Ada Blackjack didn’t want to be a heroine; she just wanted to survive. But her courage and will to live is inspiring. Why was she cast as a hero? She survived two years on a desolate Arctic island, three months of that time alone with the body of a dead man and only a cat for company.
Ada’s Story – Before Her Journey
Ada was born in 1898 in an Inuit (native Canadian/Arctic people) community near Nome. She went to school in Nome and she missed all the traditional Inuit skills like hunting, trapping, and building a shelter.
She married Jack Blackjack, a violent man who gave her three children, but who beat her and the children. He finally left, stranding her and her surviving son Bennett. At age 21 she walked 40 miles to Nome carrying Bennett, who had tuberculosis.
Ada couldn’t make enough money to care for Bennett, so she had to put him in an orphanage. Then in 1921, she was approached by an Arctic explorer named Vilhjalmur Stefansson to go on an Arctic expedition as a seamstress and cook, promising her $50 a month, when she returned. This was a huge amount of money in Ada’s eyes, and though she was initially reluctant, she finally agreed to go on the expedition, expecting there would be other Inuit on the trip.
The Journey to Wrangel Island
Stefansson was a character of the highest order. He lied about many things, he was a con man, he exaggerated his adventures, and he was always after the glory, with little concern for others (especially a poor Inuit woman). He portrayed the Arctic as “friendly” and “hospitable.” (The men who survived the disastrous 1913 Karluk expedition, when he abandoned them, would surely have disagreed.)
The expedition Stefansson had planned was to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, just north of Russia. His idea was to send some men to claim the island for Britain and the U.S. (They weren’t interested and Russia, which actually owned the island, protested.) He didn’t plan to go himself (of course!), but he selected four men and Ada. And a cat named Victoria went with them.
The only time ships could travel through the Arctic was in July, August, and early September; there was too much danger of becoming ice-bound any other times. The four men and Ada left on September 9, 1921, planning to be at the island until the next summer.
They stayed a year on the island waiting for a ship to come the next summer. During that time, Ada became homesick and lonely, even though the men were kind to her. She started behaving strangely, sometimes working diligently and other times being sullen and silent. She developed an attachment to the commander, Allan Crawford, mooning over him and begging him to protect her from the polar bears that terrified her. Several times she ran away, and she tried to commit suicide by drinking liniment (a pain reliever). The men finally had to threaten her to get her to stop her craziness and get back to work.
If you think she was crazy, consider that she was alone on an island with four men strangers, during the cold dark Arctic winter. She was young and had lived in civilization, never in the wilderness, she missed her son, and she had no skills for survival.
When summer came, no boat showed up to take them off the island. They were running out of food, and one of the men (Knight) had scurvy. The other three men decided to take off to find help; they were never heard from again.
After Knight died in June 1923, she built a barricade of boxes around his body to keep animals away from it. She did what she could to find and shoot food and to protect herself from polar bears. She used driftwood spikes to strengthen the walls of the tent and she built a gun rack over her bed to be ready in case of an attack. She trapped white foxes, age seagull eggs, and shot what game she could find. Finally, on August 19, 1923, almost two years from the time they left for Wrangel Island, a ship came to rescue her…and the cat.
After Ada’s Arctic Adventure
Immediately after their return, the media circus began. She was accused of killing Knight, and there were questions about how she could have survived. Stefansson tried to avoid paying her but he eventually gave her the money he owed. He and the rescue ship’s captain, Noice, tried to exploit her story. She avoided the craziness and took her son to Seattle to get a cure for his tuberculosis. She and the Knight family connected and she talked to them about his last days.
Ada died in a retirement home in 1983, at age 85.
Jennifer Niven has written a good biography of Ada, including information from the diaries of some of the men and from Ada’s own diary. Reading it made me angry at the connivings of Stefansson and the way Ada was treated.
Was Ada Blackjack an Adventurer? A Heroine?
Although she was a reluctant traveler, she showed bravery by getting on the ship taking the explorers to Wrangel Island. She had no idea what would happen but she was willing to do it to help her son. Yes, she did have some problems on the island, but she settled down. She learned the skills she needed to survive, learning to shoot seals and other animals to survive. She built herself a shelf in the tent and slept with her rifle close, to protect herself from polar bears.
When she was left alone, she could have given up, but she didn’t. In her diary, she says, “I would never give up hope while I’m still alive.”
- The book by Jennifer Niven I mentioned above
- An article in Atlas Obscura
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