Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven




  Jennifer Niven



  my father—

  this one and all the ones to follow


  who did so much to make sure his mother was not forgotten


  As she looked back, the trail behind her faded away and she was way up in the air, with no man behind her and only the smooth trail leading into the sky.


  “The Lady in the Moon”



  Members of the 1921 Wrangel Island Expedition

  Part I: The Five

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Part II: Wrangel Island

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Part III: Survival

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Part IV: Relief

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Part V: Fallout

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Part VI: Remembrance

  Chapter Twenty-two




  Picture Section


  About the Author

  Also by Jennifer Niven



  IN SEPTEMBER 1923, a diminutive twenty-five-year-old Eskimo woman named Ada Blackjack emerged as the heroic survivor of an ambitious polar expedition. In the annals of Arctic exploration, many men have been hailed as heroes, but a hero like Ada was unheard of at the time. She was a young and unskilled woman who headed into the Arctic in search of money and a husband. What she found instead was a nightmare rivaling even the most horrific folktales she had grown up hearing from the storytellers in her village.

  After Ada’s triumphant return to civilization, the international press called her the female Robinson Crusoe. But all reports came from the imaginations of reporters. Ada Blackjack refused to talk to anyone about her two years in the Arctic. Only on one occasion did she speak up for herself.

  Ada Blackjack never considered herself a hero. As far as she was concerned, she did what she had to do when she found herself in a life and death situation. Faced with responsibilities and challenges she had never known existed, she survived.

  In later years, when people called her brave, she would tilt her head to one side and gaze at them, unblinking, with dark brown eyes. After some time, she would answer simply: “Brave? I don’t know about that. But I would never give up hope while I’m still alive.”

  I first heard of Ada when I was researching my first book, The Ice Master. I discovered that one of the men I was writing about, Fred Maurer, had miraculously survived the ill-fated Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–1914 only to return to Wrangel Island years later with three other men and one woman—Ada Blackjack. I was mystified as to why Maurer would go back to the island, after all he had suffered there. But even more than that, I was intrigued by the woman’s story. Who was Ada Blackjack?

  Searching for answers, I discovered numerous materials housed in archives in Canada, Alaska, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. First and foremost, there was Ada’s own diary, one of the most important resources of all. The rest of the story is filled in by her collection of papers; other records and firsthand accounts, including the detailed, two-volume diary of her comrade Lorne Knight, in which Ada figures prominently; and the memories and knowledge of Billy Blackjack Johnson, Ada’s surviving son, who was enthusiastic about my telling the story of his mother’s experience in the Arctic and who gave me full access to his own materials and information. Tragically, Billy died on June 22, 2003, at age seventy-eight—and thus did not live to see this book published.

  In addition, I received from the nephew of Milton Galle—the youngest member of the expedition—a treasure box filled with papers, letters, telegrams, photographs, and a partial journal. Until Milton Galle’s nephew, Bill Lawless, generously entrusted them to my care, these papers had never been read or seen by anyone outside of the Galle family—even though expedition organizer Vilhjalmur Stefansson had been anxious to obtain them.

  As Mrs. Rudolph Martin Anderson once wrote to the mother of Allan Crawford, the young Canadian placed in charge of the party, “Real history is made up from the documents that were not meant to be published.” Perhaps my most valuable resources have been the letters written between the families of the four young men on the expedition—to each other and also to Vilhjalmur Stefansson. All impressions expressed by the characters herein come from these letters, journals, and other firsthand materials, as does any quoted dialogue. Also in keeping with the language of the time, I use the term “Eskimo” instead of the present-day preferred “Inuit.” Because the four men called each other by their last names, I refer to them as Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle. The only exceptions come in regard to their families and loved ones, who knew them as Allan, Lorne, Fred, and Milton. Ada Blackjack, however, was only known to the men and to Stefansson as Ada, and that is what she is called herein.

  Loss and survival quickly emerged as the two main themes in this book, made all the more resonant and ironic by my own unexpected journey of loss and survival throughout the writing of it. Four days after I finished the first draft of the manuscript, my father passed away after a gallant battle with cancer. As I wrote about Lorne Knight’s own deterioration from scurvy and Ada’s struggle to live in spite of all that she endured, the parallels to my father’s last days became all too real.

  This book is the story of Ada Blackjack—during her ordeal and after. It is also the story of four young men—Lorne Knight, Fred Maurer, Allan Crawford, and Milton Galle—and their families.

  Finally, it is very much the story of an enormous spirit that could outlast anything. As one of Ada’s great-nephews remembers, “I recall her as a small, sweet woman whose faith was as big as the sky.”

