In 1812, with questionable justification and inadequate preparation, the newly united States of America declare war on Great Britain, the most powerful nation on earth. In Backlash, five young Americans wage a war that drastically changes their life—and the history of the world.
Award-winning author Mike Klaassen began writing fiction when his sons were teenagers. His first two books were young-adult action-adventure novels influenced by his experience as a Kansas farm boy and as a Scoutmaster. A visit to the site of the Battle for New Orleans led Mike to write Backlash: A War of 1812 Novel, featuring five young Americans in the fight of their life. Ongoing research encouraged Mike to write books about the craft of writing fiction. The use of folktales as examples in his nonfiction books inspired him to begin Klaassen's Classic Folktales, a collection of ancient stories retold as novellas.
As a counterpart to Lemuel's perspective as a frontiersman, I decided to create a character and story line from the perspective a native American.
NOVEMBER 1811, MISSISSIPPI TERRITORY
Fifteen-year-old Hadjo trotted along a game trail occasionally lit by afternoon sunlight beaming through the forest’s canopy. Around his neck hung two gutted cottontail rabbits snared that morning. He had been fortunate to catch both only a few miles from the village, but he also took pride in his hunting skills.
His insides tingled with anticipation at the thought of presenting the rabbits to a leather-skinned, gap-toothed widow in the village. His gift almost guaranteed that he would be invited to share the evening meal with the widow and her daughter, Prancing Fawn.
Hadjo had met Prancing Fawn earlier in the week, and since then he had been able to think of little else. Each day he left at dawn to hunt and set traps to kill game, and each day he had brought home enough to provide a solid meal for the three of them. He was determined to prove himself a capable provider and someday qualify as an acceptable suitor for Prancing Fawn. Just the thought of her mischievous smile and eyes spurred him faster along the trail.
As Hadjo approached the village, he stopped short and clutched the tomahawk tucked under his belt. Warriors he did not recognize entered the village on horseback. For weeks rumors had circulated that Tecumseh, leader of the Shawnees, would visit the Muscogee tribe’s annual gathering.
Thousands of Muscogee had flocked to their capital of Tuckabatchee along the Tallapoosa River to see and hear Tecumseh. Even some Cherokee and Choctaw had joined the gathering. Hadjo had heard that Tecumseh’s long trek south to his mother’s people was not a social call. His mission was to recruit allies for his plan to halt the white man’s theft of native lands.
Although Hadjo had heard of Tecumseh’s skill as a hunter and warrior, he wondered if anyone could stop the land-grabbing whites. Certainly, the council of Muscogee chiefs had failed—white squatters eager for land promptly broke each treaty signed.
But as the Shawnee leader and his twenty-four warriors dismounted, Hadjo had to admit they made an impression. Unlike Hadjo and the other Muscogees, who wore clothes made of material purchased in trade with white men, the Shawnee visitors wore traditional buckskin hunting shirts and leggings decorated with fringe and beads.
Each wore a red headband with eagle feathers, red war paint smeared under their eyes, temples shaven clean, and long hair braided back. Silver bands decorated arms and wrists. Each carried a rifle, tomahawk, and scalping knife.
Taller than the other warriors, Tecumseh led his Shawnees single file along a pathway lined by the Muscogees. At the central square of the village, they silently lined up in front of the open, thatch-roofed council pavilion.
Without a word, the Muscogee chief stepped forward and offered his pipe to Tecumseh. After a ceremonial puff of smoke to pledge peaceful intentions, the Shawnee leader passed the pipe to each of his warriors. The village chief directed his guests to a large log cabin where they could rest for the afternoon.
That night just outside the cabin, Hadjo and hundreds of other Muscogees watched spellbound as Tecumseh and his warriors performed a ritual called the Dance of the Lakes. In the firelight with their lean, hard bodies stripped to loincloths, the Shawnees stomped and leaped to the beat of drums.
Over the next several days, Hadjo sat with the other young warriors outside the council pavilion, listening as the chiefs consulted with the Indian agent assigned to the Muscogees. The hours passed slowly, and Hadjo grew more and more frustrated. As they had so many times before, the chiefs complained to the Indian agent that the decline in the deerskin trade had diminished the Muscogees’ means of trading for food, clothing, and rifles. Many would starve during the coming winter unless the situation was addressed.
As he had on previous occasions, the federal agent advised Muscogee men to take up the plow and Muscogee women to take up the spinning wheel and loom. With the advent of a new invention, the cotton gin, agriculture was the means by which the Muscogees could prosper and adapt to white civilization.
Several chiefs expressed doubts, telling the Indian agent that tilling the soil was squaw work, not suitable for warriors and hunters. The agent reminded them that some Muscogee families had already learned to grow cotton and had purchased black slaves to expand their plantations.
Hadjo squirmed at the mention of Muscogee plantation owners. They seemed to adopt white greed as well as their agricultural methods. In tribal villages, those with more than they needed shared with those of their clan, so none suffered unnecessarily. But the Muscogees adopting the white ways had also begun to accumulate wealth rather than sharing with their neighbors. And the gap between the newly rich Muscogee plantation owners and the struggling hunter-warriors seemed to be growing.
The Indian agent addressed the Muscogees through an interpreter, but Hadjo had little trouble understanding English. Although he had been born to a village leader, Hadjo had been orphaned by a plague. For several years he had lived with white settlers who tried to teach him their ways. He recalled that the pull of native ways had been too strong for him, and he had run away to a nearby village.
