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

  Glorious was life When standing at one’s fishing hole On the ice. But did standing at the fishing hole bring me joy?

  No! Ever was I so anxious For my tiny little fish-hook If it should not get a bite...

  — NETSIT, “Dead Man’s Song”

  Eskimo poem

  * * *

  Chapter Twenty-one

  ADA HAD SPENT MOST of her money, although she wasn’t sure how. She knew there was money waiting for her in a bank somewhere in Nome—the rest of the moneyshe had earned from Wrangel Island— but no one had told her how to get it. She’d had plenty to live on in Seattle, so much money at first that she wasn’t worried about anything extra, but now she was unable to pay Bennett’s board at school, so that he was living with her again, and she was struggling to keep her family fed. She had been searching for work, but because no one had a job for her, she finally approached the Bureau of Education for help. As decreed bythe U.S. Government, the Bureau was the official guardian of the nation’s Eskimos. Ada was trying to be careful with the money they gave her, to make it last as long as possible so that she wouldn’t have to ask for more.

  They enjoyed a festive Christmas, thanks to Mrs. Fletcher. But now it was January of 1925, and Ada was still living in one room with her two little boys and trying to figure out how to sustain them.

  To add to her worries, Bennett’s eyes were failing. His school clinic decided it was a syphilitic condition, no doubt inherited from one of his parents, which made the doctor there feel the boy was untreatable. Bennett was a naturallybright child, but if he was to succeed in school, he would need special training because his interest shifted quicklyfrom one thing to another, and his health was never stable.

  Then, in February, things grew even worse. Ada was walking down the street, carrying her baby, when she slipped off the curb and fell in front of an automobile. “After escaping the terrible fate of starvation in the bleak Arctic, Mrs. Ada Blackjack, Eskimo, nearly met death beneath an auto on Seattle streets yesterday,” the papers reported.

  She suffered only a sprained knee, but Billy sustained a wound to the scalp. The driver of the car rushed from behind the wheel to help her, taking her at once to the city hospital. After she and the baby were tended to, he drove them home.

  One thing had become increasingly clear to Ada—she must leave Seattle. She had thought about it for some time and the accident was the final motivation to make her go. There was no work for her and no reason to stay. She wanted to get away from the newspapermen who still came around all the time, and from Harvey, who yelled at her. People were talking about her ever since Noice had printed his lies. She had spoken up for herself, but they seemed to believe the lies instead, and so Ada didn’t feel welcome anymore.

  She didn’t tell anyone, not even her family, where she was going because she didn’t want the newspapers to discover her destination— Spokane, Washington—and she didn’t want Harvey to come after her. He had used her fame and notoriety for money, even though she had believed he loved her. He had treated her nicely at first, but when the public demand for her threatened to die down even a little, he accused her of following him from Nome to Seattle, shouting insults at her the way Blackjack used to do. They’d had a fierce argument, and she decided she didn’t want to see or speak to him again.

  She liked the idea of moving to Spokane because she didn’t know anyone there. If she couldn’t find work, she figured she could get some help from the Salvation Army. She bought the tickets to Spokane herself, and managed to draw $40 from the bank to take with her. Once there, she and her children moved into a small room with a kitchen, which she had paid for in full for the week, and she bought groceries for them, leaving her with only 65 cents.

  She didn’t know the address of the man who was keeping her money for her in Nome, and so she wrote to Gertrude Andrus, one of Stefansson’s colleagues in Seattle, to ask her for the information and to tell her not to mention to anyone where she was. If Gertrude could send her $10 or $20 from the money she had saved, Ada would be grateful.

  She included her address and asked that Gertrude mail the letter and money to Mrs. Alscie W. Adwin. “I don’t want this old name,” she told her. “It isn’t very nice to try to change my name but this Ada Blackjack name is going around too strong for me now. Anyway I shouldn’t have this name for I was divorced from Blackjack and he was married to another woman and she is Mrs. Blackjack in Nome now...and why should I be call Mrs. Blackjack when there is another Mrs. Blackjack. Well I should change my name long ago but I never thought of anything like this. I guess I couldn’t verywell get out of this name but I wish you would write and tell me what you think of it.”