  Members of the 1921 Wrangel Island Expedition

  Allan Crawford—commander; Toronto, Canada (age 20)

  Lorne Knight—second in command; McMinnville, Oregon (age 28)

  Fred Maurer—third in command; New Philadelphia, Ohio (age 28)

  Milton Galle—assistant; New Braunfels, Texas (age 19)

  Ada Blackjack—seamstress; Nome, Alaska (age 23)

  Victoria (“Vic”)—expedition cat



  There, with only a dead man as companion, surrounded by seas of ice, Ada Blackjack wrote the real epic of the North.


  October 30, 1927

  Chapter One

  HER FATHER WAS DYING. He had eaten meat that was too old and afterward he had eaten fresh meat, which turned his stomach, and now he was sick from poison. Eight-year-old Ada Delutuk and one of her younger sisters dressed him in pants and skin boots and his “parkie,” as Ada called it, and then they wrapped him up in skins to keep him warm.

  Together, they somehow managed to tie their father to a sled, hitch the dogs up, and set out to drive to Nome. The town was thirty miles east
of their remote village of Spruce Creek, Alaska, but the little girls had no choice. They needed to get help and, with their mother away, Ada was the oldest and the one left in charge.

  It was difficult to say how many miles they had traveled before Ada and her sister realized that their father was dead. And so, defeated and brokenhearted, they simply turned back and took him home.

  Their home was the Eskimo settlement of Spruce Creek, Alaska, eight miles east of the tiny, rustic village of Solomon. Ada Delutuk was born in 1898, the year of the Alaskan Gold Rush. In 1899 and 1900, thousands of people converged upon Solomon in search of gold. By 1904, the Gold Rush had brought seven saloons and a post office to the town, and soon after there was phone and mail service and a daily boat to Nome. But in 1913, tidal storms with 60-mile-per-hour winds and 40-foot breakers washed away the railroad tracks and most of the town, and the once thriving village of one thousand people became a quiet Eskimo community of three hundred. In 1918 the flu epidemic swept through the area, extinguishing almost the entire population of Spruce Creek.

  Ada Delutuk was spared, however. Shortly after her father’s death she had been sent by her mother to Nome, where she was taken in by Methodist missionaries, who taught her to read and write English at a third-grade level. At the mission school she learned mathematics, composition, and handwriting. She also learned to cook “white people’s food” and to wash, iron, clean, and sew. Sewing was especially vital in the education of an Eskimo girl because the skill was so crucial to surviving in the cold, frozen North. In addition, the missionaries taught her many things at the school that she would never have known otherwise—how to sing hymns, to bathe, to comb her hair, to brush her teeth, to avoid tobacco and alcohol, to handle money, and to honor the American flag.

  While there, she also discovered the Bible. She was educated about God and she learned to pray. The school was a welcome relief from the dinginess and depression of the Solomon region. Even though Solomon was barely large enough to be considered a village, and Spruce Creek was even more rural, Ada had essentially been raised as a city Eskimo. She wasn’t required to hunt or trap or build shelters, and therefore did not have the experience of tribal living. She knew how to sew furs and she could do this pretty well, eventually earning a part-time living in Nome making clothing for the miners there.

  Ada was a full-blooded Eskimo, with delicate features and a guarded smile. She was small—not even five feet tall—poker-faced, pretty, and unassuming. Her olive complexion was clear with a flush of underlying red; her hair a straight blue-black. Ada liked nice clothes and hats, and dressed as smartly as she was able on her skimpy earnings as a seamstress and housekeeper. She displayed a particular fondness for dark blue suits, which she often bought in the children’s sections of the Nome stores.

  She had a dignified, graceful air about her and she could be charming. She said little, though, because she was extremely shy and private. One of her friends described her dark brown eyes as being “habitually enigmatic—closed windows.” Her voice was low and soft, and she had a habit of sitting still as a statue, listening to someone talk with her head cocked to one side. She was accustomed to long silences and was distrustful of strangers. Yet her natural instinct was to be cheerful and there was often a lightheartedness about her that she didn’t allow many people to see.

  She had been nourished on the legends passed down by the storytellers—among them her grandmother—who would weave their tales around the cramped light of the oil lamps. The stories were sometimes poetic, sometimes wise, sometimes blood-curdling. As a young girl, Ada learned to read the sky through stories. She knew that the Milky Way was a trail of old women wandering across the heavens. She knew that the Big Dipper was a caribou because her mother always said, “Ada, look at it a long time and see if you can’t see a caribou.” She knew that when the handle of the Big Dipper was clear and straight there would be good hunting and reindeer would be plentiful.