The Indian agent then announced that the U.S. government intended to build a road from east to west across tribal land. When the chiefs protested, the agent explained that the whites needed the road to transport goods to market and for defense against attack from the British and the Spanish in Florida.
The chiefs said they would not approve such a road. The agent then told them the road would be built whether they agreed to it or not. He advised them to accept the payment offered, or they would get nothing.
Throughout the Indian agent’s visit, Tecumseh sat quietly, his face expressionless. Hadjo began to suspect that Tecumseh was no better than the Muscogee chiefs who had no effective plan to halt the whites’ encroachment on tribal lands.
For over a week, Hadjo had looked forward to the time when Tecumseh would address the tribal council. But day after day the Shawnee leader made excuses as to why the timing was not right. Only after the Indian agent left the village did Tecumseh finally agree to speak to the Muscogees.
At midday Hadjo watched as Tecumseh and his two dozen warriors emerged from their lodge. Naked except for their loincloths and smeared with black paint, the Shawnees carried war clubs. The gathered throng parted as Tecumseh and his men marched single file along the path to the village square.
Silently, with their faces contorted in anger, the Shawnees marched three times around the town’s central square. In a traditional purification ritual, Tecumseh scattered tobacco and sumac at the posts marking each corner and finally into the town’s sacred flame at the center.
The Shawnees strode into the open-sided council pavilion, and then, as one, they shattered the afternoon calm with a ferocious war cry.
All took seats on the ground, and Tecumseh presented to the Muscogee chief an impressive belt of wampum with five strands of different colors. The Muscogee chiefs passed the wampum around for all to admire, and Tecumseh produced the Shawnee peace pipe. Longer and larger than the Muscogee pipe, it was decorated with shells, beads, and porcupine needles. Still without a word being spoken, the Muscogee chief puffed on the pipe, then passed it around to the other chiefs.
After the formalities, Tecumseh stood, and the crowd outside the pavilion sat quietly as all strained to hear.
“In the days of our ancestors, the world was in balance. Tradition guided our lives, and we lived in harmony with the bounty around us. Young men learned to be hunters and warriors, and young women learned to tend their gardens.”
Hadjo was struck by the fire in Tecumseh’s eyes and the emotion in his gestures. Even before the translator explained the Shawnee words, Hadjo could feel the passion and strength of Tecumseh’s speech.
“But then the palefaces arrived from across great waters,” continued Tecumseh. “At first they wanted only a little of our land in exchange for gifts. Then they offered us cloth, axes, and muskets in trade for deerskins. Our fathers cast aside traditions and, for a time, prospered with the trade.”
Tecumseh paused before continuing. “Now the deer are nearly gone, so we have fewer skins to buy the white man’s goods. Traditions have been ignored, and our women and children go hungry and cold. Meanwhile, the whites have multiplied, and so has their lust for our land. If the paleface encroachment is not stopped, the red man will be reduced to the status of the black slaves.”
A murmur of concern and anger rumbled from the Muscogees.
“Only decisive action will hold the paleface back and restore greatness to all red men. We must throw off the trappings of white civilization and return to the traditional way of life. As our ancestors did, we must seek spiritual guidance from our shamans. All tribes of red men must join forces for war and drive the paleface out of our land.”
Murmurs of agreement rose from the young warriors around the outskirts of the gathering.
But one of the Muscogee chiefs asked, “If you are so eager to go to war with the whites, why are you not already leading our northern brothers into battle?”
All fell quiet to hear Tecumseh’s reply. “The palefaces have great numbers and powerful weapons. No one tribe can defeat them. We have already seen this too many times. To drive back the white men, all red men must put aside differences and work together.”
One of the chiefs scoffed at Tecumseh. “War with the States would be the ruin of the Muscogee nation.”
Tecumseh’s eyes blazed as he replied. “Together, we shall prevail. Now is the time. Soon the States and Great Britain will be at war. The British remember that we fought bravely at their side during the last war. They want to help us regain our ancestral lands. The British will give us guns, ammunition, and supplies to fight the Americans.”
One of the chiefs laughed. “The British care no more for us than they do the Americans.”
Tecumseh asked, “Who do the Muscogees prefer to trade with? The Americans cheat us and sell inferior goods made in the States. The British trade fairly for quality goods made across the great waters.”
Still the chiefs argued that the Americans were too many and too strong.
One of the Shawnees was a shaman, and he now stood as Tecumseh sat. “The spirits of our ancestors have spoken. They are displeased with our neglect of ancient traditions and have shown their displeasure in the misfortunes we now face. But if we cast aside the ways of the white man and return to our time-honored way of life, the spirits will protect us from the paleface weapons. “
The shaman paused briefly. “You may trust Tecumseh’s words. On the night of his birth, a bright light streaked across the sky, and he was named accordingly. The spirits will send you a sign. You will know it when you see Tecumseh’s arm of fire stretch across the dark sky and the earth opens up to swallow the whites.”
As the shaman sat, Tecumseh stood, his body trembling with anger. With arms raised he looked toward the heavens. “Oh, Muscogee! Brethren of my mother. Brush from your eyelids the sleep of slavery. Rise and strike for vengeance and your land. Drive the white man back into the sea!”
Hadjo leapt to his feet, as did hundreds of warriors around him. They brandished their tomahawks, and their voices combined in deafening war cries.