Ada Blackjack may not at first have seemed like one who would survive an ill-fated expedition to a remote Arctic island. She stood less than five feet tall, weighed little more than 100 pounds, and had no wilderness skills to speak of. Though she was Inupiat, born in a village 30 miles west of Nome, Alaska in 1898, she had spent precious little time on the land.
The few wilderness experiences in the first 23 years of her life had been forced on her. When she was just eight years old her father ate some bad meat and fell deathly ill. Her mother was away, so Blackjack and her younger sister bundled the dying man onto a sled and began mushing toward Nome. Somewhere along the way they realized their father had died, so Blackjack turned the sled around and brought him home, according to Jennifer Niven’s 2004 biography Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic. Her mother, now destitute, sent Blackjack to live with a Methodist family in Nome. They taught her to speak English and read the Bible, to keep house and cook “white-people food.” She learned nothing of hunting, trapping, and other essential survival skills.
At 16 she married a notorious dog-musher named Jack Blackjack and bore three children before she was 22. Two died in infancy and the other, a boy named Bennett, was sickly. Her husband beat her and starved her, and when he finally abandoned her on the Seward Peninsula in 1921, Blackjack and five-year-old Bennett trekked 40 miles to Nome. When her son was too weak to walk, she carried him.
Survival in Nome had nothing to do with hunting or bushcraft. It meant finding enough work cleaning houses and sewing clothes in the raucous frontier town to feed her son and herself. That spring Blackjack was barely getting by. Destitute, as her own mother had been after her father’s death, Blackjack was forced to put Bennett in an orphanage until she could somehow scrape together enough money to support him. She wanted to take the boy south to Seattle, where doctors could treat his chronic tuberculosis. That seemed like an impossible dream until four young men arrived in town and began advertising for a native seamstress who could speak English. They were offering $50 a month, for an engagement that would last a year, or even two.
That is how she found herself on an ill-conceived and poorly planned expedition to Wrangel Island, an uninhabited and, thus far, unclaimed expanse of ice and rock in the Arctic ocean, about 100 miles north of Siberia and 600 miles northwest of Nome. The plan was for the four men to occupy the island long enough to claim it for Canada, or Great Britain, or maybe even the United States. That was just one of the many details that hadn’t been completely worked out when the team set sail from Nome late in the summer of 1921.
The mastermind behind the expedition was a charismatic explorer and gifted hustler named Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and as far as he was concerned, any English-speaking country would do. Stefansson, who fancied himself a visionary, imagined Wrangel would one day be invaluable as a base for trans-polar air travel. Surely the Japanese or Russians would claim it if Stefansson didn’t get there first, though, actually, he decided to send someone to claim it for him, because Stefansson himself was otherwise engaged on the lecture circuit, earning $1,000 a week.
Stefansson decided to send his warm-up act, Fred Maurer and Lorne Knight. Both were 28, and both had served under Stefansson in the Arctic before joining him on the Chautauqua circuit, a kind of traveling lecture show featuring comedians, preachers, and celebrity explorers like Stefansson. Maurer had been with Stefansson on the Karluk in August 1913, when the ship became trapped in the ice. Stefansson left the ship and walked across the pack ice to Alaska. Maurer was one of the 25 who stayed with the Karluk, which was later crushed in the ice. He and some others escaped to Wrangel Island where they were marooned for nine months. Only 16 of the party survived.
The disaster made a gripping tale, and it was Maurer’s job to tell it to the crowds that filled the Chautauqua’s circus tents, warming them up for Stefansson’s main event. Knight, too, was part of the show. The strapping 6’3” former whaler had spent four years in the Arctic with Stefansson, and like Maurer, he was eager to go back north. Nineteen-year-old Milton Galle ran the slide projector for Stefansson. He’d never left Texas before joining the show, but became fast friends with Maurer and Knight, who lobbied for his inclusion in the team.