  Ada found a woman to look after the children for her for $5.00 a week so that she could go out and look for work during the days. She was going to try her best to find a job without using the name she now hated so much.

  In April 1925, Stefansson’s book, The Adventure of Wrangel Island, was published with an introduction by John Knight. In the preface, Stefansson went so far as to call the senior Knight his coauthor, largely due to the contribution of Lorne’s diary, on which a good part of the book was based.

  The public had been inundated by press reports of the expedition for the past two years, and, consequently, the book sales were disappointing. But a great fuss was made in the papers about the Noice retraction, which was printed in full, and of the mutilated diary pages. Stefansson’s charges against Noice were made clear in the book: He had purposely defaced Lorne Knight’s diary; he had withheld and censored the last letter Knight wrote to his mother; he had “ ‘piratically appropriated’ the papers of the dead men”; and he had viciously slandered Ada Blackjack.

  Stefansson came across as a hero in the newspaper accounts, as he defended the dead men and discredited Noice’s lies; Noice was described in the book as a “villain” and “scoundrel.” After publication, no one wanted anything to do with him, although there was pity from the people who knew Stefansson best and who felt Noice, although foolish and reckless, had been badly used.

  The book was barely out a few days when Noice read the latest headline: Wife Goes to Reno on Noice Retraction.

  He had just turned thirtyand he had moved out of the Villa Richard in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where he had been living with Frances since their marriage. Now, his address was a cramped apartment on West Seventy-sixth Street in New York, across from the Explorers Club. He was so proud of his membership there because you must be a person of note and some distinction to be invited to join. But he knew that this would be taken away from him, too, just as everything else had.

  It was no surprise that Frances was headed to Reno to divorce him. He had been expecting it for some time, but it was another thing altogether to find out about it in the papers.

  At the end of April 1925, after collecting her late husband’s insurance payment, Delphine Jones Maurer married George A. Bretz of New Waterford, Ohio. To the parents of Fred Maurer, who still believed that their son might reappear some day, it was shocking but not surprising. They had never entirely warmed to Delphine. Theyknew that Fred had not wanted to marry her and had onlydone so because he thought it would keep her from killing herself and because he didn’t want to seem a cad. But if she wanted to marry again so soon, they would be pleased for her and wish her the best of luck because there was nothing else they could do.

  In June 1925, autographed copies of Stefansson’s The Adventure of Wrangel Island were delivered to the families. The Knights alone were wholly proud of the book. There were a few sentences and wordings that the Galles wished had been altered, but they found the book interesting and felt grateful to have an official record of their son’s last journey, especially one that the public could read. Alma pasted the last picture taken of Milton before setting sail for Wrangel Island— laughing and carefree on the deck of the Silver Wave—into one of the end papers and wrote his birth date below it.

  The Maurers had looked forward to reading the book for some
time. John Maurer had been in close touch with Stefansson during the writing of it and had passed along the family’s many notes and suggestions, but he was surprised to find few of them appearing in the finished work. The family wasn’t pleased with Stefansson’s representation of events—his repeated suggestions that the four young men were incompetent and that they ventured to Siberia merelybecause they were homesick and wanted news from Stefansson, when Fred’s letter to Delphine clearly emphasized the shortage of food.

  Professor Crawford found the book insulting and condescending, and resented the depiction of his son and the other young men. He felt they came across as bumbling, inept, and clumsy, and was astounded at Stefansson’s insinuation that the expedition had actually been the brainchild of Fred Maurer and Lorne Knight, as if his own interest had been only secondary. What was even worse, Stefansson stated frequently throughout the text that Crawford and the others had not left the island due to a shortage of food, but rather out of a desire to get news to Stefansson. To Professor and Mrs. Crawford, this was unforgivable.

