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


  THE ADA BLACKJACK FUND

  for

  “The Heroine of the Arctic”

  Tacoma, Washington

  June 1, 1928

  Dear Friend:

  Tomorrow may be too late!

  Because it has been declared that Death is the price that Ada Blackjack must pay for her heroism.

  Now she has been all but forgotten by the countryshe served, with the verdict of death ringing in her ears.

  In recognition of her courage then—and her needs now, a small select group of American men and women are being asked to assist the Fund and form a Committee of One Hundred.

  So, on behalf of an obscure and uncomplaining Eskimo woman and her children, we are asking you for your help.

  The suffering that Ada Blackjack endured was too much—the Arctic cold that seared her lungs made her easypreyto the ravages of tuberculosis.

  A few dollars from each will enable us to put a roof over Ada Blackjack’s head, pay her present debts (due to her inability to earn), maintain her in some degree of comfort and keep the spectre of want from the door, help to clothe and educate her children. We will have the watchful and trust-worthy assistance of Dr. Firestone, of the Alaska Bureau of Education, in the expenditure of any funds for her relief.

  On Wrangel Island Ada Blackjack was true to her trust and steadfast in the face of Arctic dangers—shall we now restore to her home this Eskimo woman, with her Christian code of honor, her heroic struggle to live, and care for her children—in short make her remaining days a little more comfortable, a little less harsh?

  Yours sincerely,

  Burt E. Anderson

  Treasurer, Ada Blackjack Fund

  PART VI

  REMEMBRANCE

  I thank God for living.

  — ADA BLACKJACK

  Chapter Twenty-two

  LIFE HAD BEEN A STRUGGLE for Ada. Her physicians had predicted she would die from tuberculosis, but she had clung to life. She took the work she could find and labored until her cough returned. She was forced back to the hospital to recuperate, and her house in Nome was sold to pay her debts.

  In May of 1928, during a time of record trading on Wall Street and just one month before Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, Ada wed Ralph Traffers, who worked as mate on the motorship Margnita, which traveled a route between Juneau and Sitka. They divorced shortly afterward and later she married a man named George Johnson. When that marriage ended, Ada found herself once again unable to support herself. On December 8, 1928, the stock market had plunged twenty-two points. On October 24, 1929—better known as Black Thursday—the stock market crashed. Ada moved from Juneau to Kodiak to Seattle, where she lived for fourteen years. “I had a hard time in Seattle,” she later recalled. “There was no money and I had to have surgery. Welfare told me to get out and go to work.”

  When her son Billy was nine, she was able to take the children away from the Jesse Lee Home and bring them to live with her. She herded reindeer and hunted and trapped to earn a living, and whenever Billy asked her to tell him about the Wrangel Island Expedition, she became angry.

  “Never mind,” she would say. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

  But one day, when Billy was fifteen years old, Ada said softly, “When I was on the expedition and the others had gone away and I was with Knight taking care of him, he said he wanted to marry me if we ever got back.” There is no evidence that Knight ever proposed to Ada, but it was what she remembered.

  Often, when she finished with her work, she would sing to Billy. For years, she sang him one particular tune, which seemed to have no words. To Billy, it sounded like nonsense—“Ah nooga naga nooga”—and as he grew older, he became increasingly irritated byit. Eventually he asked his mother what the song meant.

  “There is no translation,” she told him. “There are no words for it in English. But it means ‘I love you.’ ”

  When Billy grew up and left home, Ada continued to take care of Bennett. Eventually, she moved to Anchorage, where she lived alone in a shack. She had few possessions, but her most prized was the Bible given to her by Lorne Knight. Memories haunted her and she still was led to tears when she remembered certain aspects of the expedition. As much as she tried to face the memories and to flee from them, she would never get over the death of Knight, the disappearance of the three other men, or the hardship she had endured both on Wrangel Island and back in civilization. She struggled for years to find work and earn a living, trying her hand at sewing, housekeeping, fishing, hunting, and berry picking. Stefansson had once promised her a share of royalties from his book, The Adventure of Wrangel Island, but she had never received anything.