The team’s fourth member was Allan Crawford, a student from the University of Toronto recruited chiefly for his citizenship. If the expedition was to claim the island for Canada, they needed a Canadian. And because Canadians were at the time also British subjects, Stefansson would have the option of transferring title to whichever country he could persuade to take it (both were reluctant, given Stefansson’s sketchy history and the dubious legality of his scheme). This plan required Crawford, who was 20 years old and had never been north, to serve at least nominally as the team’s commander. The more experienced Knight was named second in command.
Stefansson dispatched the quartet to Wrangel Island with six months worth of supplies and orders to stay for two years. A ship would call in a year to top off their stores, though Stefansson hardly thought it would be necessary. The showman frequently declared that “anyone with good eyesight and a rifle can live anywhere in the Polar regions indefinitely,” but he also advised them in the strongest terms to hire local families to accompany the expedition—skilled Inupiat hunters to secure meat, and women who could fashion animal skins into the best winter clothing available anywhere in the world.
The local people, however, sensed the young explorers were out of their league. When it was time to embark, Blackjack was the only Inupiat to be found. She had her own misgivings but the promise of $50 a month, and regaining custody of her son, was too powerful to resist. “I thought at first that I would turn back, but I decided it wouldn’t be fair to the boys,” she said.
Game was hardly abundant, but the four men shot enough seals and polar bears to supplement their rations and keep most of their sled dogs alive through the winter and spring of 1922. That summer there was a lot of ice, and the relief ship never arrived. Stefansson had promised the captain double payment if he could get through the ice. He tried for a month, but couldn’t penetrate the pack.
On the island, the party decided to send a couple men over the ice pack to Siberia. Knight and Crawford started south in December but returned after only 13 days. Knight had grown sickly and weak. He was suffering the onset of scurvy.
The team made a new plan. This time Crawford, Maurer, and Galle would travel over the ice, and Knight would stay behind. Blackjack’s job would be to nurse him back to health. The trio promised to return with a ship the following summer, or failing that, by dogsled in a year’s time. They left with the five surviving dogs, most of the remaining biscuits, and two five-gallon tins of rendered seal fat. The temperature was minus 56 degrees and the next day brought a ferocious storm. The men were never seen again.
Knight took six months to die. In his despair and emasculation, he lashed out at Blackjack. He told her that her husband had been right to beat her, and said it was no wonder two of her children had died. Through this abuse Blackjack nursed him. She sewed sandbags and heated them each morning and night by the fire, placing them on his feet. She made pillows to ease his bedsores. And when Knight could no longer move from his caribou-skin sleeping bag, she emptied his bedpan. “He never stop and think how much its hard for women to take four mans place,” she confided in her diary, “to wood work and to hund for something to eat for him and do waiting to his bed and take the shiad [shit] out for him [sic].”
As she cared for Knight in the winter and spring of 1923, Blackjack also taught herself to trap and hunt—responsibilities that until then had been the sole province of the men in the party. Galle had left a map of his three-mile trap line, but even so Blackjack needed days to find the snares, and then weeks to learn the nuances of using them. She caught nothing the first month, and a single fox the second. In the third month, she snared three in one day. Knight at first refused to eat the strong-smelling meat, but according to Stefansson’s account, “Finally Knight did eat fox saying he was surprised it tasted so good. She ate the head and a little bit of kidney, saving the rest of the fox for him.”
She set up a target and learned to shoot Knight’s rifle, eventually becoming quite proficient. That spring she shot an eider (a large sea duck) through the head. When she told the story later, a friend remarked that it was an expert shot. “Well,” Blackjack deadpanned, “I didn’t aim for the head.”
Through all this she cooked and cared for Knight and kept driftwood fires burning day and night. She collected seagull eggs and fried them in bear fat, and in early June she shot a goose. By this time Knight barely had the strength to swallow, and she cooked the wild goose until the meat fell away from the bones. (Perhaps a fatal error, Stefansson later opined, because the only cure for Knight’s scurvy would have been to eat the eggs and meat raw.)