  After so much contemplation and struggle, the Crawfords decided to issue a statement, which was published in the New York World under the headline Parents Blame Stefansson for Crawford’s Death.

  For many months past we have read in silence statements in the press contributed or inspired by Mr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson “explaining” the tragedy of Wrangel Island. In some instances these statements have been contrary to facts, in others, a false impression has been conveyed by a more or less skillful use of partial truths for the purpose of deceiving the public and thereby, if possible, lightening the burden of culpability for the tragedy which Mr. Stefansson now bears.

  In addition to making misleading statements Mr. Stefansson... has endeavoured to convince the public that their tragic end was a mere accident, that starvation could not have been its cause, although he himself has admitted that a supplyfor six months was all the food he advised them to take, and has stated in the London Spectator (August 18, 1923) that “their supplies probablygave out a year ago”!!

  But it is in Frederick Maurer’s farewell letter... that the most conclusive evidence is given that the fatal attempt to make the hazardous crossing to Siberia was made necessary through scarcity of food. Maurer’s letter reads in part as follows:—

  “The chief reason for our leaving is the shortage of food. There is not adequate food for all, there being only ten twenty-pound cases of hard bread and three pokes of seal oil to last until next summer.”

  That our son considered his party to be only the preliminary or advance party of a much larger expedition which Mr. Stefansson was to lead the following summer is shown by his letters written in 1921 to us and to friends. He had the utmost confidence that Mr. Stefansson would join him on Wrangel Island in July 1922. The faith of the boy in the man is infinitelypathetic—even up to the very end he was confident that Stefansson had kept faith with him.

  It was this failure on the part of Mr. Stefansson to keep faith with the boys, and join them in 1922, together with the totally inadequate supplies with which he encouraged them to embark (in order to prove his theory that man can “live off the country” in the Arctic) that led to the needless suffering and death of our son and his companions.

  Before the article was printed, the other parents received telegrams from the New York World, asking if they supported the Crawfords’ statement. Even with their own objections to some of the material in Stefansson’s book, the Maurers and the Galles preferred to stand by Stefansson. “The Maurer Family stands by Mr. Stefansson on the attitude he takes on the tragedy,” John wired to the World.

  After the statement was released—and newspapers across Canada and the United States picked up the story—the Galles and the Maurers distanced themselves from the Crawfords, and John Maurer asked Stefansson not to involve them in his quarrel with that family, with whom, as far as he was concerned, he wanted nothing more to do.

  In June 1925, the Canadian House of Commons, prompted by the Crawfords’ published statement and their charges against Stefansson, met to debate the Wrangel Island situation and to establish whether or not Allan Crawford had, in fact, died of negligence. The government wanted to determine its own responsibility in the matter as well.

  One point seemed clear—if the government of Canada was responsible to anyone, it was to Crawford, who had been led to believe by Stefansson that he was acting in the service of Canada and Great Britain, when, in fact, he had been acting for Stefansson. The members of the House argued over Stefansson’s actions and even his nationality. No one could determine if he was actually Canadian in the first place. A member of the Progressive Party commented that, “He is sometimes one and sometimes the other. Sometimes he is an American and sometimes he is a Canadian, just as it suits him or wherever he happens to be living.”

  But there was one matter upon which the members of the House seemed to agree—a memorial of some sort should be erected to honor Allan Crawford, the one Canadian member of the expedition and a young man “of exceptional attainment and personality and character.” Prime Minister Mackenzie King and the leader of the opposition, Arthur Meighen, both concluded that a tribute should be made. “If there is aught remaining to be done,” remarked Prime Minister King, “it is to acknowledge the great patriotism of this young lad who... showed exceptional courage and daring, and who, I feel, deserves at the hands of the country some expression of honour to his memory.”

  Whatever else was accomplished by the publication of Stefansson’s book, Ada Blackjack’s status as hero had been restored, and to the parents of her four companions, this was a triumph.

