means "run to a place of safety"

but why would running to the hills be a good idea to hide?

This is more a question about tactics than a language question.

Aren't the hills the easiest place for the enemy to spot the peasants/people who "run for the hills" or "run to the hills"?

Th earliest reference I can find is to a fox-hunt in England (RS Surtees "Ask Mamma" 1858) in which, of the fox, we have: “He’s for the hills!” exclaims Gameboy Green, still struggling on with a somewhat worse-for-wear looking steed."

And from Allen's Indian Mail and Register of Intelligence..., Volume 15 p314 --

May 19th 1857: After a sharp fire of about twenty minutes, the pirates began to jump overboard, and run for the hills, when the boats dashed in and boarded them.

In both cases, chasing something up hills is not easy. The thing/person being chased has the advantage of height. Also for humans, hills are more defensible.

Also, back then, the hilly areas were vast and sparsely populated and a good place to hide.

There is nothing to say that the hills did not have tree cover on them.

I think earlier references tend to be literal but the drama of the command was enough to take it into its more metaphorical meaning - although the two are often difficult to distinguish.

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  • Also hills tend to have more rocks and caves and crevices and hiding places than the plains. Partly because water and soil tend to flow downhill or flood from river deltas covering features in low ground, partly because rivers tend to erode gorges/glens/canyons in high ground (where heavy rainfall is often localised), partly because hills and mountains are often forced up by geological disturbance, distorting and cracking the layers of rock.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 8 at 20:03
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There are many references to "run for the hills" from the Johnstown Flood (The Johnstown Horror!!!) and can be traced in many of the texts that were published after the flood

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  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Mar 8 at 19:34
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    What texts? Where's the evidence? As it stands, this doesn't add anything that hasn't already been said in one of the previous answers (also without any evidence).
    – Laurel
    Commented Mar 8 at 19:54
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Early (pre-1889) newspaper occurrences of 'run/ran/running' for the hills'

An Elephind newspaper database search turns eighteen matches for "run for the hills," "ran for the hills," or "running for the hills" from before the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889. The context for each may suggest why running for the hills made sense in each case. Here they are in chronological order.

From "State of the Country," in the Boston [Massachusetts] Pilot (October 14, 1848):

ARREST. On Sunday evening Constable George Laffin, of the Dolla Station, having received information, proceeded with four men to the house of the brother of Thomas Hennessy, near Templederry, charged by Mr. M'Ardell, with having inflicted several wounds on him with a scythe, by which his life was for a time in considerable in danger. Hennessy's name appeared in the Hue and Cry. The men placed themselves around the house, and Hennessy, who perceived one of them made out through the back of the house, and ran for the hills, but he was intercepted by a policeman. He was brought into Nenagh gaol on Monday, when bail was tendered and refused by the magistrates. Tipperary Vindicator.

From "Our Washoe Correspondence: The Spring Fights," in the [San Francisco, California] Daily Alta California (February 19, 1860):

Beecher, after firing [his gun at Newbury] attempted to escape by the back part of the house, but found that the other party had fastened the doors, so as to prevent egress, so jumped through the window and ran for the hills. He is somewhere in the Valley now, but probably will not make his appearance until the excitement has cooled down. Newbury, the man shot, died about 3 o'clock the same day.

From an untitled item in the Vinton [Ohio] Record (January 2, 1868):

Considerable excitement was created on Tuesday last by the arrest and escape of Mr. Thomas Holland, charged by his mother, Mary Holland, with perjury, for swearing that he was twenty-one years old, in order to obtain a marriage license. The mother is bitterly opposed to the match and says she would rather see him go to the Penitentiary than marry the woman he intends to.

He was arrested on a warrant sworn out by his mother, and pending his trial before Esq. Mark, he jumped through the windows, smashing the sash and glass to pieces, and running for the hills. He was pursued by the constable and a number of citizens, but up to the time of going to press be had not been re-captured.

