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


  The voyage from Seattle to Nome that August was rocky, the ship pitching and rolling along the way. It didn’t bother Maurer and Knight so much, and though Crawford was shaken a bit, he didn’t miss a meal. But Galle, who had never sailed before, was knocked off his feet for most of the journey. The older and more experienced members of the team chuckled over it and felt for him, although they knew it was only a matter of time—and sickness—before he grew his sea legs.

  Some of the crewmen of the Victoria quickly began criticizing the expedition and Stefansson, which was unsettling for the four young men. One of the more condemning crew members was denounced as a fraud by a superior officer, which made them feel better, but all the same, Crawford and the others couldn’t wait to get off the boat and be rid of the company.

  Of course, everyone was curious about where they were going and why. From the time they pulled out of Seattle’s harbor, there had been questions. Galle, when he was feeling better, had a great deal of fun with it, training his three comrades to evade the inquiries with skill. It was most fun when they were all together and could answer as a group.

  Where are you off to?

  Knight made up an answer. Crawford invented still another answer, and Maurer said a third destination altogether. Then Galle would reply, “Past Point Barrow.”

  When the usually raucous Knight was asked in particular about a place near Herschel Island, he would answer quietly and politely. If asked about another location, he would answer politely again. Crawford would plead ignorance, saying he was new and because of that had been told nothing. Galle would ask ridiculous questions of the inquisitors, who became completely confused, and then Maurer would launch into a somber remembrance of his time on the Karluk until everyone was nodding off to sleep.

  Due to its lack of harbor, Nome was always a nightmarish spot to disembark. The fierce weather and waves that crashed wildly against the beach only made landing more difficult, and so the Victoria was forced to cast about and make her way back down the coast to St. Michael’s, where the men aboard spent four miserably long days. Finally, on September 2, the ship made another attempt at Nome and was successful.

  When they at last set foot on its beaches, Maurer, Crawford, Knight, and Galle eagerly began to explore. There were additional supplies to purchase, Eskimos to hire, sled dogs and a skin boat to buy, and a ship to procure for the last leg of the journey to Wrangel Island. But it was also a time to see the town, the new and novel landscape, and to write last-minute letters to families and friends.

  People had been telling them there was only one Nome. And now they understood what was meant by it. With its narrow streets of dirt— twenty feet wide, if that—and its empty, tumbledown buildings, Nome felt like a ghost town. It was a place where wealth had once ruled and where thousands of gold-seekers once roamed the streets. But where there had been bustle and optimism, now there was silence and despair. The tiny, makeshift buildings were vacant—no more gambling halls and saloons. Everything had vanished except the high prices, and the place felt lonely, grim, and defeated, vastly different and far removed from Toronto, McMinnville, New Philadelphia, and even New Braunfels.

  When Crawford and the others hit the shores of Nome, they were told that the Orion, the schooner they had chartered to take them to Wrangel, was tied up in litigation over the ship’s proper ownership. With the Orion unable to bring them north, frantic telegrams and letters were exchanged between the four and Stefansson. Finally it was decided to hire the Silver Wave for $175 per day. The ship was expensive but sound, the best available for the job, and her captain, Jack Hammer, had a solid reputation.

  Hammer let them know from the outset that he refused to take them anywhere until he knew their destination. When it was clear that he wouldn’t back down, Crawford was forced to tell him they were headed for Wrangel Island. Hammer didn’t believe them. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to travel to that barren, icy rock. No one with any sense wanted to go to Wrangel Island, least of all four young men who seemed more suited to a weekend jaunt up the coast than a year-long expedition to an untamed scrap of frozen earth. Hammer thought they were joking. From that point on, whenever anyone asked where his ship was headed, Captain Hammer answered that he didn’t know, but one thing was certain, wherever they were going was certainly not Wrangel Island.