  She also knew that the polar bear, the greatest mythical figure of her people, was to be feared more than death. Eskimo legends were filled with images of “the great lonely roamer,” as they called the fiercest of bears. Nanook, the polar bear, was a wise and powerful creature which possessed eerily humanlike qualities. Many of the legends merged bears with men into a kind of polar-man hybrid who walked upright and lived in igloos. Eskimos believed readily in animism, in which each living thing and object possesses a malevolent or benevolent spirit. The Eskimo’s life was often governed by a need to appease these spirits and keep them happy. They believed that Nanook shed his skin in private, that he was able to talk, and that he allowed himself to be killed to capture the souls of the tools that did the killing so that he might take them with him into the afterlife. Bred on these convictions, Ada was haunted by the idea of being eaten alive by a polar bear and trapped in its stomach.

  When Ada was sixteen, she married a notorious hunter and musher named Jack Blackjack, but in 1921, by the time she was twenty-two, she was already divorced. Early in her marriage to Blackjack she knew it was no good. She had three children by him, two of whom died. He treated her brutally—beating her and starving her, and eventually deserting her on the Seward Peninsula, where they were living.

  In Eskimo tradition most men and women chose each other as husband and wife without a legal marriage ceremony. There was no minister or official document; the couple would simply move in together. The practice made getting divorced much easier. If you tired of someone or liked another man’s wife, you would just leave or trade spouses and that meant you were divorced.

  After her marriage ended, Ada found herself abandoned by her husband, “bone poor, almost naked for lack of clothes and with no money.” There was nothing to do but go home to her mother, who now lived in Nome, some forty miles away. Ada and five-year-old Bennett, her only surviving child, had to walk the entire distance from the Seward Peninsula to Nome, and when Bennett grew too tired, she carried him.

  There was an orphanage in Nome which looked after children who had no parents or whose parents couldn’t take care of them, and this was where Ada took Bennett. He was tubercular and fragile, and because she could not afford to keep him any longer on her meager and sporadic earnings from sewing clothes and cleaning houses, and because he needed the full-time attention of doctors and nurses, she brought him to a home where others could care for him and try to make him well.

  Nome in 1921 was violent, turbulent, and grim. There were no sewers, no ditches, no safe drinking water, and crime was rampant. Inhabitants feared for their lives as people were frequently shot to death or stabbed in the middle of town. The miners had built the city around themselves and their greed in 1899, just a year after Ada was born in Spruce Creek. Since then, the population of Nome had ebbed and flowed, according to the climate of gold. In 1900, there had been an influx of 12,488 inhabitants arriving by steamship from Seattle and San Francisco ports, while thousands more converged upon the town from other points in Alaska. Nome was barren and treeless and ran smack against the water. The beaches were covered with prospectors and their tents, while the town took shape hastily in slapdash wooden buildings and shanties.

  Still, even with its crime and streets of mud, it was the fanciest, most sophisticated place Ada had ever seen. And there were white men everywhere, making money from their discoveries on the beach. They seemed to Ada more cultured than the Eskimo men she was used to—better educated and smarter, as if they knew how to take care of themselves and their money.

  With Bennett safely housed in the orphanage, Ada tried to find work as a seamstress. She had never heard the word igloo, and did not know the first thing about hunting, fishing, trapping, or living on the land. She eventually was able to find work sewing for the miners in town. But it was sporadic work with little pay, and she needed the money for herself and for Bennett.

  If she was ever going to be able to bring Bennett home again, she would have to save as much money as she could. It was not easy for a mother to be away from h
er only child, to know that she wasn’t able to care for him or heal him or give him what he needed. Ada hoped that it would only be a matter of time before she and Bennett were reunited and living together again, under the same roof.

  * * *

  Here was a chance to gratify a longing of my heart that was with me at all times— it was the wanderlust calling from the lands of the aurora, the midnight sun, and wastes of ice and snow.


  * * *

  Chapter Two

  ON FEBRUARY 18, 1921, Americans heard the voice of their president—Warren G. Harding—booming across the radio airwaves for the first time. That same day, French aviator Etienne Oehmichen successfully made the world’s first helicopter flight. On February 22, the first day-night transcontinental flight delivered mail from New York to San Francisco, and several days later the first Thompson submachine gun was manufactured.

  In spite of the postwar boom, 3.5 million people were unemployed. There were over nine million automobiles on America’s roads. Charlie Chaplin brought moving picture audiences to tears with The Kid, and Rudolph Valentino made women swoon in the World War I epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In Pennsylvania, police, alarmed by the shrinking hems of women’s skirts, issued a decree that required all skirts to fall at least four inches below the knee.

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