From "The Great Earthquake," in the [San Francisco, California] Daily Alta California (October 23, 1868):

The old adobe church at Mission San Jose, built by the Jesuits centuries ago, is knocked down. Also, the hotel of Bamber & Myers.

This morning a great many people left their houses and ran for the hills—women rushing around wild.

Oake's Hotel—the house split in five or six different pieces; not an article of crockery saved.

From "The Latest Indian Massacre," in the [New York] Sun (January 16, 1879):

The Senate of the United States has taken notice, not a day too soon, of the recent butchery of Indians by United States troops in the State of Nebraska. Yesterday it ordered its Committee on Indian Affairs to find out all they could about the affair, and report. The credit for this belongs to Senator Dan Voorhees of Indiana.

...

Then these Indian wretches broke jail. They knew the odds they were taking; they wee but half armed and would be encumbered in their flight by the squaws and pappooses, But there was a chance to escape. Jumping through the windows, they ran for the hills -the men carrying the children, the women carrying the saddles and other things. A few of tho younger men, as roar guard, covered their flight. Almost instantly a company of United States was in chase.

From "Brutal Crime at Santa Rosa," in the [San Francisco, California] Daily Alta California (May 22, 1879):

Mrs. John Ashcraft was found wounded and insensible in a barn of her ranch, in Rincon Valley, this morning. She had been cut with a hatchet some six or seven times, and is in a precarious condition. Her husband, John Ashcroft, is supposed to be the perpetrator of the outrage, as a suit for divorce is pending in the District Court here. He was seen to enter the barn a short time before she was found injured, and afterward was seen to run for the hills. A large party of men searched the neighborhood, and about 10 o'clock he was found and arrested by a man named Hawkins, and turned over to Constable Rupe, who brought him to the jail privately. He was discovered just before he got to the jail, and the crowd made a rush for him and shouted, "hang him." He was protected by Constable Rupe, Sheriff Bond and Major Loucks, and locked up. The excitement is intense.

From "The Adelaide Hunt Club," in the [Adelaide, South Australia] South Australian Advertiser (July 19, 1880):

The Glynde has always been a favorite rendezvous, for there is something that feels like going in the broad expanse of grass, while there are little bits of woodlands which make us believe that what we are following must have harbored there. The line [taken by the pursued animal] on Saturday started from the Glynde, and going into Mr. Mildred's crossed the creek and the fence just beyond, and then going a abort distance ahead broke back and recrossed the fence, making for the road running for the hills by way of a couple of fences and a creek.

From "Waterspout," in the Vancouver [Washington] Independent (August 5, 1880):

Mr. G. W. Clarno, residing a mile and a quarter from the Clarno ferry over the John Day river, in this county, informs us that that region of country was visited by a waterspout on Sunday afternoon, 18th instant, at about 3 o'clock. The water was 7 feet deep and 154 yards wide, and struck Mr. Clarno's house, washing it entirely away. Mr. Clarno, his two brothers and Alonzo Jones, were in the house, (Mr. Clarno in the act of shaving)when a dull rumbling noise was heard, and the inmates hurried out to ascertain the cause. Mr. Frank Clarno, brother to our informant, ran some distance from the house, saw the spout coming, and gave the alarm. Mr. G. W. Clarno hurriedly grabbed a set of harness lying in front of the door and ran for the hills some distance away. Seeing his little girl coming toward the house he dropped the harness, took her up in his arms and ran to a place of safety.

From "From Castroville: Medina and Hondo Rivers Booming—Mills Washed Away," in the Denison [Texas] Daily News (August 19, 1880):

A freighter for A. F. Wulfl, of San Antonio, reports that he was camped about a mile east of the Hondo when all of a sudden he heard the water rushing down the road, and was just able to keep out of it by running for the hills. The Medina river at this point is at least one hundred and forty yards wide, and at this hour, seven p. m., still rising very fast. There is no fall at the dam, the water being level with the top, and is now in the second story of Jos. Courand's mill.