Despite his constant abuse, Blackjack confided in her journal that she would miss Knight after he died. One evening in June, she recounted, “I was standing looking down at him and the tears were in my eyes, for I thought he was going to die. He looked up at me and said, ‘What is the matter Ada?’ And I told him that I thought he was going to leave me.” Knight asked her to collect his journal and papers, and take care of his rifle and camera. The next morning he was dead. Blackjack was too weak to bury him, so she barricaded his body with empty crates and moved into the cook tent.
Three days later Blackjack shot her first seal, only to have a polar bear chase her from the kill. Weeks later she shot a second, and this time she was able to save the meat. Game was becoming less scarce and Blackjack’s hunting skills were improving. Even so, her survival was far from assured.
After Knight died, she composed a note for Stefansson and left it in Crawford’s typewriter, where she was sure it would be found. And in August 1923, as the nights grew longer and the frosts harder, she wrote out a will of sorts, directing that her earnings from the expedition should go to her mother and Bennett, and the boy should live with her sister.
But that wasn’t necessary.
On August 19, 1923, a relief party under the command of Harold Noice reached the island on the schooner Donaldson. Blackjack met the crew on the beach, wearing a caribou-skin dress she had sewn and, by all accounts, a radiant smile. She asked about her son Bennett, and when a crewman told her the boy was well she asked why Galle hadn’t come with the ship, as he’d promised he would. When told none of the three had returned to Nome, she knew they’d perished on the ice.
Ada Blackjack was the sole survivor of the Wrangel Island expedition. “When she returned to Alaska, some called her a hero, the ‘female Robinson Crusoe,’” Stephanie Buck wrote in Timeline. “Others practically accused her of murder.”
Blackjack spoke little about her ordeal, but Noice orchestrated a worldwide media campaign around the tragic expedition. He recognized in the debacle a lucrative and sensational tale, one that finally could help bring him out of Stefansson’s deep shadow.
Before leaving the island, Noice collected all of the men’s journals and correspondence, including a long letter that Knight had been writing to his mother over the course of months. From this rich trove he spun a fantastical tale for newspapers across the English-speaking world. And in Noice’s narrative, Ada Blackjack was cast as the villain. “The Eskimo woman,” claimed one such story in the New York World, “refused to aid E. Lorne Knight, actual leader of the party, as he lay dying on the island, and she probably saved her own life on food that would have saved Knight from starvation.” The fact that Knight’s own journal contradicted this lie didn’t stop Noice from spreading it. He simply tore out the pages of Knight’s journal that were sympathetic to Blackjack.
For her part, Blackjack refused to speak to reporters. Her goal and been to survive and return to her son, and that she did. Though Stefansson never paid her all she was due, he sent enough money for Blackjack to reunite with Bennett and take him to Seattle, where the boy’s tuberculosis improved.
Blackjack got nothing for her story, but Stefansson profited handsomely. Drawing on the journals of Knight, Blackjack, and the others, Stefansson wrote a best-seller, The Adventure of Wrangel Island—an ironic title given that Stefansson is best remembered for his observation that “An adventure is a sign of incompetence.” Still, while the book is devoted principally to defending his own actions and disparaging those of Noice, it also includes an eloquent and full-throated defense of Blackjack.
The book was published in 1925, when Stefansson still held hope that someone—anyone—would take advantage of his claim to the island. The dead men—three Americans and a Canadian—were patriots, he wrote, “but in their minds was a larger patriotism, for they believed in the coming unification of the English-speaking peoples, and thought that whatever they might do either for the [British] Empire or the United States they would be doing for both.” That sounds like projection coming from Stefansson, an opportunist born in Manitoba and raised in North Dakota, but the point is moot. The Russians had occupied the island in 1916. Instead of an air station it became a notorious gulag, a KGB training base and, now, a massive wildlife sanctuary.
Blackjack was content to get on with her life. She remarried in Seattle and had another son, Billy. She divorced and married and divorced again, then contracted tuberculosis and fell once more into poverty. She gave both boys to the Jesse Lee Home For Children in Seward, then struggled for nine years to recover her health and reunite her family. In 1937 she moved with them back to Nome where she worked herding reindeer, hunting and trapping game. She died in 1983, aged 85 years.
Top Photo: Rauner Special Collections Library