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


  Before they returned to the ship, Peggy stopped at the ferry building to send a wire to Stefansson. They passed a florist shop on the way, and Ada paused in front of the window. Her face lit up as she stared at the flowers. They were just like the ones she had seen in the park— bright and bold and beautiful. On impulse, Peggypurchased a bouquet of violets and gave it to her. Ada’s eyes, when they found Peggy’s, were filled with emotion and surprise. “Are they for me?” When Peggy said yes, Ada could hardly believe it. No one had ever given her flowers before. The gesture was simple but enormous to Ada.

  When they returned to the ship, Ada told Mrs. Fletcher that she had never in her life seen such wonderful cars, met so many nice people, or been on such a beautiful ride.

  Peggy left Ada in her cabin, tired and happy, but before she went away she told Ada she was going to write a letter to Mr. Stefansson and asked if she wanted to give him a message.

  Ada nodded, her eyes shining. “Please tell him I thank him for trip.”

  * * *

  THE NEW YORK WORLD

  February 11, 1924

  Spurned Eskimo Woman Is Blamed for Arctic Death

  Out of the Arctic last summer came a romantic story of three white men presumably lost on a dash across 100 miles of ice from Wrangel Island to Siberia, of a fourth man who died on the island and of a heroic Eskimo woman, Ada Blackjack.

  Yesterday, in a cozy room at the Villa Richard, Fort Lee, N. J., Mr. Noice told a group of friends a far different story. Ada Blackjack, he said, was not the heroine he at first believed her to be. Instead, he explained, she played a mean role in a grim tragedy she could have averted.

  Earlier stories, in which Mr. Noice himself paid tribute to the woman’s courage and faithfulness, were based largely on statements made by her and on parts of a crude diary she kept.

  Some entries in this record, at first thought to be unreadable, have recently been deciphered by Mr. Noice and his wife. These, the explorer said, revealed that Ada refused to aid E. Lorne Knight, actual leader of the party, as he lay dying on the island and that she probably saved her own life on food that would have saved Knight from starvation...

  Since the chief need was warm clothing, they took with them Ada Blackjack, who was to be seamstress and cook. She quickly proposed marriage to Crawford, Mr. Noice said, and, when repulsed by him, remarked that she had left Nome determined to marry one of the four white men.

  None could see Mrs. Blackjack as a mate, however, and from that time her cooperation lessened. She often refused to work, Mr. Noice said, and gave the little group no end of trouble...

  Knight lay in his tent, almost wholly dependent on the Eskimo woman for his food. He appeared for a while to improve...but other entries told of the woman refusing to visit the traps, which were set near the tent... when Knight asked her to search for game.

  Later information also reveals that the woman knew how to handle a rifle and was a good hunter, Mr. Noice said, although she had claimed she could not shoot.

  When the Noice expedition reached Wrangel Island late last summer, Knight’s emaciated body, weighing only ninety pounds, was found in his tent. Mrs. Blackjack was well and fat. The party’s original food supply had not run out.

  Mr. Noice said he intended to bring his disclosures to the attention of the Explorers Club and to start some kind of inquiry which would establish the facts officially.

  * * *

  Chapter Nineteen

  THE ARTICLE WAS printed in the New York World on February 11, 1924. Spurned Eskimo Woman Is Blamed for Arctic Death, raged the headline, while above the text it said in summary: Wrangel Island Explorers Refused Proposal of Marriage, Rescuer Noice Discloses Here. When Three Left Camp, Knight Died of Hunger. Though Man’s Body Was Wasted by Starvation, Ada Blackjack Was Healthy.

  In Noice’s mind, there were numerous reasons for coming forward with this information now. The public was being made aware of the mutilated diary, and accusational looks were being cast in his direction about the missing ten pages. He might have told Carl Lomen and A. J. T. Taylor that he planned to censor the diary, but no one could really prove that it was he, and not Ada Blackjack, who had removed those pages. He would own up to the erasures and pencil blackenings, but try to make people suspect that Ada was responsible for the missing pages. Then there was Frances. She had been urging him, threatening him, for some time to come forward and discredit Ada before she did so herself. He must have considered it better for him to discredit Ada, knowing how ruthless and vicious Frances could be.