  Over the years, rumors of possible sightings of white men in the Arctic or in Siberia drifted in and out like the tide off Wrangel Island. Alma Galle, in particular, followed up everylead because it had become clear to her some time ago that Stefansson was doing little to find her son.

  So it was Alma who wrote to the Soviet Information Bureau to ask if they had found the boys or knew something of their whereabouts. And it was Alma who contacted the Travelogue Film Company, which was heading into the Arctic for four months. The members of the company did not know if they would journey as far as the Siberian coast, they told her, but promised to keep eyes and ears open for a trace of the lost men.

  And, most important and intriguing of all, there was the Swenson Fur Trading Company. In the spring and summer of 1930, a report from the company gave the Galles, the Maurers, and the Crawfords one last, exciting glimmer of hope. Captain Olaf Swenson, who had rescued the Karluk men from Wrangel Island in 1914, made trips into the far North nearlyeveryyear, and now he contacted Thomas Maurer about another sighting. Some Eskimos mentioned they had seen an ice floe carrying a tent.

  The Eskimos lived sixty miles from the mouth of the Kolyma River at Cape Baronoff in eastern Siberia, approximately150 miles southwest of Wrangel Island. One of the local reindeer herders had been out on the ice, they said, about a mile and a half offshore at the edge of open water. He found what he described to be a tattered and broken tent drifting on an ice floe. He lifted a corner of the tent and beneath it found the legs and head of a man and the upper body of another man. Dropping the tent flap, he ran back to the beach and told everyone what he had seen.

  Afterward, he refused to talk or say anything more than what he had initially reported, and the cake of ice continued its wayward path into the heart of the ocean. But days later, some wreckage washed ashore in the same spot. It appeared to be the rubble of a ship. A small vessel had been reported lost at sea in the area years ago, but it was hard to know if the men on the ice floe were from the same disaster. To Swenson, the herder’s silence was suspicious, and he suspected the man had stolen something from the tent and now feared a reprimand by government officials, which was whyhe had stopped talking about it.

  “It is sometimes very difficult to get the proper information from the natives,” Olaf Swenson wrote to the Galles, “as some of them have a weakness for enlarging on facts, and as only one native saw this broken-down tent, and afterwards refusing to talk about it, it is hard to tell whether he really saw bodies under the canvas or not.” Still, the movement of the currents led Swenson to believe that the skeletons belonged to the Crawford party. In any case, he promised to keep the families updated if he learned anything further.

  As Helen Crawford remarked, “All this has revived the horror of the terrible early days of the tragedy.”

  “I always dread this time of the year,” wrote Mrs. Crawford on September 1, 1930; “it brings back so vividly the unforgettable agonyof those days seven years ago and I sometimes wonder if it is best to recall it as we do by exchanging letters on Sept. 1st.”

  Through the years, the consistency of the letters dwindled, depending on family illness or hardship, but at least one member of each family would remember. They carried on the tradition for ten years, perhaps longer, although those letters, if they exi
sted at all, have disappeared. On September 1, 1934, Helen Crawford wrote the last surviving letter of the series.

  “When I woke up this morning and remembered it was September 1st, eleven years since we lost our boys, my first thought was, ‘What a wonderful healer time is!’ Eleven years ago I did not believe I should ever again know a moment free from bitter pain. But time has somewhat dulled the pain. I have not heard from the Maurers for two years, but nevertheless I think I should send a message to them on this day.”

  Just a week before Mary Maurer died, a news report filtered over the radio announcing that Fred Maurer had reappeared in the North and had broadcast his arrival himself. Mary was due at a stitchery at the church, but stayed home instead, awaiting word from her son. There had been no official confirmation as of yet, and Mary was anxious. If Fred were alive, she was desperate to see him. She had been ill off and on for months, suffering from severe attacks of asthma, but she vowed to hang on until Fred reached her.

