Ada Blackjack and her amazing story of solo survival in the Arctic

Ada Blackjack and her incredible story of solitary survival in the Arctic

In 1923, American society was shocked by the story of a 23-year-old Eskimo girl, Ada Blackjack. She turned out to be the only woman in the polar expedition and, as a result, the only surviving member of it. Ada was driven to a dangerous enterprise by extreme need and love for her son. But the brave polar explorer did not even suspect what she would have to go through in the icy desert.

Ада Блэкджек и ее удивительная история одиночного выживания в Арктике

The Eskimos of Alaska have been traveling through their harsh land since early childhood and look with a grin into the face of trials that are fatal to outsiders. Ada Delituk, except for her ancestors, had nothing in common with these people. She was born in 1898 in the small town of Spruce Creek, into an Eskimo family. But she grew up at a Christian mission, where she was taught English and the Bible. Ada didn’t know how to build an igloo, hunt, or drive a dog sled.

Ада Блэкджек и ее удивительная история одиночного выживания в Арктике

Ada Blackjack with her son Bennett

At the age of 16, Ada married a dog handler named Jack Blackjack. They left the north and settled in Pennsylvania, where they lived for 7 years. The woman gave birth to three children, but only one survived — son Bennett. Ada’s husband drank and beat her, and in 1921 abandoned the family. Due to extreme need, a single mother with a child was forced to return to Alaska, to the city of Nome.

At the age of 4, Bennett contracted tuberculosis, but Ada had no money for his treatment. She sent her son to an orphanage, where he was provided with the necessary care. The mother promised her son that she would definitely earn money and take him away. The woman was able to get a job on an expedition going to Wrangel Island to establish a colony there.

A profitable job

The expedition was led by Canadian researcher, ethnographer and writer Villalmur Stefansson. Four young and inexperienced polar explorers were going on a dangerous journey: Allan Crawford, Milton Halle, Fred Maurer and Lorne Knight. Ada Blackjack, an Eskimo woman with a height of only 150 cm, became the only woman in this company.

Ада Блэкджек и ее удивительная история одиночного выживания в Арктике

Members of the expedition to Wrangel Island

The researchers deceived Ada by saying that other Eskimos would go to the island besides her. It was only at the last moment that the woman was informed that they had allegedly refused. Villalmur Stefansson promised that along the way they would visit several villages and recruit a team of local residents, among whom Blackjack would be their own.

But in any case, the little Eskimo was determined, because she so wanted to live next to her son. A trip would solve her financial problems. Stefansson promised to pay Ada huge money at that time — $ 50 per month. On September 9, 1921, Ada, with a company of four men and a cat (the head of the expedition preferred to stay on the mainland), went to sea on the ship “Silver Wave”.

Ада Блэкджек и ее удивительная история одиночного выживания в Арктике

Expedition Camp

Already on September 16, the company landed on Wrangel Island. Stefansson was sure that the members of the expedition would not be lost. The island was full of game, and the colonists took with them an arsenal of small arms. The expedition was to return to Alaska in two years, completing a set of studies and setting up a camp for the next batch of colonists.

Failure after failure

The first year passed quietly. The men made maps, studied the climate, and hunted. Ada stayed in the tent city, where she cooked food and sewed clothes. Everything was fine until the short polar summer ended. Hunters returned less and less often with their prey and food became scarce. The inhabitants of the island were waiting for a ship from the mainland that would bring them supplies for the winter. But because of the thick ice, he was unable to make his way to Wrangel Island.

Ада Блэкджек и ее удивительная история одиночного выживания в Арктике

Maurer and Knight are harvesting firewood

In late autumn, Knight and Crawford set off across the ice to the shores of Siberia. They planned to bring help or at least get provisions. But soon they had to return, as Knight became seriously ill. He was left in the camp, and the three of them decided to make the second attempt — to Crawford was joined by Maurer and Halle.

On February 28, a three-man squad left the island and headed for the mainland. Ada stayed to take care of Knight, who was getting worse every day. The woman did not see anyone else who went for help. They disappeared without a trace among the ice.

Knight, who had either scurvy or kidney disease, did not get up anymore. All the worries fell on the fragile shoulders of the Eskimo. She became a nurse, nurse, cook and maid for the patient. She chopped firewood herself, and when the last food supplies ran out, she also became a hunter. Ada took care of Knight for 6 months, but he was an extremely ungrateful patient.

Ада Блэкджек и ее удивительная история одиночного выживания в Арктике

Building an igloo

From morning to night, the patient only criticized and insulted the woman. Ada endured meekly and only wrote about her trouble in her diary:

“He doesn’t think how hard it is for a woman to replace four men, get firewood, hunt, sit with him and clean up his shit.”

Alone on an island with bears

By the early summer of 1923, Knight had become so ill that he could no longer speak. On June 23, the man died and Ada Blackjack was left alone on the island. She didn’t have the strength to bury a dead man. She put the body in a sleeping bag, dragged it out of the tent and covered it with stones so that animals and birds would not get to it.

Ада Блэкджек и ее удивительная история одиночного выживания в Арктике

A tent reinforced with logs

The woman strengthened and insulated the tent in which there was a warehouse and moved to live there. There were a lot of polar bears on the carcass, so she had to sleep with weapons in her hands. Hunting was especially dangerous for Ada. One day she decided to get a seal, but she almost became a dinner for a bear with a cub.

“I was four hundred yards from my tent. I turned and ran as fast as I could until I reached my tent. I almost fainted at that moment.”

Ада Блэкджек и ее удивительная история одиночного выживания в Арктике

Ada Blackjack near her tent on the island

In just three months, Ada Blackjack learned how to shoot, set traps for game, and even use a camera. On August 20, 1923, the schooner Donaldson docked at Wrangel Island. Her crew was surprised to see that there was one woman living in the camp. They were equally amazed at how Ada arranged her life. According to many, if help had not come, she would have been able to live on the island for at least another year.

The path from honors to accusations

Back in Nome, Ada became a real heroine. Journalists and photographers came to visit her, and in the press she was called nothing less than “the new Robinson Crusoe.” But the heroine did not suffer from star disease. She innocently told everyone that she just wanted to earn money to be with her son.

Ада Блэкджек и ее удивительная история одиночного выживания в Арктике

On board the schooner Donaldson

For her adventures on the island, Ada received significantly less money than she was promised. But it was still enough to take my son away from the orphanage. She soon remarried and gave birth to a second son, Billy Johnson. But the second marriage quickly broke up. The rest of the brave Eskimo woman’s life was spent in poverty and despair.

The only person who benefited from the failed expedition was Villalmur Stefansson. He managed to benefit from the tragedy and became famous. After a while, people stopped admiring Ada Blackjack. There were people who even blamed her for Knight’s death.

Lifeguard Harold Noyce said that the woman was negligent in her duties and the man died due to lack of proper care. Journalists who recently praised the brave Ada have launched diatribes against her. Interestingly, Knight’s relatives did not participate in this harassment — they always considered Blackjack to be a real heroine.

Ада Блэкджек и ее удивительная история одиночного выживания в Арктике

Ada lived to be 85 years old and died in Palmer, Alaska. Her son from her second marriage, who always admired his mother’s feat, installed a bronze plaque on her grave with the inscription: “The heroine of the expedition to Wrangel Island.”


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