  Just to make sure that Lorne’s father saw it, Noice sent a copy of the World article to Mr. Knight with a note that read, “I thought you might be interested in the enclosed clipping which shows that I have a different viewpoint of the Wrangel Island story, as that first published I obtained from the Eskimo woman. It is thru Mrs. Noice’s efforts that the second story is brought to light, and it is thru her desire to give the boys a square deal, which she felt I had not done, that these discoveries were made. It caused her much suffering until these facts were made known.”

  On February 12, the sea grew noticeablycalmer and the air was balmy and warm. They would dock in Los Angeles at 5:30 that evening, an hour and a half later than they were scheduled to arrive. As the ship passed the coast just below Santa Barbara, Ada studied the mountains and said to Peggy, “The hills look like Wrangel. Only the hills were higher on Wrangel, all covered with snow in winter and black in summer.”

  Although Ada had managed to avoid photographers at each stop, one of them had somehow snapped a shot of Bennett sitting in a sand pile. Peggy Fletcher had purchased a paper in San Francisco, not knowing the picture was in there, accompanied by a two-column article about Ada’s trip to Los Angeles.

  Ada studied the photograph and the story with a frown. “Here is my name. If I had known there would be all time papers to get story I would stay in Seattle.” She paused. “If they tell things not true I’ll give them hell.”

  Peggy had kept quiet while Ada sat staring at the article in fury. Finally, Peggy told her that if she wanted to go home now, or if she only wanted to stay a week in California, that was all right. No one wanted her to do anything she wouldn’t enjoy.

  Peggy had left her then to meet some friends for lunch. She wasn’t certain what she would find when she returned to the boat—if Ada and Bennett would be gone or not. As soon as she was back on board, she raced down to Ada’s cabin, only to find Ada there with her good mood restored. Together they made for the deck, but a swarm of reporters and photographers descended upon Ada, and she flew to her room, where she had remained until they were well past Alcatraz.

  Afterward, Ada showed Peggy that she had bought three copies of the paper with Bennett’s picture. She would not read the article again, but Ada could not help but be proud of Bennett’s photograph. It was a handsome photo of him, and she said she was even planning to send one to Harvey.

  In the safety of her cabin, with the reporters diverted, she had seemed happy again, and she began to tell Peggy stories. Ada had grown up hearing folktales from her grandmother, who was a tribal storyteller herself, and who told them to Ada when she was just a little girl. Now she told Peggy about an Eskimo man who married a polar bear, and about a woman who met a polar bear and looked into its eyes from sunup to sundown until the bear went away, and about the Lady in the Moon. This was Galle’s favorite Eskimo story, she said, and was told to her by her mother when she was veryyoung.

  Peggy listened as Ada told the story about the girl who left her home and her loved ones to chase the man she wanted into another world. And how the man rejected the girl, leaving her frightened and alone, and so far away from everything familiar. Ada’s soft, low voice described the dangers the girl faced, in a strange and unfriendly land, and how she found the Lady in the Moon to live with, so that the girl would be tucked away from everything that might harm her.

  She told Peggy of the girl’s yearning to be home, to see her family again, and of the Lady
in the Moon’s warning to her. The girl must save herself and find her own way, but she must be careful how she traveled. “Now the old woman had told her to keep her legs straight when she got on the earth,” Ada said, her voice hushed. “For if she had straight legs she would be young just like she was when she went to the moon, but if she curved her legs, she would be bent like an old woman.”

  Ada had a unique and poignant way of expressing herself, and seemed to have inherited her grandmother’s gift for telling stories. Peggy was mesmerized, and willed herself to remember everypoint of the story so that she could write it down in her cabin later.

  The weaving of the tales seemed to make Ada homesick for Nome all over again. She suddenly yearned for salmonberries, seal oil, and sour leaves. It had been too long since she had tasted any of those, except for seal oil, which she did have on Wrangel Island.

