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


  Downtown, Ada led Bennett directly to the newspaper office where she asked to see a reporter. “When I got to thinking about what theyare saying about me,” she told Peggy afterward, “my throat chokes and tears run from my eyes like water in the river when ice melts, and I turn my face awayand look out car window so no one will be seeing me—and I think I will walk up to newspaper office and say a few words.”

  She said more than a few words and the Los Angeles Times printed all of them in three lengthy articles over five days. Ada Blackjack Hits Back, was the headline of the first one, splashed across the front page. Followed by Death Vigil in Arctic Snows: Ada Blackjack Tells More of Polar Doom. And Ada Blackjack Refutes Noice: Woman Denies Starving Knight.

  It was the first time Ada had actually told her own story in her own words, and she made a considerable impression on the Times reporter.

  “A little woman not five feet tall, with the high, broad cheekbones, the slanting brown eyes, and the rich blush of color of her race under her dusky skin... stood alone and uncertain on the shores of a vaster, drearier sea than the Arctic, the great ocean of uncertainty, ignorance and incredulity.”

  “Other allegations made by Noice need not be repeated,” she told the reporter. “I don’t care about that. What hurts me is that it should be said I grew fat on the food he might have had.”

  Her eyes filled as she talked, but her voice remained steady. She simply brushed aside the tears as she told the reporter of Knight’s illness—and that he was left behind because he was ill with scurvy. She told of teaching herself how to trap so that she could get the food when Knight was too sick to rise from his bed, and of hunting gull eggs for him. She had chopped and hauled wood for the fire, even when she was sick herself.

  I don’t think I could have pulled through if it hadn’t been for thoughts of my little boy at home. I had to live for him.

  But that month was the death of Knight. He never got over it. Day by day he grew weaker. For the last two days he was unconscious. Before that, while he still had his mind and could talk, he thanked me for what I had done for him. He told me that if he ever lived to get back to his people, he would see that I was not forgotten. He told me, if he died, to take care of myself and try to live until the rescue party came.

  I gave my diary and Knight’s diary to Mr. Noice with my own hands. He says he found them on the floor of the tent. That is not true. I gave them to him. Would I have done that, if I had known they held words that could be used against me?

  During the month while I was too sick to trap, Knight was sometimes angry with me. I suppose he thought I was shirking, that I ought to have got him fresh food. I couldn’t. I needed fresh food myself, but I was too weak to get it.

  I have written to Mr. Noice, asking for my diary back. He never answered.

  That is all I have to tell, except that Knight’s mother and father, who heard first what I am telling you now, believed me.

  On Wrangel Island, Ada Blackjack was forced to be, as one of the articles pointed out, “doctor, nurse, companion, servant and huntswoman in one. Ada was woodsman, too.”

  Newspaper editorials took her side against Noice. “They found her broke in Nome and took her on a terrible adventure. I think she had a rotten deal both from the living and the dead,” said one.

  “She had ‘guts’ like a hero,” read another. “Her physical stomach wasn’t a bit more adapted to seal oil and blubber than theirs. But in Ada’s heart there was a fire that isn’t easily blown out. If Ada ever takes it into her head that she would like to see what the North Pole looks like she will wade up and look at the place—and without so much melodrama in the way of radio outfits, newspaper syndicates and farewell messages.”

  “For two months I was alone on the island,” Ada said. “It was hard. But these accusations are harder still. There is no truth to them.”

  One of the articles concluded, “She will not be heard from again, if she can help it, she intimated. When summer comes, Ada and her little boy are going back where they belong, up North, back home.”

  A week after speaking to the newspaper, Ada was packed and ready to leave California. She had enjoyed her time in the sun and the sand, but was bitter now and felt it was time to leave. Peggy Fletcher accompanied Ada and Bennett to the train and hopped aboard to explain the Pullman cars to Ada and to ask the porter and the conductor to look after Ada and Bennett for her.