  Yet it was as if she herself had disappeared. The Knights had lost touch with her, as had Inglis Fletcher and Stefansson, and no amount of searching could locate her. She seemed to have completely withdrawn from the world until July 1925, when the Toronto Mail & Empire reported that Ada Blackjack was returning home to Nome, Alaska. This news came from the Alaska division of the U.S. Bureau of Education.

  But after that, there was no more news, and for two more years, no one heard anything of Ada Blackjack.

  The next reports of her whereabouts surfaced in 1927. Ada was ill with tuberculosis and preparing to die. She had placed Bennett and Billy in the care of the Jesse Lee Home, a mission school near Seward, Alaska, on the southern coast, and now she was entering a hospital on Kodiak Island, in the Gulf of Alaska, some 250 miles from Anchorage. According to the article, Ada had contracted tuberculosis on Wrangel Island and did not have much longer to live.

  Once again, she made the headlines, and greater details followed in subsequent articles. “Ada will die of tuberculosis,” predicted the Kansas City Journal on August 1, 1927. “I know I have only a little time to live and I want the children to be safe and happy,” she told them. Ada was not able to care for her sons anymore. Work was scarce, although she took what she could find. Bennett, at age nine, had contracted spinal meningitis, which left him deaf and blind in one eye. Ada was in and out of the hospital, and there was little she could do for him or for Billy, who was now three.

  Most of the children at the Jesse Lee Home were orphans and the majority of these were native Alaskans. Many, like Billyand Bennett, were waiting for their parents to be cured of tuberculosis, which was prevalent in Eskimo communities and often was responsible for extinguishing entire villages. Some of the children never saw their parents again and there they remained.

  The Home had begun in 1890 as a six-room house, which was attached to a government school. But in 1924, the Jesse Lee Home moved to Seward. Mountains, forests, and streams surrounded it and bears often wandered onto the grounds. It was reportedly a warm, idyllic place for children.

  When Bennett and Billy arrived, the Home had two separate dormitories, one for boys and one for girls, and a schoolhouse. Each dormitory room contained ten or twelve beds and the children were housed according to age, so that Bennett and Billy lived separately. Still, they saw each other during the day
while theyworked outside growing food and tending the garden, and harvesting the salmon that lived in the streams.

  Bennett was taught to read and write at the Home, and even learned to play music despite his hearing disability. He spoke rarelybecause his speech was difficult to understand, which made the other children tease him. He grew up tough and fierce and would frequently get into fights with the other boys. But he looked after his little brother; if anyone ever picked on Billy, Bennett came to the rescue. He also taught Billy sign language so that they could speak to one another.

  When her fragile health allowed, Ada came to see them. She was thin and pale and often coughed up blood. Although she seemed like a stranger to Billy, the very sight of her brought joy to Bennett. He would instruct Billy to pay attention to her when she came to see them, otherwise she would feel sad, and he promised his brother that one day Ada would come for them, once she was better. But Billy didn’t want to think of leaving, and to him, the housemother, Miss Ard, was the one who gave him the comfort and love that his absent mother could not.

  For Ada, it was heartbreaking to be separated from her children, and to see the distance in Billy’s eyes as he regarded her on her visits. When Ada came to tell them that her sister had died, Bennett began to cry but Billy could only pretend to be sad because he had no connection to his aunt.

  The Toronto Mail & Empire proclaimed Ada the first Eskimo heroine in history, and observed that “Hardship of the sternest kind is the only kind of life Ada Blackjack has ever known, with the exception of the few months which she spent in the United States after her rescue from Wrangel, when Stefansson brought her down to civilization to help her rid her mind of the haunting thoughts of the two years spent on the Arctic island.”

  Stefansson read the newspaper reports along with everyone else. But instead of sympathy, he felt nothing but disgust for Ada. In his eyes, Ada Blackjack was one person who was beyond help, because no matter how much money she was given by him or by the Bureau of Education, she seemed unable to manage it and only seemed to lose it quickly. Now there were stories of tuberculosis, none of which he believed, and he decided to write her off as a lost cause and wash his hands of her for good. He had heard nothing of her for many months, and he hoped never to again.

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