  That night, Peggy stayed up until two in the morning, writing down “The Lady in the Moon.” Since the ship had departed, Peggy had been trying to understand Ada, to get to know her. Ada’s natural reserve made it difficult, as did her inherent distrust of strangers. But perhaps Ada had just told her much of what she needed to know. Perhaps, wrote Peggy, Ada saw herself as the girl from “The Lady in the Moon.”

  John Knight was horrified by what he read in the newspaper. The insinuations were terribly upsetting—that Ada had purposely ignored and mistreated his son. He felt he knew Ada better than this, and that the young woman he and his family had come to know and love would never be capable of anything so horrible. At once, he sat down and wrote a statement, which he wanted to send to the Associated Press. He sent it to Stefansson for approval, and they agreed that Stefansson would publish the statement in his book.

  During the six months when Ada Blackjack was the sole companion of our son Lorne until his death, there is nothing in his diary to indicate that she did not do what she humanly could for him and for herself.

  I have seen and talked with Ada, have discussed this matter with her, and I am fully convinced that she was grossly maligned when, “In a cozy room at the Villa Richard, Fort Lee, N. J., Mr. Noice told a group of friends a far different story.” He says that Ada refused to aid Lorne and that she could have saved his life if she had tried, and that is why I am writing this article. We have had Ada as a house guest in our own home, and she has been admired and lauded byour friends and the friends of Lorne. I cannot allow the stigma to be placed upon myself and my family of having entertained a person so gross and monstrous as Noice would have her appear now.

  Noice has crossed himself when he says now that he found Lorne’s emaciated body and that “Mrs. Blackjack was well and fat.” In his earlier articles he described Ada when he found her, as a frail little creature weighing less than 100 pounds and in a condition bordering on collapse. She tells us herself that she weighed only ninety pounds when she reached Nome and her normal weight is 120 pounds.

  I still maintain that Ada Blackjack was a real heroine and that there is nothing to justify me in the faintest belief that she did not do for Lorne all that she was able to do.

  I am writing this article because I feel that I owe it to the public and to a poor Eskimo woman who is being wronged and is helpless to defend herself.

  Mr. Knight also granted a newspaper interview, in which he repeated his support of Ada Blackjack and his condemnation of Harold Noice. The Galles, the Maurers, and the Crawfords all wrote to Stefansson and to each other to offer their support of Ada. They considered it an outrage and an insult after what each of them had been through.

  Death Is Blamed on Eskimo Woman.

  Refusal of Marriage Held Cause of Faithlessness.

  Ada Blackjack Accused.

  Lorne Knight’s Fate Could Have Been Prevented by Reputed Heroine, Rescuer Says.

  But what of Ada? As the article was picked up by newspapers around the globe, there was no word from the accused.

  Survivor of Arctic Trip Is in City, the Los Angeles Times stated on its front page, the morning after Ada had walked off the boat. “Last night,” the article read, “efforts to obtain from Mrs. Blackjack a confirmation or denial of the charges made by Noice were met with a blunt refusal to talk.”

  The article was everywhere. They hadn’t been on land long before Peggy Fletcher was told of Noice’s allegations against Ada. It was so difficult to understand that in just six short months he could have changed his story so drastically. She couldn’t imagine his reasons.

  When she saw the article, she was even more mystified. It was badly written and unspeakably insulting. And it came just when Peggy was trying to teach Ada that not everyone was unkind or had a hidden motive and to convince Ada not to be suspicious of everyone she met. And now here was Noice—one of the few people Ada trusted, and the man she believed had saved her life—proving Peggy wrong.

  Before Peggy told Ada about the articles, she asked Ada if she had had any trouble with Noice.

  No, Ada said. She had written him to thank him for saving her life, but he did not answer her. Then, after a long pause, she said, “Well, I do not know what Mr. Noice can be saying about me—but whatever he does say I can’t help—but he did come and save my life.”

  Peggy dreaded showing the article to Ada, but knew she must, and so she gave it to Ada to read when they were by themselves. Peggy would have shielded her from the news if she could, but reporters were already asking Ada for her reaction, and as a result Ada was confused and anxious.

  Peggy sat watching Ada as she read. Ada made no sound except once, when she caught her breath sharply, and then she continued to read. After she had finished, she set the article aside and looked up at Peggy.

