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A 1921 expedition left Ada Blackjack (center) stranded for two years in the Arctic.

Ada Blackjack

Ada Blackjack was an unlikely hero – an unskilled 23-year-old Inuit woman with no knowledge of the world outside Nome, Alaska. Divorced, impoverished, and despondent, she had one focus in her life – to care for her sickly young son. In September 1921, in search of money and a husband, she signed on as seamstress for a top-secret expedition into the unknown Arctic.

It was controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson who sent four young men and Ada Blackjack into the far North to desolate, uninhabited Wrangel Island. Only two of the men had set foot in the Arctic before. They took with them six months’ worth of supplies on Stefansson’s theory that this would be enough to sustain them for a year while they lived off the land itself. But as winter set in, they were struck by hardship and tragedy. As months went by and they began to starve, they were forced to ration their few remaining provisions. When three of the men made a desperate attempt to seek help, Ada was left to care for the fourth, who was too sick to travel.

Ada Blackjack Johnson was born in Solomon, Alaska. Early in her life Blackjack relocated to Nome, Alaska. She married and gave birth to three children but only one survived past infancy. The death of her husband by drowning left her destitute, and she temporarily placed her son in an orphanage. Soon after, in 1921, she joined an expedition across the Chukchi Sea to Russia?s Wrangel Island led by Canadian Allan Crawford but financed, planned and encouraged by Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

Stefansson sent five settlers (one Canadian, three Americans, and one Inupiat, Ada) in a speculative attempt to claim the island for Canada. The explorers were handpicked by Stefansson based upon their previous experience and academic credentials. Stefansson considered those with advanced knowledge in the fields of geography and science for this expedition.

Her companions, four adventure-hungry and impressionable young men, had been beguiled by the promises of a charismatic explorer, whose own Arctic experiences were clouded by missteps and misleading characterizations. It was to this man,?Vilhjalmur Stefansson, that all five entrusted their fate.

In 1921, the four men ventured into the Arctic for a top-secret expedition: an attempt to claim uninhabited Wrangel Island in northern Siberia for Great Britain. With the men was a young Inuit woman named Ada Blackjack, who had signed on as cook and seamstress to earn money to care for her sick son. Conditions soon turned dire for the team when they were unable to kill enough game to survive. Three of the men tried to cross the frozen Chukchi Sea for help but were never seen again, leaving Ada with one remaining team member who soon died of scurvy.

Determined to be reunited with her son, Ada learned to survive alone in the icy world by trapping foxes, catching seals, and avoiding polar bears. After she was finally rescued in August 1923, after two years total on the island, Ada became a celebrity, with newspapers calling her a real ?female Robinson Crusoe.?

The men in the ill-fated 1921, Wrangel Island expedition (in which explorers were sent to claim the land for Canada), were Milton Galle, Lorne Knight, Allan Crawford, and Frederick Maurer. Ada Blackjack Johnson accompanied the men, acting as their cook and seamstress to earn money to care for her sick son.

Their treatment of Ada was questionable: on one occasion, they tied her to the flagpole for not working.

The plan was a three-year polar expedition to Wrangel Island, off the northeast coast of Siberia.? In 1921, the ownership of Wrangel Island was in some debate.? Competing claims from Russia, the United States, and Great Britain, through its dominion Canada, led Stefansson to the idea of asserting British sovereignty via a settlement with scientific overtones. This was an attempt to restore his own reputation, which had been sullied by failures and accusations of misconduct with his previous Arctic exploits. There was also a looming possibility of Japanese penetration into Siberia, giving more urgency to Stefansson?s scheme.

Wrangel Island was strategically attractive. Stefansson believed it could serve as an air base for future routes, as well as a meteorological and radio station. The young would-be explorers he recruited were told that the expedition?s purpose was to claim the island for the British Empire ? without the support of the Canadian or British governments, for which Stefansson intended to lobby ? and were sworn to secrecy.? They would go to Wrangel Island, and he would stay behind, foot the bill, and get the Canadian government to accept the cause.? Although Stefansson confided that there were several nations that wanted the island, he conveniently omitted any notion of danger from the Russians, whose interests were most likely affected by the political nature of the expedition.

Stefansson had recommended that an Eskimo family or two be hired to travel with them ? the men to hunt and the women to cook and sew protective clothing.? In Nome, the adventurers attempted this, but when the day came to depart only one of the locals who had agreed to the journey actually showed up:? Ada Blackjack.

A widowed mother of a tubercular 8-year-old, Ada Blackjack was fearful and suspicious of the journey, but the $50 per month she had been offered meant a great deal.? Upon return, she would remove her son from the orphanage where he now stayed and possibly take him to Seattle for a cure.? Reluctant beause of fear and impropriety, she agreed to leave Nome with the men only after they promised that more Eskimos would be hired before they reached Wrangel Island.