  She died a week later, on February 4, 1926, of hypostatic pneumonia, which was caused by heart blockage triggered bythe asthma. She was seventy-five years old and passed away at home, surrounded by family. Just the night before, she had enjoyed a cheerful evening with close friends and seemed to be in good spirits. The supposed news of Fred’s survival had lifted her and filled her with a joy she did not think herself capable of anymore.

  A devout member of the First Reformed Church and of the Ladies’ Aid Society, Mary Maurer had thrown herself into work at the New Philadelphia auxiliary of the Union hospital. She had tried to busy herself with her family, her friends, her work, since she had first heard the news of Fred’s disappearance.

  Four children survived her and ten grandchildren. But until the moment of her death, she never gave up the hope that her baby, Fred, was alive somewhere, even though his brothers and sister had long since resigned themselves to the fact of his death. She promised everyone she knew that she would live long enough to see Fred come home again.

  After Mary’s death, there was no further news regarding Fred and the radio report, and this, coupled with his wife’s passing, seemed to break the spirit of David Maurer. Those closest to him expected that he wouldn’t last long without his wife, and almost immediately, his own health seemed to deteriorate. He was 81 when he followed Mary in death nine months later, on November 19. He also died at home.

  Fred, in his last letter to his mother, had made it clear he blamed no one but himself for his choices in life. He had elected the career of explorer, fully aware of the dangers, and he alone had made the decision to go north again under Stefansson. Few people understood such a desire, given Maurer’s tragic historywith Wrangel Island, but his parents had done their best to support his need to return to that place.

  “Some day the truth will come out,” Mrs. Anderson assured Mrs. Crawford. “Allan Crawford belongs to history and history is bigger than your life or mine.”

  The House of Commons’ ruling and the publication of the Crawfords’ statement had brought some degree of satisfaction, but Helen Crawford was filled with a longing for justice. She would never forget or forgive what Stefansson had done to her son and to her family, and the bitter feeling would only deepen as the years passed.

  In the summer of 1928, Professor and Mrs. Crawford, with Marjorie and Johnnie, took a vacation to Europe. They needed to get away from Canada and from the memories that lingered. The family had made a habit of summer vacations together, but in 1928 they decided to go somewhere where they could escape Stefansson and the mentions of Wrangel Island that still appeared in the papers now and then. So they settled on a European tour and sailed abroad.

  Professor Crawford’s mustache and hair had whitened since the death of his son, but this only made him appear more distinguished and elegant. He seemed a bit thinner, a bit more retiring, but as full of energy as he had always been. When he died suddenlyand unexpectedly in Innsbruck, Austria, on July17, it was a shock to everyone. Afterward, the doctors diagnosed a heart attack due to hardening of the arteries. The newspapers, as usual, picked up the story, and conjectured that it might have been heat stroke instead, but there had been no excessive heat, as far as Helen could remember.

  Helen was completelyand utterlylost. She had been so preoccupied with Allan’s death that she had never foreseen or contemplated her husband’s.

  “My husband was not ill a day,” she wrote Mrs. Galle. “He had not missed a meal nor a night’s sleep on all our travels, nor did he complain of an ache or pain. We had no suspicion of heart trouble, nor did he himself. There is no doubt that Allan’s death had its effect in shortening his father’s life.”

  After burying her husband in Austria, Helen and the children returned to their empty house in Toronto on August 2. Marjorie was a senior at the University of Toronto and was engaged to be married in one week. It would be a quiet wedding.

  The love of her daughter and her younger child, Johnnie, who was only fourteen, meant a great deal, but it was hard for Helen Crawford to feel anything but helplessness. “I feel at times I simply cannot go on living,” Helen confided to Alma Galle, “but I know I must for my children.”

  In 1926, Joseph Knight, brother of Lorne and former secretary to Vilhjalmur Stefansson, married Ada Gertrude McGee; everyone who knew Joseph and the story of his brother and Ada Blackjack found it extremely ironic.