  “Well, maybe white people could do more,” she said after a few minutes, “maybe people would think I did not do enough, but I did all I knew how to do—maybe no one believe me—but I cannot help that. I did all I know how to do.”

  Whenever they set foot outside, reporters seemed to be everywhere, blasting Ada with questions about the missing pages of Lorne Knight’s diary. Had she committed the crime? Did she remove them as Noice charged? Time and again, she repeated the same words she had said to Stefansson when she met with him in Seattle—she had not touched that diary of Knight’s, except to shut it away in the box he used for storage. She had not removed any pages and she did not believe Knight had done so either. The diary, she told them, was intact when she gave it to Noice.

  What about Lorne Knight? Had she left him to die? Had she herself grown fat while he was starving? Had she watched him waste away because she was too lazy to do anything? Or had she done it out of spite?

  Ada tried to enjoy her time in Los Angeles and to push the article out of her mind. After searching for a hotel for Ada that would take “foreigners,” Peggy Fletcher found the Hotel St. Marks, which was a grand building perched right on top of Venice Beach. Ada was anxious to see the ocean and to feel the sand beneath her feet, and Bennett was beside himself with excitement. They went for long walks on the sand and in the shallow edge of the water and saw all kinds of curiosities. There was a man eating fire while walking on glass with his bare feet. There was a mummy on display in a museum of curiosities. There were two small cows, which a man told them had been found in the mountains. And there was a merry-go-round, which Bennett rode while Ada watched. But her excitement was dampened by the stories in the newspaper, and she told Peggy that everything she did or saw now seemed empty.

  Still, she tried to push it all to the back of her mind. She learned that she could get around on her own, as long as Peggy told her where she should go and how to get there. She was not as afraid as she had been when she first arrived in Seattle and had only walked around and around her hotel block for exercise, not wanting to get lost. Peggy had asked Ada if she could eat on one dollar a day, and Ada thought so. Ada missed her mother’s cooking and the meals of seal and unsalted dry meat. But she was in California now and knew she must make do.

  Ada wanted to stay on her own with Bennett, awayfrom
the reporters who seemed to know where and how to find her. Peggy paid a week’s rent and gave Ada $10 for her food allowance. Peggy would continue to stay across town with her friends, but she promised to check in regularly with Ada to see if she and Bennett needed anything. As Ada and Bennett hopped the streetcar for Venice, Peggy hoped that Ada would keep away from the kind of bad characters she occasionally seemed to attract.

  In spite of her heartache over the Noice charges, Ada sat down in her hotel room on February 17 and wrote a letter to Mr. Stefansson, to thank him for the trip he had given her. “I’m sorry for I spent all these money for you, if it isn’t for Bennetts health I wouldn’t take this trip and spent your money. Mrs. Fletcher is paying for the rent of Hotel. She said its from you. So its very nice of you give me a present of this trip which I would never see this beautiful country. And I don’t understand why Mr. Noice saying something against me. Although I been writing letter to him and thank him for saving my life. And never get answered no wonder he never answer my letter.”

  She continued to see Peggy, to take Bennett for walks on the beach, and to marvel at the sunshine and warmth. Bennett seemed stronger; the air and sun had done him good. To see him in good health was all Ada had ever wished for. But inside, she couldn’t help brooding. She had trusted Noice. Why would he say lies about her? That she could have averted the tragedy; that she refused to work or visit the traps; that she knew how to handle a rifle and was a good hunter, although she claimed she could not shoot. That she was well and fat while Lorne Knight was just a corpse. This last accusation angered her the most of all. That anyone would say she was discovered well and fat when in fact she was thirty pounds lighter than her normal weight and so weak she could barely stand.

  On February 26, Ada put on her new dress and took Bennett’s hand and boarded the streetcar for downtown Los Angeles. She had learned to hate reporters, but decided now she must talk to them, to answer the charges, and to stand up for herself because no one else would. It was up to her to fix this, just as it had been up to her to take over when Lorne Knight became sick. If she could build a boat and learn to trap, teach herself to shoot, and stare a polar bear in the eye without flinching, she could tell her side of the story.

 
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