Abandoned by her companions and forced to endure on a remote uninhabited Arctic island in the early 1920s, Ada Blackjack spent two years, coping with the isolation as she learned new skills, and new strengths. Then after her rescue, when she and her struggles were the subject of major news outlets of the
time, she continued her life by returning to obscurity with her family.
Ada Delutuk, an Inupiat woman (indigenous Alaskan), was born in a remote part of Alaska in 1898. After her father died when she was eight her mother sent her and her sister to a church mission school in Nome. There the school missionaries raised them, teaching them to read English and sew, a skill that would prove later invaluable.
At age 16, Ada married Jack Blackjack, a dogsled driver and hunter and they moved to Seward Peninsula, where they would have three children though only one son Bennet survived. Then when her abusive husband abandoned the family Ada got a divorce and returned to Nome. However, Bennet had tuberculosis and though Ada cleaned houses and sewed clothes for miners to support them, there was little money for effective treatment for him. Finally Ada located Bennet, temporarily at a children’s home where he could receive the necessary treatment, and she determined that she would earn enough money to be
reunited with him.
Then in 1921, the Nome police chief, who knew of Ada’s need, learned that there were explorers who were seeking natives to accompany them to a remote island to establish a new settlement. Knowing Ada could speak English and was a good seamstress (presumably she could sew fur clothing for the explorers), he informed her of the position and she pursued the opportunity.
The expedition was planned and financed, by Manitoba-born Vihjalmur Stefansson, who rejected the idea that the Arctic was uninhabitable. He felt that Wrangel Island, north of Siberia (actually Russian territory), could be claimed by either Canada or Great Britain, and settled to be used a possible air base for Arctic flights. Canadian Allan Crawford led the expedition, made up of himself as well as Americans Lorne Knight, Milton Galle and Fred Mauer. They needed native workers to do the hunting, and other work needed for expedition support but as time for leaving neared, the indigenous Alaskans who had initially expressed interest declined to go. That left Ada on the dock as the expedition prepared to leave.
In September, 1921 the expedition consisting of the four men and Ada, were transported to the island. Ada was apparently anxious and hesitant, since she had been told there would be other natives, but for the first year the weather was mild and conditions were endurable. Yet as time passed, it seemed that originally the expedition leaders had intended for only the native team members to use their hunting and survival skills to enable expedition survival, and Ada as the only native present completely lacked those skills. Also accompanying the group was the expedition mascot, a kitten named Vic. Ada’s anxiety continued when she sensed that because of her lack of expected skills, the men might harm her, and as a result her depression continued and even increased over time. In fact one time her feelings were so intense that she walked away from the camp carrying a bottle of liniment that she planned to drink to kill herself. However, she changed her mind. Gradually her cooking and sewing for the group became sporadic, and the men coaxed and mocked her and forced her to stay outside, sometimes tied to the flagpole. They even threatened to whip her.
As winter set in, Ada became more upbeat as the men joined her in working together to stay warm and fed, and to deter polar bears that often approached the camp. They longed for the summer of 1922 and how that might mean the arrival of a rescue ship. The expedition managers had indeed sent one but the ice surrounding the island prevented its arrival. As winter returned the expedition members began to struggle emotionally and physically, as they realized that foxes, seals and bears had moved away and that meant a drop in resources. Also, Lorne Knight became ill with scurvy, Then in January 1923 at temperatures minus 50 degrees, Crawford, Mauer and Galle decided to try to walk across the ice to seek help, leaving Ada to care for the deteriorating Knight. They set out and were never seen again.
Ada then realized that she would have to learn the skills necessary for her—and Knight—to survive. So she learned to hunt and even gained the courage to continue to scare bears away. Though she gave Knight most of the fresh meat she obtained, he berated her for not doing enough, as she herself began to develop scurvy. Over the next few months, as she was alone with Knight, frustrations and anger developed and one time he even attempted to strike her. Apparently someone had brought a portable typewriter and eventually Ada seems to have used it to keep her own record in a sort of diary. In her limited way Ada described the experience: “He [Knight] never stop and think how much its hard for women to take for mans place, to wood work and to hund [hunt] or something to eat for him and do waiting to his bed and take the shiad [feces] out for him.”
Then on June 23, 1923 Knight died and Ada recorded the event: “The daid [date] of Mr. Knights death he died on June 23rd. I don’t know what time he died though Anyway I write the daid. Just to let Mr. Steffansom know what month he died and what daid [date] of the month written by Mrs. Ada B. Jack.”
Because she lacked the body strength to move Knight’s body, Ada left the deceased in the shelter in the sleeping bag[date] and then used stacks of boxes to protect the dead man from predators. Also she moved into a nearby storage tent to avoid the smell of decay. With that Ada (and Vic) were alone. During this time Ada continued to develop her skills as she trapped foxes, shot birds in flight, and even built a wooden surface from which she could see distant polar bears. She also crafted a boat, made from skins and driftwood, though it was eventually lost in a storm. She even used the expedition’s photographic equipment, taking pictures of herself outside the camp.
On August 20, 1923 Ada woke up suddenly to hear a noise. With her field glasses she ran to the beach, to see what she could, and as the fog lifted temporary she saw a ship. She ran down to splash into the water as she welcomed the boat coming ashore. She probably expected Crawford, Maurer and Galle to be on that boat but instead it was Stefansson’s associate Harold Noice, who for his part expected to find the entire party. In a history.com article in 2021 author Kieran Mulvaney described what happened next. She wrote: “With the first words they exchanged they both realized the full gravity of the situation. Ada Blackjack, the Inupiat seamstress who had been a reluctant afterthought on the expedition, who had been belittled and berated and tied up, who had had to teach herself to hunt and trap and live in the Arctic, was the last survivor. She was alive, and she was going home to her son. And with that she collapsed into Noice’s arms and cried.”
The rescue, and the story of the ill-fated expedition, was a media sensation, but Ada tried to avoid the furor. With the back pay (actually less than she had been promised) she was reunited with Bennet, and they moved to Seattle to treat his tuberculosis. She remarried, and had another son, then eventually returned to the Alaska area and died in 1983.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.