Ada Blackjack. Originally from Alaska, Ada Blackjack was an I?upiat Inuit woman who lived alone on Wrangel Island in northern Siberia for two years. She was hired by Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson as a cook and seamstress for an expedition designed to claim the island for Canada or Britain. Photo: Rauner Special Collections Library

After a series of last-minute snags — including one in which world leaked out of the explorers’ destination — the party of five finally sailed out from Nome. The hoped-for additional Eskimos failed to materialize, but by then it was too late for Ada to turn back. Still, ice conditions were favourable, allowing the ship to manoeuvre close to shores of Wrangel; the supplies were unloaded without incident, and the men lost no time in erecting a base camp and claiming the island in the name of Great Britain. Game was abundant at first, so much so that they stopped bothering to shoot every polar bear who strayed near the camp; each morning, the snow was covered with their paw-prints. Ada was terrified; she knew all too well the danger of?nanuq,?and was realizing — not for the first time — the terrors of being away from home, from familiar faces, and from her son Bennett. Still, she took some consolation, as did the others, in the belief that there would be a relief party in a year, which everyone assumed was to be led by Stefansson himself, and doubtless would bring additional Eskimos and supplies.

And then their troubles began. Ada, after seeing one of her comrades sharpening knives, was understandably terrified; at the same time, she began to experience bouts of severe depression, and frequently refused to do the work she had been assigned. To make things worse, she developed a crush on Crawford, much to his chagrin. The four men seemed to have no grasp of the emotions she was undergoing, and repeatedly punished her by withholding her food and, in one instance, tying her to a flagpole.

Ada’s behaviour was a sign that she was suffering from “Arctic Hysteria,” an illness of dubious provenance which has been used to explain the actions of Inuit women who, in the judgement of white male explorers, are behaving “irrationally.” This diagnostic explanation seems problematic as well as needless — what person, male or female, would not react with extreme feeling to being stranded in the company of four utter strangers, and having to rely upon them for safety in an unfamiliar and dangerous land?

Whether it was inexperience or simply an overinflated sense of their prospects, Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle did little to prepare for the coming winter and spring. They ate their way through much of the provisions they had brought, and neglected to hunt the abundant game in sufficient numbers to cache away much meat. When it came to diet, there was a similar lack of awareness of the importance of fresh meat; the favoured treats were home-made candy and hard bread dipped in grease. Knight, for one, was a picky eater, and his turning up his nose at fox and bear meat was to hasten the onset of his suffering from scurvy, By the time it became apparent that, for whatever reason, much of the game had moved on to other grounds, it was too late to do much about it. Still, since Stefansson would be arriving with fresh supplies the next summer, there was little concern

Vilhjalmur Stefansson (Icelandic: Vilhj?lmur Stef?nsson) (November 3, 1879 ? August 26, 1962) was a Canadian Arctic explorer and ethnologist.

All that had been promised ? by Stefansson to his four explorers, and they to Ada ? was not to be.? Instead, a ship they counted on to replenish their six months worth of supplies was prevented by extreme conditions from reaching the island, and they were marooned.? Their food depleted severely with the onset of winter, and their misfortune multiplied with thinning supplies of game during the worst conditions in twenty-five years.? All approaches to the island were blocked by solid ice.

Stefansson assured their worried families that there was no reason to resort to extraordinary means of rescue, as he had confidence they were fine.? It was as ??if they were in some European City or an ordinary place and were merely not in the habit of communicating with you.?

The men’s families, however, were already anxious, as it became clear to them that, in the first instance, Stefansson’s plans for a relief expedition were late and underfunded, and the “great man”had no intention of going along himself. The imaginary support of the Canadian and British governments which he had counted upon never materialized, and Stefansson was eventually forced to throw whatever resources he had into a smaller relief voyage sent out at the last possible moment. Ice conditions, it soon became evident, would prevent almost any ship from landing at Wrangel, let alone the rusty, ill-equipped tub that was sent; despite the valiant efforts of her captain, the vessel was obliged to return to Nome without having delivered the promised relief. Of course this was really no cause for concern, Stefansson assured them, for in the “Friendly Arctic” they would have no trouble procuring ample food.

The trouble with this notion of Stefansson’s was that it was, within certain limits, true. Able hunters, equipped with dogs and sledges and the ability to move to wherever game was to be found, could survive fairly readily in the Arctic. Explorers who had followed this method, such as Dr. John Rae, rarely suffered from privation, and were even able to give extra food to their Inuit neighbors. But the party at Wrangel island was trapped on its little bit of land, with too few dogs and little experience using them. This was readily apparent in some of their forays about the island, during one of which Knight, in the company of a lone dog, nearly froze to death before he could make his way back to the camp. In a telling sign of his ignorance of the basic rules of Arctic travel, he had eaten nearly all the food he had found, giving almost nothing to his dog.