  With the ship in place, Crawford, Knight, and Maurer purchased a sled and harness and a team of seven dogs. However, the umiak, or skin boat, Stefansson had urged them to buy proved more difficult to procure. They couldn’t find one for what they thought was anything less than highway robbery, and so they decided to wait to buy one until they reached East Cape, Siberia, which was to be their last stop before Wrangel Island.

  Galle, unburdened by the responsibilities of the others, found himself with plenty of time to see the sights and write letters. He bought some Arctic photographs, which he started sending, one by one, to the folks back home. He sent a picture of a reindeer to the Knights, scribbling on the back: “Our future lies somewhere amongst those animals. And Wrangel Island.” To his brother, he sent a photo of a team of sled dogs. “Bud—How’s this for you?” he wrote. “I am to have 7 of them all winter, to care for: get the feed and drive.” And to his mother, he sent an Arctic scene, all sky and ice: “There has been none of this since we left Seattle. We expect none of it till we come home again.”

  “We are having a nice time at your expense,” Knight wrote Stefansson, “but I would rather by far be out on the ‘Bounding Sea’ bound for the place that we are bound for.” The season was growing late and they were worried. Reports of ice conditions up north were favorable, but making it all the way to Wrangel Island was already questionable. Navigating around the island had proven a difficult and often impossible task for many experienced sailors, and so they prepared themselves for the worst. If they failed to reach the island by boat, they promised each other that they would mush there by dog team and sleds from Siberia. It was an easy trip to make across the shifting pack ice, Stefansson had told them, even though he had never made the journey himself. “A very simple undertaking.”

  E. R. Jordan, Nome’s chief of police, was standing outside the jail as Ada Blackjack walked past. She was heading home, weary and discouraged, after finishing a housecleaning job. The work was decent, but it was hard to find and the pay was not enough to sustain her. When Jordan waved to her and motioned for her to join him, she immediately became nervous.

  Ada had known U.S. Marshal E. R. Jordan for most of her life. Now he began telling her that he thought it would be a good idea if she went away, leaving her home, her family, and her son. There were people in town planning an Arctic expedition. They were looking for a seamstress and someone who could speak English. It would mean money and he knew she needed money badly.

  Ada tried to understand what Marshal Jordan was telling her as they strolled on the beach. Allan Crawford was advertising for Eskimos for his expedition, and Jordan had promised him he would help find able and skilled workers. He had suggested the walk so that he could explain the opportunity to Ada and recommend that it would be best if she went.

  Her reputation as a seamstress was excellent, if her reputation as a citizen was not, and it would be a chance for him to tuck her away someplace where she couldn’t get into trouble, and drink too much, or make eyes at the miners who still lingered on the beaches looking for gold.

  He knew she needed money, but he also thought she needed a change of scenery—to get away from the pain of being separated from Bennett and the heartache she still felt over her marriage.

  Jordan explained to her about the man named Stefansson who was in charge of the expedition. Ada’s younger sister was married to a man who had served under Stefansson for a year on his 1913–1918 Canadian Arctic Expedition, so it was a name she recognized.

  But there was her son, Bennett, to consider. He was in the children’s home, and he depended on her even though she wasn’t there to look after him every day. True,
she hadn’t yet been able to save much money, and her housekeeping and sewing work had been sporadic. True, she felt unhappy and alone. But Ada wasn’t certain she wanted to leave Nome and Bennett, and she was skeptical about sailing away on a boat.

  More than that, she did not want to be the only Eskimo who went— but Marshal Jordan assured her that the men at the docks were hiring entire native families to go with them, to hunt and trap and sew. This made Ada feel more confident. Perhaps she could go if there were others like her. After all, it was a great deal of money. Fifty dollars a month, according to Jordan, which was more than Ada had ever seen in her entire life.

  She would think it over, she told him. But she knew she would not go. She was deathly afraid of polar bears, and they would be thick up there. One might kill her and eat her and then she would never be able to return home. And when it came down to it, money or not, she could not leave Bennett. She had never been so far away from him, or from her home and her people. If those men down at the dock wanted a seamstress, they would have to find someone else.