  Ada told Peggy again how grateful she was to Stefansson for the trip. Peggy noted that there was something deeplysad about her since the Noice attack. Ada had been forced to face the memories she’d been avoiding, in order to save her reputation.

  Before they parted, Ada inquired once more about her diary. Would Mr. Stefansson be returning it to her and when could she expect it? With Noice using her own diary against her to make his accusations, Ada was even more determined to have it back. When Peggy assured her that he would send it just as soon as he’d had it copied, Ada merely nodded. She hadn’t trusted Stefansson before, just as she didn’t trust most people. But after this trip, her opinion of him had changed.

  Noice’s treatment of Ada was shocking. Each of the four families—the Maurers, Crawfords, Knights, and Galles—felt the outrage deeply. Mrs. Galle spoke for all of them when she wrote to Stefansson to say she hoped that Noice would be stopped from committing any more unjust acts against innocent people. And Stefansson eagerly embraced the role of savior. He would straighten out Noice, he promised the families, and he would tell the truth about it all in his book.

  While the Maurers, the Galles, and the Knights waited eagerly for its publication, the Crawfords were filled with dread. There would be no truth in the manuscript, they feared, and they braced themselves for the opening of old wounds and the beginning of new ones.

  In his book, The Last Voyage of the Karluk (1916), Robert Bartlett had given a vivid description of his journey across the ice of Wrangel Island to Siberia. He had made the trek in March of 1914 and he knew, better than anyone, the near impossibility of ice conditions. Attempting the trip in January must have been hell. Bartlett wrote to the Maurers because he knew Fred from that earlier expedition. The Crawfords read his account, paying special attention to the chapters dealing with the Siberian crossing, and then sent it on to the Galles so that they could better understand what the boys had been up against.

  It was hard not to fault the other families for their ignorance and apparent blind faith in Stefansson. Mrs. Crawford thought little of the rough-hewn Mr. Knight, with his simple, frank language and direct way of speaking; the religiouslyzealous Maurers, with their fervent adoration of Stefansson; and the naive and uninformed Galles. She preferred to correspond with Mrs. Anderson and others whom she felt understood her intellectually and emotionally. She had so little in common with these people, except the fact that their sons had died together.

  Still, she tried to remember that the other families were not the enemy, and she wrote to Mr. Knight to acknowledge his words about a commemoration for the boys. She asked him to destroy her last letters, which were hastily and angrily written, and agreed with him that “In all matters, we the relatives of the boys should stand together and what you wish us to do in regard to a memorial for your brave son, both myhusband and I will do. Lorne and Allan were true friends and we, their parents must be so too.”

  But she would not forgive Stefansson or make amends with him.

  In March, with the accusations against Ada Blackjack made public, Frances Allison felt satisfied at last. Once he had done what she had insisted, she forgave her husband and they excitedly planned a belated honeymoon. They would spend a glorious two years in, of all places, the Arctic, living among the Eskimos on King William Island, off the northern coast of Alaska. It would be nice to have her husband to herself, away from outside distractions and anyone who might try to interfere in their relationship. Frances planned to study the native music, and Noice would write his observations of Eskimo life, while also recording their history and coll
ecting relics from their past. Frances would be the first white woman ever to attempt to negotiate the Northwest Passage, as well as the first white woman ever to set foot on King William Island.

  A crew of eight loaded the ship with supplies, including twenty thousand pounds of hard tack. They were going to travel from New York through the Panama Canal and eventually up to Vancouver, along the Canadian shore, to the Bering Strait, Coronation Gulf, past Victoria Land to the island. The schooner Noice had chosen for the trip had been renamed Frances, in honor of his bride. It was a happy time for Noice. Any misgivings he had harbored about slandering Ada faded as he saw the contentment of and approval from his wife. They were together again and things between them seemed better and happier than they had ever been.

  And they were working on a new article for the papers—something more scandalous than anything yet printed. It dealt with Lorne Knight, Ada Blackjack, and Allan Crawford, and was certain to ensure that no one would ever think of any of the three as heroic again. Theysent the piece to the editor of the Toronto Star, who refused to print it. He told Noice frankly that he could not imagine anyone publishing such garbage.

