Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Ada Deletuk Blackjack, Inupiaq Survivor of a Disastrous Arctic Expedition

Ada Deletuk Blackjack, Reluctant Arctic Traveler, Abandoned Castaway, and Sole Survivor (died 29 May 1983)


Ada Deletuk Blackjack is often characterized as an Arctic explorer, a heroine, and even as a "female Robinson Crusoe," and I suppose all of these descriptions are true, in a way. My hesitation is that they seem to suggest the young Inupiaq woman had a bit of the devil-may-care adventurism about her that is so characteristic of Western conquest and colonialism.*
Ada Deletuk Blackjack
(photo posted by Kenn Harper)

Hers is a story of great strength, courage, and determination. She is an impressive example of the will to survive--of a woman's effort not to overcome but simply to survive the disadvantages, oppression, and dangers to which she was subject. 

She sure as hell was no glory-seeking Arctic adventurer, nor was she a romanticized, fictional castaway--I think it's a disgrace to compare her to Robinson Crusoe, a slave-trader when he was shipwrecked, a "castaway" who exploits the labor of a captive he makes call him "master," a man who ultimately grows rich from the work of enslaved laborers on his plantation in Brazil.

Ada Deletuk was born in 1898 in Spruce Creek, a small native settlement eight miles east of Solomon, Alaska. She was eight years old when her father died, after which she was sent to Nome (about thirty miles east of Spruce Creek) to a Methodist mission school. 

There she was given a rudimentary education, learning to read and write in English. She was also trained in appropriate female skills, like sewing and cooking (she learned to prepare what she called "white people's food"), as well as thoroughly indoctrinated in the Bible, religious hymns, and prayer. She did not learn any of the critical hunting or survival skills she would have learned if she had been raised among the Inupiat.

At some point, the young woman earned some money as a seamstress, sewing clothing for miners. Ada Deletuk married a dog-musher, Jack Blackjack, when she was sixteen. She gave birth to three children, only one of whom survived, a boy named Bennett. In 1921, when the boy was five years old, he and Ada were abandoned by Jack Blackjack while they were on the Seward Peninsula. Ada and the boy had no alternative but to walk some forty miles to Nome, where her mother lived. When her child could no longer walk, Ada carried him.

In Nome, she worked as a cleaner and as a seamstress, but it was occasional work, and she was unable to support her child, much less to provide for his medical needs--he was suffering from tuberculosis. Ada placed the boy in an orphanage until she could find a way to earn enough to care for him.

It was this necessity that led to her to sign a one-year contract to accompany an Arctic expedition. She would sew survival gear, for which she would earn $50 a month. The expedition had been dreamed up by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, "a well-known Canadian explorer who’d cobbled together an ill-equipped and fatally inexperienced group of men for his next glory grab: claiming Wrangel Island, Siberia, for Britain."

As Tessa Hulls describes the expedition in her profile of Ada Blackjack, it was "at best an ill-conceived venture; at worst, it was a willfully negligent act of astonishing hubris." While the "charismatic" and self-styled Stefansson (born William Stephenson) had organized and taken part in several expeditions himself, including the Canadian Arctic Expedition that ended in the Karluk disaster, he was not a member of the team that went to Wrangel. 

(About Stefansson, the entry in the online Canadian Encyclopedia notes, "No stranger to controversy, Stefansson often had a polarizing effect on the public; supporters considered him a visionary genius and 'prophet of the North,' while detractors labelled him a reckless and manipulative adventurer.")

Here is more on the expedition from Hulls:
Using the pull of his celebrity as a seasoned explorer, Stefansson assembled a team of four starstruck young men—Allan Crawford, 20, Lorne Knight, 28, Fred Maurer, 28, and Milton Galle, 19—to claim Wrangel Island for the British Empire—even though Britain had never shown the slightest interest in wanting it. Though Stefansson picked the team and funded the mission, he never had any intention of joining the party himself and sent his woefully inexperienced team north with only six months of supplies and hollow assurances that “the friendly Arctic” would provide ample game to augment their stores until a ship picked them up the following year.
The expedition left Nome on 9 September 1921, and at first all went well. But as the summer of 1922 drew to an end, their supplies had run out, and, as you might imagine, the "friendly Arctic" did not offer up "ample game." Nor did the promised supply ship arrive.

By January 1923, Lorne Knight had fallen ill, and Crawford, Maurer, and Galle abandoned decided to leave Knight and Ada Blackjack and travel across the ice to save themselves seek help. They were never seen again.

Despite all the obstacles she faced, Ada Deletuk Blackjack persisted. Abandoned by the men of the expedition, she managed to hunt on her own, teaching herself to trap by trial and error and, when she could no longer catch foxes, she eventually learned to shoot seagulls and geese--and also found a few nests from which she harvested eggs.

And, although she devoted herself to his care and feeding, Knight was not grateful
He berated her ceaselessly, blaming her for not better caring for him, and even went so far as to claim that her husband had been right to abuse and abandon her, that it was no wonder two of her children had died due to her incompetence, and that Ada was certainly trying to kill Knight by steadily starving him.

Whatever her feelings were when Knight died on 23 June, Ada was left alone, with only the expedition's cat, Vic, as her companion. 

Part of Ada's statement after her rescue,
taken by U.S. Marshal E. R. Jordan
(East Carolina University
Digital Collection
)

She was finally rescued two months later, on 19 August 1923. She was paid--less than she had been promised--for her time on Wrangel, and she was reunited with her son, Bennett. They relocated to Seattle where he could be treated for tuberculosis.

Meanwhile, Stefansson and Harold Noice, captain of the rescue ship, exploited the tragedy for their own profit. Ada Deletuk Blackjack received nothing from Vilhjalmur Stefansson's account of what he called "the most romantic [story] in Arctic history, The Adventures of Wrangel Island.

As for Noice, after the first ecstatic press notices, his story changed, and he claimed that Ada had treated Knight badly and was responsible for his death--Ada had kept a journal while on Wrangel Island, and to bolster his claims of her negligence, Noice had ripped out some pages. He was ultimately forced to retract the ugly stories.

Ada herself remained quiet and lived quietly. She had a second son, Billy, and eventually returned to Alaska, where she died at the age of eighty-five on 29 May 1983.

A plaque to Ada Blackjack Johnson,
"Heroine--Wrangel Island Expedition,"
erected by her son, Billy Johnson
(photo from Find a Grave)

I have already linked to the essay by Tessa Hulls, "Ada Blackjack, the Forgotten Sole Survivor of an Odd Arctic Expedition" (online at Atlas Obscura) and to "Ada Blackjack, Forgotten Queen of Arctic Expeditions," posted at Oceanwide Expeditions. I also recommend Kieran Mulvaney's essay "The Inuit Woman Who Survived Alone After a Disastrous Expedition," one of the History Stories online at History. 

Vilhjalmur Stefansson's The Adventures of Wrangel Island is available from Google Books--it is a fascinating study and does contain diaries kept by men on the expedition as well as a complete transcript of Ada's statement about her survival on Wrangel Island made to U.S. Marshal E. R. Jordan in Seattle on 6 February 1924. Stefansson is also forced to deal both with Harold Noice's lies about the expedition and the aftermath of the discovery of his lies. 

There is a short film, Ada Blackjack Rising--it was supposed to premiere in October 2020, but because of the pandemic, its release seems to have been delayed, although it does seem to have been shown at select festivals.

A full-length account, Jennifer Nivens's Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, is also available.


*For the use of Inupiaq and Inupiat, I am indebted to online information provided by the Alaska Native Language Center.