  Joseph had completed his work with Stefansson after the end of Stefansson’s lecture tour, and when he returned home to McMinnville, Oregon, he joined his father in business. There was an office in nearby Portland now and one in Hillsboro. John Knight ran the Portland office, and he engaged Joseph to oversee the McMinnville branch.

  The Knights had managed to recover somewhat after Lorne’s death. They were filled with a steadfast belief and faith in Mr. Stefansson, who they felt had been nothing but kind and generous to their family. They were surrounded by close friends and a warm, tight-knit communitythat continued to offer support. Theyneeded that support again when Joseph and Ada’s babyson, John Marion Knight, died at birth.

  They needed it once more on October 2, 1930, when Joseph was involved in a violent automobile accident. He died of his injuries the following day. He was twenty-seven years old. John Knight was seventy, and Georgia was sixty-seven when they buried the last of their children.

  Mr. Knight gave the responsibility of the Portland office to someone else and focused on McMinnville, the scene of so much of their former happiness—and sorrow—taking over the office that Joseph had run.

  Chaplain Frank Wortman gave the eulogy at Joseph’s funeral, and his words spoke to the loss of Lorne, too: “True, our brother has journeyed away from us. His dream ship, frail or staunch...has sailed to another shore. The clock of his days has stopped. Upon its dial, the motionless shadows mark eleven, with us the golden hour of recollection. Whatever may have been his accomplishments, we are his treasurers. It devolves upon us to cherish his good deeds, to forget his imperfections and to inscribe his name upon tablets of love and memory. As he was true to every one of us, let us be true to him. And so I say . . . ‘Good-bye, good-bye until the hour of eleven shall regularly return.’ Thou art I and I am thou, for thyname I have as a talisman upon my heart.”

  John Knight could not understand how so much tragedy could happen to one family. Every day, he had talked of Lorne and Allan, Milton and Fred, and relived with his wife the funny and touching stories from Lorne’s boyhood days. He never expected that they would one day be doing the same for Joseph.

  Mrs. Knight and Joseph’s widow visited his grave two or three times a week, decorating it with colorful and fragrant flowers they grew themselves. But John Knight couldn’t bring himself to go with them. All these years, he had wished for a final resting place where he could visit Lorne and talk to him and go to pay his respects, but now he knew he could not go to see Joseph because, as he wrote to the other families in his September 1 letter of commemoration for 1931, “I always want to bring him home with me and my in
ability to do so, breaks my heart.”

  He often sat at his desk and gazed at a picture of his two sons. And then his gaze would shift to the photograph on his wall of Lorne, Milton, Allan, Fred, and Ada Blackjack.

  If Harry and Alma Galle had known anything of Stefansson’s character in 1921, they were certain they would have stopped Milton from going north for him.

  In 1928, Alma Galle was still writing letters to Stefansson, trying to retrieve the moneydue her son. He still claimed debts and bankruptcy, and pointed out that because the Stefansson Arctic Exploration and Development Company had been incorporated, it meant he had no more legal liability than anyof the other stockholders.

  “Since my paying you anything on the company’s account is illegal, and would involve me in legal difficulties with the creditors, too, you must consider the enclosed $200. as a gift, prompted only by sympathy, and a purely personal matter between us,” he wrote her.

  But it was not enough. Milton, she knew, was owed more for the furs he had collected, and so she kept writing. In January 1929, she still had not received a satisfactory answer to her requests. It had been a year since she had last heard from Stefansson. “I can only say,” she wrote, “I wish the time was here that I should not feel it necessary to approach the subject of financial affairs to you.”

  Again, she heard nothing.

  She wrote November 1, 1932, to say, “However great this task of writing about finances is, I feel I shall have to again remind you how much we would be helped, should you be able to send what is still left of Milton’s money. Just why we have had to wait, when others have long had their money and already11 years have elapsed since our boys left home, we cannot understand. Truly I believe you might to some extent feel the Depression too, for it misses few if any people at all.” She never heard from Stefansson again.

 
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