Once it was clear that there was no ship coming, the Wrangel Island party did what they could. They moved their camp to a new location to have access to more driftwood, and, Knight and Crawford made plans to sledge across the ice to Nome where they assumed “Stef” would be there to greet them. They only managed to travel for two days before they both realized they were too infirm, and the ice too hummocky and rough, for them to have any chance of making the trip. On their return to camp, Knight was already in the throes of scurvy, and though he tried to keep it secret, it was plain that he was the worst off of the lot. A new plan was devised, in which the three healthiest — Crawford, Maurer, and Galle — were to attempt to reach Nome by way of Russian Siberia. Ada was to remain at the camp to care for Knight. The three who were to leave were guardedly optimistic, but left last letters in case they did not return; Galle left his on the platen of his prized typewriter, which he warned Ada not to touch. On January 29, just over a week after Knight and Crawford’s return from their abortive attempt, the party of three set off for Nome via Siberia. They were never heard from again.

Knight, completely disabled by scurvy, was soon unable to undertake even the most basic tasks, and Ada Blackjack was faced with the challenge of learning to survive, or seeing them both die. Each day, she had to chop wood to feed the fire, and try to get Knight, picky as ever, to swallow some food. She had not yet learned to use the gun, but managed to check, and later to set, some of the traps about the camp, which brought them occasional meals of Arctic fox. She gave as much of the meat and broth to Knight as he could stomach, which was less and less. It’s at this point that Ada, faced with an almost intolerable sense of isolation and futility, began to keep a journal. In addition to noting her daily doings and occasional catches, she confided her hopes and fears to paper for the first time:

If anything happen to me and my death is known, there is black strip for Bennett school book bag, for my only son. I wish if you please take everything to Bennett that is belong to me. I don’t know how much I would be glad to get back to folks.

For six months, Ada cared for her companion, Lorne Knight, as he became weaker from the effects of his disease.? She cut wood, collected snow for water, set traps and taught herself to shoot.? Terrified of rifle fire, she feared the polar bear even more.

Despite Ada’s improving skill with the traps, and her attempts to take target-practice with the rifle, Knight’s condition continued to worsen. She was eventually able to shoot a few birds, a feat of no mean skill given the weight of the rifle and her own slight build; she built a special brace to shield herself from the recoil. At one point, Knight began “to cruel” with her, blaming his condition on her and deliberately trying to hurt her feelings. Happily, this moment passed, but it turned out to be Knight’s death rattle; after a few additional periods of lucidity, during which Knight apologized for his words, he died. Ada left him where he had lain, taking care simply to wall the area with boxes so that his body would not be molested by animals.

Ada’s resourcefulness during her time of complete solitude is nothing short of astounding. She managed to become a crack shot with the rifle, downing birds in flight as well as seals, and though she didn’t shoot any polar bears, she managed to frighten off some who were attracted by the smell of the food she had gathered.

By this time, of course, the men’s families were frantic with worry. Stefansson, who with an air of grandiosity had announced his retirement from Arctic exploration, did what he could to mount a second relief expedition via remote control. He ended up, somewhat against his own better judgment, placing the rescue mission in the hands of Harold Noice, a rather disreputable Stefansson alumnus who held an old grudge against Knight.

With funds mostly from private British donors, Stefansson dispatched Noice to find a ship and bring a relief party, including Eskimos who were to maintain the imaginary colony he had planned. Noice’s departure was held up again to the last moment by Stefansson’s delay in wiring funds, but this time luck was with him. Despite the dereliction of the ship’s captain, who had to be fired at the pier, Noice managed to guide the ship, the Donaldson, to within visual distance of the shores of Wrangel by late August.

At first, Noice could discern no signs of life, save a long- abandoned camp and some scattered debris, among which he found a note in a bottle describing Crawford’s claim of the island in the name of King George. Ever cautious lest his ship strike ice or run aground, he continued to search the coastline, and eventually came upon the second camp. Seeing a human figure standing on the beach. Noice quickly ordered an umiak lowered into the water, and was astonished when he found Ada alive and well, with the news that Knight was dead and the others apparently lost in an attempt to reach Nome. “There is nobody here but me,” Ada told him, “I am all alone.”

Although Ada was nothing but grateful to Noice, and turned over everything on the island to his care (including all the journals), he soon began to doubt her. Reading the accounts of her early homesickness and infatuation with Crawford, he sensed scandal — scandal which he thought he could turn to opportunity. He defaced Knight’s journal, the key source for these events, and removed a number of pages; later, he would accuse Ada of having done it. He turned against Stefansson, rightly blaming him for his role in the men’s deaths, but also subtly blackmailing him with threats of dreadful revelations from the journals, which he refused to hand over. Ada, trapped in the public eye of the press, did all she could to disappear.