From Henry Britton, "The Wreck of the Molly Asthore," in the [Melbourne, Victoria] Australasian (December 31, 1881):

I was fleet of foot, and very lightly clad, having nothing on but boots, white dack trousers, and a shirt. I sprang like a deer into the jungle and ran for the hills like the wind. A number of the natives darted after me, bat I soon saw that the only one who was likely to overtake me was the objectionable individual who had charge of the cooking preparations.

From an untitled brief item in the [Tucson] Arizona Weekly Citizen (January 15, 1882), reprinted from the Prescott [Arizona] Democrat:

Deputy Sheriffs Mulveroon and Herbert yesterday went out to the Point of Rocks to arrest a boy named Johnson for petit larceny, but did not succeed in their purpose. On arriving at Cook's ranch, where the boy was stopping, he met them with a cocked revolver and defied arrest. double-barreled shotgun pointed at him had no effect on his nerve and he held his pistol in one hand and patting his breast with the other invited the officers to shoot, interlading his invitation with opprobrious epithets. While parleying he commenced to step back and soon started on a run for the hills, which he succeeded in gaining and escaped. This is the most complete case or youthful depravity we have heard of for some time; the boy is not more than 17 years of age.

From "Chasing Escaped Murderers: Two Condemned Criminals Break Jail and Are Recaptured," in the Lancaster [Pennsylvania] Daily Intelligencer (January 24, 1884):

The guards and a large body of citizens started in pursuit. The escaped murderers [Luke Jones and Bill Jones] ran for the hills on the east of the town, which they rapidly climbed. Five hundred citizens, armed with guns and revolvers, gave chase and brought the murderers to bay in a ravine, where they opened fire on their pursuers. Luke Jones was so badly wounded in the melee that it is feared he will not live to be hanged ; both prisoners then begged for quarter and were taken back to jail.

From "Saturday's News: Domestic" in the Sacramento [California] Daily Record-Union (October 13, 1884):

Barry Hughes, a Troy, N. Y. criminal, was nearly burned to death Monday. He was secreted in a bedroom in his sister's house, and a child accidentally set fire to the bed. Hughes was badly burned before he dared come out, when he escaped from the back window and ran for the hills.

From "Captured: The Horse Thieves Who Held Up the Florence Stage Come to Grief," in the [Tucson] Arizona Weekly Citizen (August 8, 1885):

Several rounds [of gunfire] were exchanged while the pursuing party still remained on their horses and thus afforded good targets for the Mexicans. Then the pursuing party dismounted and the Mexicans broke and run for the hills, followed by a lively fusilade. In the chase one shot brought the younger of the two thieves down, and as the other was closely pressed, he surrendered.

From "Outbreak Near Elkhorn, Pa.," in the St. Paul [Minnesota] Daily Globe (December 23, 1885):

There was an outbreak at the old eagle mines, in the third pool, near Elkhorn, yesterday. At an early hour about twenty masked men made an attack on two Germans, when about three-quarters of a mile from the pit. One of the men was knocked down and beaten with a club. His injuries are of a serious nature. The other fared better and got off with scratches and a black eye. The alarm was quickly raised. Supt. J. E. Jones and Engineer Kerr, with one other man, succeeded in routing them. The strikers displayed very little courage. They ran for the hills as soon as Mr. Jones and his assistants arrived and showed their revolvers. No other outrages are reported, though an uneasy feeling prevails throughout the entire valley.

From "Helena Submerged: A Break in the Levee Inundates the Town," in the [Monmouth, Illinois] Evening Gazette (April 29, 1886):

The whole town was electrified, however, in short time, by a man riding like mad down the streets and shouting at every jump of his horse the dreaded news: "The levee has broken! The levee has broken!" In an incredibly short time a great stream of rushing humanity were pouring, some in the direction of the break, others who live in the lowlands of the city to their homes to save their families and personal property. The break was about three-fourths of a mile above the town and right back of the Helena [Arkansas] fair grounds. At first it was not over seventy-five feet in width, but kept widening every minute. The tug Eva, with a barge-load of dirt, was at the levee when it broke and before the tug could get under headway the current took the barge and shot it through the break fully 200 yards on high dry land. Quite a number of men were on the barge at the time, shoveling out the dirt, who, as soon as the barge hit the land, jumped off and made a run for the hills. The tug managed to get back into the river. The banks of the levee at the break were soon covered with citizens from the town, who stood watching the wall of water pour through the crevasse with feelings of awe.

