Ada Blackjack (centre front) and her four colleagues
on Wrangel Island, 1921
Photo credit: Oceanwide Expeditions
At 16 she unhappily married a dog-team driver, Jack Blackjack. They had 3 children, two of whom quickly died before Jack abandoned 5 years old tubercular Bennett. The divorce left Ada without money, so she left her sick son in an orphanage and looked for work.
In 1913, Canadian anthropologist-arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson led a voyage into the Arctic. The team split and one group survived on the rich wildlife of Wrangel Island, 200 miles NE of Siberia. Stefansson proposed the idea of a Friendly Arctic, claiming the island for Canada and Britain as a waystation for those crossing via the frozen north. But the expedition failed.
In 1921, Stefansson organised another expedition to Wrangel Island. The team had 4 young explorers: Allan Crawford 20, Lorne Knight 28, Fred Maurer 28 and Milton Galle 19. They planned to live on the uninhabited land, in order to claim the territory for the British Empire. The young men were all excited to go, but only Knight and Maurer knew anything about Arctic survival.
In Sept 1921 the team sailed on the Victoria from Seattle to Nome. In Nome, Stefansson was recruiting an Inuit to assist with camp duties, an English-speaking seamstress who could repair Arctic furs, coats and balaclavas. Ada was terrified by polar bears, but they needed a skilled seamstress, and in any case, Blackjack was financially desperate!
Allan Crawford (20) was chosen as expedition leader because he had Canadian-British citizenship, necessary for a British claim for Wrangel Island. Crawford’s men immediately hoisted a British flag, staking their claim for His Majesty King George. Excited Seattle native Lorne Knight had been on previous Arctic expeditions with Stefansson!
Nome USA and Wrangel Island Russia
Stefansson financed and organised, but did not join the expedition which called for the team to be dropped off on the island and picked up by ship the following year. So the team took only 6 months of supplies, relying on the ocean and island to meet their needs. The first months were optimistic - they set up camp and spent their days mapping the island or collecting specimens.
Assured by Stefansson that a ship would be arriving with more supplies in the summer, the team didn’t attempt to ration their 6 months’ worth of provisions, which they topped up with the island’s ample wild game. Ada cooked whatever the men caught, seagulls, foxes and polar bears.
But summer’s end saw a bad Arctic winter that brought endless darkness and no game. Knight showed little sympathy in his diary, blaming the “foolish female for eating all of our good grub". However they all knew that if they survived till summer, the rescue-ship would arrive with new team members and supplies.
After a late departure due to funding problems, the resupply vessel Teddy Bear met the worst ice in 25 years. In Sept 1922 its captain messaged Stefansson that the rescue ship had been forced to turn back, propeller broken. Stefansson clearly was not overly-concerned, telling reporters and expedition members’ families that the group was safe in the Arctic. He wrote a book, The Friendly Arctic (1921), saying that reports of the inhospitable Arctic conditions were fake news. Game was abundant and those with common sense could survive, he wrote.
However it soon became clear that despite Blackjack’s best efforts, there wasn’t enough food to keep all of them alive. Knight had severely weakened, with aching joints and sore gums; he knew about scurvy from his previous Arctic expeditions. In early 1923, with starvation looming, Crawford, Galle and Maurer made a tough decision. They started an ambitious trek back across the now-frozen sea to fetch help in Siberia. They set off with supplies and the 5 remaining dogs, but after just a couple of days, a vicious gale struck up and the men vanished forever.
Blackjack had to catch meat to keep the deteriorating Knight alive, so she taught herself to shoot with his heavy rifle. For 6 months Ada was doctor, cook, hunter and lumberjack, but Knight constantly yelled at her for caring for him badly. When he died in June 1923 Ada couldn’t bury Knight’s body, so she built a protective wall from wild beasts.
Alone in such a vast, silent landscape was overwhelming, but Blackjack pushed on, filling her journal and worrying about her son Bennett. In the day she set traps for foxes and shot birds and seals. Even as she wept with frustration, Ada found solace in her Christian faith.
In Aug 1923 Ada heard a whistle, ran outside and saw the schooner Donaldson and crewmen wandering about on shore. Salvation had arrived and her two-year ordeal on Wrangel Island ended.
Ada Blackjack and her son Bennett,
Los Angeles Times, Feb 1924
Before leaving the island, expedition leaders had ordered her not to speak to reporters or else they wouldn’t pay her. But everywhere she went in Alaska, reporters recognised Ada and asked how this Robinson Crusoe had survived an ordeal so ghastly it had killed the heroic male explorers. This very private woman finally spoke out only once (to defend herself against accusations she had not done enough to save Knight).
Ada made nothing from the many articles and books published subsequently. Stefansson wrote The Adventure of Wrangel Island (1925), referring to Ada's story as the most romantic in Arctic history. She had another son, but finances forced her to place the two boys in care for years. She later moved back to Alaska, worked as a reindeer herder and lived until 85. Ada’s family buried her in the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.