Controversy ensued after Ada?s rescue and continues to this day.? Accusations concerning her motives and character swirled, fueled by Stefansson?s need to protect his reputation and her rescuer?s desire for notoriety.? Throughout, Ada refused to speak to reporters and became reclusive in her attempts to maintain her privacy and make a new life.? She did befriend Knight?s family in Oregon and returned some of his belongings to them.

Stefansson attempted to settle his obligations to Ada and the men?s families by offering Wrangel Island for sale to the governments of Canada and the United States, and then to private parties.? It seemed beyond his comprehension that?the island did indeed belong to Russia.

Ada Blackjack aboard her rescue ship 1923.

It was controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson who sent the four young men and Ada Blackjack into the far North to desolate, uninhabited Wrangel Island for the purpose of claiming the island for Great Britain. Only two of the men had set foot in the Arctic before.

Stefansson had encouraged and planned the whole Wrangel Island fiasco, the expedition for the four young men was to colonise the Island north of Siberia, where the eleven survivors of the 22 men on the Karluk had lived from March to September 1914. Stefansson had designs for forming an exploration company that would be geared towards individuals interested in touring the Arctic island. Stefansson originally wanted to claim Wrangel Island for the Canadian government. However, due to the dangerous outcome from his initial trip to the island, the government refused to assist with the expedition. He then wanted to claim the land for Britain but the British government rejected this claim when it was made by the young men. The raising of the British flag on Wrangel Island, acknowledged Russian territory, caused an international incident. The four young men, Frederick Maurer, E. Lorne Knight, and Milton Galle from the US, and Allan Crawford of Canada, were inexperienced and ill-equipped for the trip

Stefansson drew the ire of the public and the families for having sent such ill equipped young men to Wrangel. His reputation was severely tainted by this disaster and that of the?Karluk.

Ada Blackjack nee Delutuk (1898 ? May 29, 1983) was an Inupiat woman who lived for two years as a castaway on uninhabited Wrangel Island north of Siberia.

Upon Ada’s miraculous return after two years on the island, the international press heralded her as the female Robinson Crusoe. Journalists hunted her down, but she refused to talk to anyone about her harrowing experiences. Only on one occasion–after being accused of a horrible crime she did not commit– did she speak up for herself. All the while, she was tricked and exploited by those who should have been her champions.

Starting in March, 1923, Ada had kept a diary in which she recorded daily events on Wrangel.? An entry from April 15 reads, “I was out the traps they was nothing and storming looking weather today. And I got my boots soles already and soak them and knight said he feel bad.” A later entry from June 22, 1923 reads, “I move to the other tent today and I was my dishes and getting some wood.? On the surface a fairly normal entry, this was actually the day Ada found Knight dead in the tent that they had been sharing. A later narrative of the expedition by Ada reveals that Knight “died June 22, 1923, I found him dead the next morning after he saw me crying.”

She was quiet and hated the media circus that developed around her and the attempts by her rescuer Noice and Stefansson to exploit her story. Except for the salary that she made on the trip and a few hundred dollars for furs that she trapped while on Wrangel, Ada did not benefit from the subsequent publication of several very popular books and articles concerning this disastrous voyage.

Ada Blackjack?s life continued in destitution and fragile health.? Eventually, she lived alone in a shack in Anchorage, and earned a meager living at sewing, housekeeping, fishing, hunting and even berry-picking.? Rumours surfaced in the Arctic and Siberia through the years about white men being sighted, but documentable information was never produced.? The families of the lost men would continue to press Stefansson well into the 1930?s, but nothing was resolved.? Later, Stefansson would begin to minimize and then outright deny his part in the failed expedition.

Though she was the lone survivor of the expedition, Ada Blackjack shunned publicity and tried to disappear from public view, emerging only to refute allegations that she had been responsible for Knight’s death.?Ada used the money she saved to take her small son Bennett to Seattle to cure his tuberculosis. She remarried and had another son, Billy. Eventually, Ada returned to the Arctic where she lived until the age of 85.

Ada Blackjack died in 1983, at the state retirement facility, the Pioneer Home in Palmer, Alaska, and was buried in Anchorage, Alaska.

Wrangel Island has subsequently been used by the Russians as a prison, a political concentration camp and a KGB training center, befitting its desolate isolation.

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Ada Blackjack, Heroine and Enigma – Rhode Island College Ada BlackJack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic …

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Ada Blackjack – Wikipedia Republished // WIKI 2

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Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic –?

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

Rauner Special Collections Library: Ada Blackjack