  Ada went home and told her sisters about the offer. The brother-in-law who had served with Stefansson told Ada it was hard work in the North. “You’d better not go,” he said. “You can always come to our house and get something to eat.”

  It was true that she could barely keep food on the table. She needed money badly, not only for herself but for Bennett. How else would she ever be able to bring him home again? But then she thought of the polar bears and the separation from her family and son. Marshal Jordan said she would be gone for one year, and that was a very long time.

  Everyone in town was buzzing about the expedition, so that she couldn’t get away from it. Marshal Jordan clearly wasn’t ready to give up trying to convince her that she should accept the position. Soon Ada began to reconsider.

  She couldn’t get the money off her mind. Fifty dollars a month. In two years, if she was careful, she could save enough to take Bennett out of the orphanage and bring him to live with her. She might even save enough to take him to Seattle, where he could go to a hospital and get the best medical care. They would cure him of his tuberculosis, and then he would be a normal, healthy child.

  To aid her in her decision, Ada set out on foot in the direction of a ramshackle hut on the outskirts of Nome where a shaman lived. In exchange for the tobacco which Ada brought her, the shaman studied Ada thoughtfully. Yes, Ada would in fact sail to the island, she said. But Ada must know that there was only death and danger ahead for the expedition. Furthermore, she must be watchful of knives and fire.

  The reading left Ada shaken. She had been raised to respect, even revere shamans—they wielded great power in her tribe—and she had seen them correctly predict death and danger. She was nurtured on the ancient myths that warned that undertaking any forbidden action would be rewarded with an accident or punishment of some kind. The prediction terrified her just as leaving home and family terrified her, but she tried to push her fears to the back of her mind. In the end, her hopes overcame her doubts, and Ada Blackjack, the shaman’s warnings lingering in her thoughts, reluctantly agreed to join the expedition.

  Stefansson had told Crawford that the best thing to do would be to hire an entire family—or multiple families, if possible—to travel with them, the men to hunt, and the women to sew. Eskimo hunters were essential for the success of any northern mission, but Eskimo seam-stresses were also vital because the clothing they made kept everyone safe and protected from the cold.

  Carl Lomen, whose Lomen Brothers store was one of Nome’s most prosperous businesses, was enlisted to help and oversee the preparations—not only the purchasing of equipment and supplies but also the hiring of Eskimos. When looking back in later years, his brother and business partner Ralph remembered an order given to him by Carl— hire a prostitute. It was unclear if Stefansson had actually issued this order to Carl Lomen, or if it came from Carl directly. It was Carl who had enlisted the help of U.S. Marshal Jordan.

  Once Ada agreed to join the expedition, Crawford made arrangements with Jordan to hire her, along with some local Eskimo families. Ada Blackjack, in particular, was said to be highly skilled at sewing. She could also read and write English. Yet Crawford was aware that the people of Nome scoffed at his hiring her and said that she would not be of any help to the men of the expedition. She was a drunk, some said, a loose woman with no morals, and they would never get an honest day’s work out of her. It was not just Ralph Lomen who believed her to be a prostitute. However, this slander was never proven; nor does any evidence exist that would verify it.

  Crawford, Knight, and Maurer ignored the talk and hired Ada; her $50 per month was to be deposited for her in the bank at Nome.

  When Marshal Jordan introduced Ada to Allan Crawford, she immediately liked the lanky young man with his shock of dark hair, pale skin, and green eyes. He was polite to her, soft-spoken and respectful, his voice clipped and cultured.

  Crawford, in turn, saw a diminutive, childlike woman of twenty-three, with a broad, open face, wary black eyes, and a shy smile. He thought she was pretty, for an Eskimo, and seemed tidy and clean. Crawford had been told by Stefansson, Knight, Maurer, and others that Eskimos were prone to being sullen and melancholy, unkempt and dirty, but Ada seemed none of these things.