From "Agricultural Notes: California," in the [California] Pacific Rural Press (June 18, 1887):

For years past a number of wild horses have been seen at different times in Long valley. Recently a party of five or six men followed them a day and a half, and finally succeeded in getting a rope on a fine stallion, which they brought into camp, the rest escaping. The only animal branded was an old mare, with the "scissors" iron on her. When ridden the stallion made no effort to buck, but ran for the hills. He got in with another band of horses, and his rider being unable to get him out, they were corraled. The horse, a well-built animal and quite fleet, is being broken by Oscar Hilton.

From "An Experience with a Tramp,"in the Jamestown [North Dakota] Weekly Alert (July 28, 1887):

As she [Mrs. Guilford] started to get the tramp something to eat he asked her whether she was alone. Sh replied "No." He then bent his head forward giving her a very hard look and asked again: "Now ain't you alone?" whereupon Mrs. Guilford wished to know what business it was of his. He said he always "liked to catch the ladies alone." Mrs. Guilford only said, "Do you?" and rushed past him, pushed open the door and called Leo ["her large Newfoundland dog that was in the dining room"]. In less than a second, and before the tramp could move, the brave dog had a death grip on Mr. Tramp. The tramp not thinking there was a second person in the house, was unprepared for the dog. He finally shook the dog off, jumped out the door letting the screen door fly back hitting the dog on the head and leaving him in the house. Before Mrs. Guilford had recovered from the fright the dog pushed open the door, caught up to the tramp and ran him a mile. We think that had the dog had fair play the tramp would have fared much worse. The last seen of the tramp he was on a run for the hills. Mrs. Guilford cannot say how bad the tramp was injured, but before he got out of the house the dog shook him up wonderfully. Leo is not for sale.

The expression also occurs in a lengthy account of the Johnstown Flood in "Story of the Deluge," in the [Gladwin, Michigan] Gladwin County Record (June 14, 1889):

A nameless Paul Revere lies somewhere among the dead. Who he is may never be known, but his ride will be famous in local history. Mounted on a large bay horse, he came riding, like an angel of wrath, down the pike which passed through Conemaugh to Johnstown, shouting as he came: "Run for your lives to the hills! Run to the hills!" The people crowded thickly out of their houses along the thickly settled streets. Nobody knew the man, and some thought that he was a maniac. On he rode shrilling out his awful cry. In a few moments there came a cloud of rain down the broad streets, down the narrow alleys, grinding, twisting, hurling, overturning, crashing, annihilating the weak and strong. It was the charge of the flood. On raced the rider and on rushed the wave. Dozens of people heeded the warning and ran for the hills. Just as the lone rider crossed the railroad bridge tho mighty wave fell upon him, and horse, man, and bridge went down into chaos together.


Assessment of the early newspaper instances

Of the eighteen newspaper instances from before the Johnstown Flood, two (from 1880 and 1887) involve animals running to the hills to escape human pursuers, four (from 1868, 1880 [two], and 1886) involve people running to the hills to escape natural disasters, and twelve (from 1848, 1860, 1868, 1879 ([two], 1881, 1882, 1884 [two], 1885 [two], and 1887) involve people running to the hills to escape human pursuers.

In newspaper accounts, at any rate, people trying to escape human pursuers are the earliest and most frequent subjects of the phrase "run/ran/running for the hills," during the period 1848–1888.