  * * *

  New Philadelphia

  Dear Galle Family!

  In your last letter I discovered that you can read German which makes me very happy.

  I want to tell you something about our family life. We came to America in 1872. There were born 11 children of which 4 are living. If Fred were still alive, which we hope he is, then there would be 5 still alive.

  My dear Mrs. Galle your beautiful letters made us feel good.It is hard for all our 4 families to lose our children in this way. It is hard on us at our age. My husband is 79 years and I am 74. Fred is the youngest and I cannot get him off my mind.

  We must console ourselves and believe in God’s grace although we cannot see each other.

  Respectfully,

  Mrs. David Maurer

  * * *

  Chapter Twenty

  NEIGHBORS REPORTED THE case to the police. When they climbed the steps to the “poor rooms” on Seattle’s Sixth Avenue and Columbia Street, they found child and mother sick and penniless. The woman seemed frightened and nervous, and the little boy’s tonsils were inflamed and raw.

  The news made the papers: Ada Blackjack Is in Seattle Hospital in Destitute Condition. It appeared just a few weeks after she had returned from Los Angeles. A woman from British Columbia wrote to the City Hospital in Seattle, where Ada and Bennett had been admitted. She had read a piece in the Vancouver Sun about Ada’s desperate circumstances and enclosed a dollar for Ada, even though the woman had four children of her own to support. “I am very grieved,” the letter said, “because I read sometime ago in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, a long account of your bravery during the expedition...and I thought your heroism and courage and Christian faith in God were just splendid, and never thought that you would ever be allowed to lack anything.”

  Stefansson asked A. J. T. Taylor to keep him updated on Ada’s situation. Now that he had the rights to the diary and photographs, there was no need for fancy trips to California or new clothes, but he still wanted to keep Ada in his good graces. “I am afraid she is going to be somewhat of a nuisance to us in the future,” warned Taylor, “unless she goes back to Nome and forgets that she is either a heroine or a villain.”

  Harold Noice had sent A. J. T. Taylor the Galle diary in a small tin box. No one had told Taylor that the box contained the journal pages, and so it sat unopened in his office for weeks until the Galle family continued to press for it, and Noice insisted he had turned it over. At that time, Taylor sorted through the box’s contents and discovered twenty pages or so of handwritten text on separate pieces of paper cut to fit the size of the container. The writing was faded and seemed to be a kind of shorthand—abbreviations, brief phrases, and every now and then a full sentence. It must have served as a trigger for Galle’s memory—notes he kept to use in his diary.

  Stefansson deciphered it as best he could on a train ride to San Francisco, had copies made of the document for himself—including a typewritten copy—and then sent the original with the transcription to Mr. and Mrs. Galle from Adelaide, Australia, where he had embarked on a lecture tour. Galle’s notes had helped fill in some of the gaps in Stefansson’s book, which he had finished writing on a voyage from San Francisco to Hawaii. He included a special appendix at the end of the manuscript, dealing specifically with the Milton Galle papers.

  Finally, after nearly a year of waiting for the diary fragment, the thin stack of pages arrived on Academy Street in New Braunfels, Texas. Even with the brevity of the content, one prominent fact emerged from the diary that disturbed his family—Milton clearly had reservations about journeying to Siberia. “Could I discard the feelings I have about our unwillingness on Milton’s part to make the trip to Siberia,” Mrs. Galle wrote to Stefansson, “I would be more at peace.”

  On August 6, 1924, an official pronouncement was made: The Canadian and British governments laid no claim to Wrangel Island. The Minister of the Interior stated clearly before the Canadian Parliament not only that the Dominion made “no claim to sovereignty over Wrangel Island,” but also that “Mr. Stefansson was no longer in the pay of the Canadian Government.”

  The decision presented a problem for Stefansson. If the Canadians and the British wanted nothing to do with his claim to the island, what was he supposed to do with the colonists who were holding Wrangel for them? He would have to organize yet another expedition to transport them home. But perhaps the United States might want a chance at it. Perhaps they could be convinced to use it as a trading station and take over all responsibility for the place.

