I had never heard the extraordinary story of Ada Blackjack, her Alaskan way of life was transformed into a destitute single woman with a small child when abandoned by her dog-musher husband. She had no choice but to walk forty miles to Nome, Alaska, with a two-year-old ill with tuberculosis.
Upon arrival, she had no choice but to put the child in an orphanage. She was unable to care for him, and while in Nome, she joined an expedition to the Arctic Circle by four European men who wanted to claim the area for Great Britain. They were looking for skilled cooks and a seamstress. The promised payment of fifty dollars would allow her to be reunited with the suffering child. That is how her remarkable story began.
Under 5ft tall with no expedition experience, little desire for adventure and a crippling fear of polar bears, Ada Blackjack was an unlikely candidate for Arctic exploration. Born in 1898, she had been raised by Methodist missionaries in the tough Alaskan town of Nome. While many Iñupiat people were well-versed in Arctic survival, these skills were never deemed necessary in Ada’s missionary upbringing – instead, she was taught to clean, cook and sew.
But by 1921, 23-year-old Blackjack was a divorced and destitute single mother. After her abusive husband had abandoned her, she had desperately struggled to support her young son, Bennett, who was suffering from tuberculosis. But supporting him singlehandedly had become impossible, and Blackjack was forced to place him in an orphanage.
Blackjack was in desperate need of money in order to be reunited with her son when, in September 1921, a ship called the Victoria pulled into Nome. Hailing from Seattle, it carried four young men tasked with a daunting mission. At the behest of celebrated Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, they were heading to the remote Wrangel Island, 100 miles north of Siberia. The team – made up of Lorne Knight, Frederick Maurer, Milton Galle and Allan Crawford – planned to live on the uninhabited land for two years in order to claim the territory for the British government.
On her return to Alaska, Blackjack was plunged into the middle of a media storm. The press clamoured to hear how the “female Robinson Crusoe” had survived an ordeal so ghastly it had claimed the lives of the other heroic explorers, the pressure intensifying when accusations were made that she had not done enough to save Knight. All this invasive media attention did not sit easily with the private Blackjack, who simply wanted to be reunited with her son.
With her salary from the voyage, Blackjack was finally able to take Bennett to Seattle for treatment. But while she may have escaped Wrangel Island, her fight for survival was not over. Though Stefansson and others profited from writing sensationalist books about her ordeal, Blackjack continued to be plagued by poverty and hardship throughout her life. She later had a second son, Billy, but money problems forced her to place him and Bennett in a home for nine years. She later moved back to Alaska to work as a reindeer herder and lived until the age of 85.