The 'head for the hills' variant

The idiomatic phrase "head for the hills" was more common than "run for the hills" in Google Books search results from the early 1940s until around 2005, although "run for the hills" (blue line) has seen tremendous growth in frequency of use since about 1996, bypassing "head for the hills" (red line) in 2008 an continuing to climb rapidly since then:

Nevertheless "head for the hills seems to be a slightly younger expression than "run for the hills." The first occurrence of "head/headed/heading for the hills" that an Elephind newspaper database search turns up is from "Buckskin Jack," in the Nashville [Tennessee] Union and American (June 5, 1875), reprinted from the Sioux City [Iowa] Journal:

The four men [from the Gordon party who had not been captured by U.S. soldiers] stayed there [at the previous night's camping place] that night, and without anything to eat. In the morning they started in the direction the soldiers had gone with their prisoners. On the way they met the Collins brothers who, with three ponies, had made their escape and were headed for the hills, and from them learned that Gordon and Romans had also eluded the vigilance of the soldiers, and were then on their way up the Niobrara.

The hills in this instance are the Black Hills of what later became South Dakota.

From "Territorial: Items of News from Uncle Sam's Dependencies: Wyoming," in the [Georgetown] Colorado Miner (April 15, 1876):

It maketh the heart of "Potomac" glad to take a pencil in his fingers and scratch off items about "three six-horse coaches, loaded to the guards," dashing through the streets of Cheyenne, headed for the Hills.

The "Hills" in this case may again be the Black Hills.

From "From Sedalia,"in the Castle Rock [Colorado] Journal (December 12, 1888):

We noticed the gentlemanly agent of the D. & R. G., Mr. DeLane, Saturday morning headed for the hills with his Winchester and a dog.

Possible idiomatic usage begins to appear in "Timnath," in the Fort Collins [Colorado] Courier (March 5, 1891):

Harvey Brownell, who lives about seven miles east of Collins, had a hand-saw, brace and three bits, square, buggy cushion and four sacks of oats stolen one night last week. The persons taking the things were headed for the hills. They went coolly to work, hitched their teams, hunted up some good seamless sacks and did their own sacking.

From a brief item in The Dalles [Oregon] Weekly Chronicle (October 7, 1892):

Still Headed for the Hills

San Francisco, Sept. 30. The old chestnut about Evans and Sontag, comes from Daulton Station this time to the effect that Evans and Sontag were seen there yesterday. Mrs. Faust, wife of a section foreman, who formerly lived in Visalia and knew Evans there, positively identified Evans.Both men were heavily armed and very cautious. They were headed for the foothills. Detective Smith and party arrived at Daulton on the early morning train and will start on their trail at once. From the hills around a full view for miles can be had. This will give the fugitives a great advantage over the officers.

And from "Bull Hill Man Escapes," in the Aspen [Colorado] Weekly Times (April 20, 1895):

C. A. Dunn, a Bull Hill man in jail awaiting sentence, broke loose at noon today by sawing a bar on the bathroom window. Officers placed on his trail two bloodhounds. Dunn made a motion for a new trial yesterday but the motion was overruled. He was seen to run for the creek, take the west bank and head for the hills. He has not been seen since.

Of these six instances, four involved escaping from actual or expected pursuers and two involved departing in pursuit of game or hostile forces.

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    I note, as an aside, that I wrote almost all of this answer a year or two ago (when the Elephind newspaper search tool was still operative)—but I never got around to finishing it until today. Looking it over reminds me of what a valuable research tool Elephind was.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Mar 9 at 1:46
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This phrase actually originated in 1889 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, when a dam burst causing one of the deadliest floods in US history. The warning to “run for the hills” was to try to get people out of the path of the flood, which naturally followed the valley.

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    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 5:47
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    I haven't found any reliable sources for this; this certainly sounds like a false etymology.
    – alphabet
    Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 2:43
  • This appears to be incorrect. Allen's Indian Mail and Register of Intelligence..., Volume 15 p314 -- May 19th 1857: After a sharp fire of about twenty minutes, the pirates began to jump overboard, and run for the hills, when the boats dashed in and boarded them. --books.google.co.uk/…
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 23:32

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