  Just a few months earlier, he had spoken to Carl Lomen, willing, at last, to turn over complete possession of the island to him. “How would you like to take Wrangel Island off my hands, Carl?” was the way Stefansson presented his offer.

  “I like the idea,” Lomen answered. “But why give it up?”

  “I can’t afford the luxury any longer,” was Stefansson’s reply.

  “Just how expensive would it be to me to take over your interest?”

  “Well,” Stefansson began, “there are thirteen persons on the island, one white man, Charles Wells, and twelve Eskimos. You would have to send a ship to visit them this summer, but I believe your portion of the fur-catch would more than repay you.”

  The financial aspects didn’t concern Carl so much as the idea of adding a valuable island to the United States appealed to him. As Stefansson remarked with bitterness, so many people were blind to the island’s potential.

  Carl and Ralph Lomen purchased the title to Wrangel Island from Stefansson in May 1924 and then filed claim to it with the State Department in Washington, D.C. Carl agreed to take on responsibility for the removal of Charles Wells’s party, and he and his brother contracted Captain Louis Lane to travel to the island in his ship Herman. Remembering his young friend and former neighbor Lorne Knight, Captain Lane agreed. For three weeks, the ship skirted the miles of ice surrounding Wrangel Island, and found it impenetrable.

  When the ship broke a crankshaft, they were forced to turn back toward home. Thirty-eight miles to the east lay a small, hostile scrap of earth called Herald Island. As they crept past its shoreline, Lane and his crew could see the outline of what looked to be sleds tumbled across the beach. Hastily, Captain Lane gave orders to halt the ship, and set ashore with several of his men.

  When they waded aground, theyfound themselves in a kind of graveyard, grim and barren, a wasteland of white and rock. Scattered across the windswept shore were human relics—pemmican tins, a rifle, knives, snow goggles, scraps of tent, and the sleds they had spotted.

  And then someone held up a jawbone. And another, and another. When they discovered the fourth one, it was clear they had not found Allan Crawford, Fred Maurer, and Milton Galle. These human remains could, thought Lane, have belonged to four of the young men on Stefansson’s 1913 Canadian Arctic E
xpedition, who became separated from the party after the ship was crushed in the ice. But there was no way to be certain until they took an inventory of the relics and collected them to be examined.

  Captain Lane raised the American stars and stripes over that barren wasteland before returning to his ship, and soon they were back in Alaska, without Charles Wells and his Eskimo companions, but with the jawbones of four brave young men who had also lost their lives under Stefansson’s command. The mystery of their deaths was at least partially cleared, but the mystery of what had happened to Crawford, Maurer, and Galle remained.

  Relief, such as it was, came to those on Wrangel Island in the form of a Russian warship, able to break through the roughest, most impenetrable ice fields. The Red October, flying the Soviet flag, and armed with a six-pound cannon, headed for Wrangel Island in mid-August 1924. A company of Russian infantry sailed aboard her, with orders to seize all inhabitants and their belongings and establish, once and for all, ownership of the island in the name of the USSR.

  There had been thirteen colonists in all when they had settled on Wrangel Island in September 1923. Now Charles Wells’s party had increased to fourteen, with the birth of a baby girl. Since landing on the island, they had led a peaceful existence, occupying much of their time hunting and fishing and exploring the terrain.

  To the Russian government, there had been relief at the official pronouncement by the British and Canadian governments that neither had an interest in Wrangel. On August 20, the Red October found the ice conditions more relenting than the Herman had, and anchored off Wrangel Island. Thinking it Stefansson’s supply ship, Charles Wells and the Eskimos paddled out to meet the vessel in a skin boat. When Wells recognized the Russian flag, he hastily turned back, but the men aboard shouted for him to pull alongside the ship. The Eskimos in the skin boat were terrified of being shot, and, in spite of Wells, skimmed the umiak alongside the Red October.

 
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