  She was told to report for work September 9, which was to be the day of sailing. She was given some cash with which to purchase needles, thimbles, linen thread, and sinew. She was also issued clothing for the journey—as well as eleven towels, three handkerchiefs, and one belt for herself. And, perhaps her very favorite item of all, she was given one Eversharp pencil with which to keep notes or write letters.

  The reporters had smelled a story when the four men hit town, and they hung around the docks and tried their best to finagle interviews, information, and a destination out of them. They assumed it was gold they were after—perhaps treasure discovered on the earlier Karluk expedition. The newsmen were, of course, interested in Maurer and just why he would want to return to the Arctic after the hell he had been through previously.

  Galle relished feeding them his mischievous, nonsensical answers until they were utterly befuddled, but the reporters were clever, persisting until they managed to trip up Crawford, who admitted their plans to the Nome Nugget. They were going to travel along the Siberian coast, he said at first. But when the reporters pressed him, he let it slip about Wrangel Island. It would be an exploratory expedition, he said, quickly recovering, and there was absolutely no truth to the recent articles which had indicated that Stefansson was trying to establish a colony on the island. The reporters who had penned any articles suggesting as much must have been confused, he added.

  By September 8, the Silver Wave was nearly loaded with supplies and equipment, and Crawford paid Captain Hammer his $600 deposit. “All in all it has been a great time,” Galle wrote of their stay in Nome, “but it means work from tomorrow on and I aim to plow right in for better or for worse.”

  When it came time to depart, none of the Eskimo families they’d hired showed up for the sailing. Only one of the locals arrived at all— Ada Blackjack. This would never do, the men knew. The workload would be too demanding for one pair of hands, and they would need to be well prepared and well outfitted for winter. Even more than this, there was decorum to think of. What would their parents say—what would anyone say—if a single young woman—no matter her race— were to live alone on an island with four young men?

  Crawford and the others made a last, futile attempt to persuade the families to change their minds, but none of them was willing to go. The Eskimos felt there was too great a risk, and that the trip would be too dangerous. Ada absolutely did not want to be the only Eskimo, but the men were desperate—they couldn’t afford to leave Nome without any hired help and couldn’t afford to count on finding Eskimos when they reached Siberia. They certainly didn’t want to delay their departure any longer—and so they promised Ada that they would hire more Eskimos before reaching
Wrangel Island.

  Ada was suspicious. She did not think it proper for her to travel alone with four men, no matter how well mannered they seemed. She thought of running away, of staying at home. She talked to a woman she knew, an Eskimo named Mary, who had worked as a seamstress on one of Stefansson’s previous expeditions. Mary knew Lorne Knight, and now she told Ada she must go with him because he was a decent man, and he would be good to Ada out there.

  Ada had made a promise, and once she made promises she didn’t like to break them. So she decided to keep her word and go.

  It seemed wherever Crawford, Knight, Maurer, and Galle went— the docks, the saloons, the stores, the streets—someone was there to tell them they would never reach the island. There was too much ice and the seas were too rough, the naysayers said, but Knight shrugged it off and chalked it up to men who didn’t know what they were talking about. “Some places get bad reputations for no cause whatsoever as do some people. Witness myself with the motoring public of Yamhill County,” he quipped. Knight even came up with a nickname for those who doubted them—croakers, he called them.

  There were those they met, too, who doubted Stefansson, and seemed only too happy to share their opinions. It seemed typical, some pointed out, for him to launch an expedition before he had the money to equip it properly. It also seemed typical, others said, for Stefansson to leave the dirty, dangerous work to someone else. To send young, untrained men out into the deadly Arctic to an island where Stefansson himself had never even ventured to go.

  The Silver Wave, with Crawford, Knight, Maurer, Galle, and Ada Blackjack aboard, pulled out of Nome’s harbor at 4:00 P.M. on September 9, 1921, nearly seven years to the day from when Maurer had been rescued from Wrangel Island. It was a gorgeous afternoon, sunny and with enough breeze to fill the sails.

 
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