This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
When Ada Blackjack arrived on Wrangel Island as part of a 1921 polar expedition, she knew nearly nothing about Arctic survival.
She had never built a house or shelter. Guns and knives terrified her, as did polar bears. And she had never stored provisions or trapped small game.
Despite a lack of essential skills, she braved the harsh conditions of the far north — desperate to earn money for her son’s tuberculosis treatment — and remained alive by sheer force of will.
She had been hired as a seamstress to accompany a crew organized by the Arctic explorer Vilhajamur Stefansson, who sought to claim the desolate island between Alaska and Russia for the British Empire.
But more than two years after the party was marooned on that barren speck of land, a rescue operation found Blackjack to be the sole survivor of the Wrangel Island expedition.
“Filling in the gaps between her terse, reluctant sentences, one pieces together the stern truth,” read a Los Angeles Times article in 1924. “The stronger, bigger white men died because they were not fit — in the biological sense — to survive. There was game, but they did not know how to catch or kill it.”
Woefully ill-prepared and undersupplied, three of the venture’s young men left their base on the island in an attempt to cross over sea ice to Siberia and seek help. They were never heard from again.
A fourth man, gravely ill with scurvy, was put in Blackjack’s care until he died.
Left to fend for herself, she learned to conquer the elements. She lugged firewood for miles, killed foxes, built an umiak and made a parka out of reindeer skin.
Upon her return, the press heralded her as the “female Robinson Crusoe” and followed her every move. But Blackjack took a humble view.
“In later years, when people called her brave, she would tilt her head to one side and gaze at them, unblinking, with dark brown eyes,” an article in The Denver Post recounted in 1973. “After some time, she would answer simply: ‘Brave? I don’t know about that. But I would never give up hope while I’m still alive.’”
Ada Delutuk was born on May 10, 1898, on an Iñupiat settlement in Spruce Creek, Alaska. Her father died when she was 8, and her mother entrusted her to the care of Methodist missionaries in nearby Nome, who taught her math, reading and writing, in addition to doing house chores, sewing and cooking.
She married Jack Blackjack, a dog musher, at 16 and had three children before she was 21, two of whom died. Her husband beat and starved her and then abandoned the family.
“Bone poor, almost naked for lack of clothes and with no money,” The Los Angeles Times quoted her as saying she placed her surviving son, Bennett, in an orphanage.
By 1921, Stefansson, who was infamous for having organized an Arctic expedition from 1913 to 1918 that cost 16 lives, had formed the Stefansson Arctic Exploration Company and found four young men — Allan Crawford, Lorne Knight, Fred Maurer and Milton Galle — to rally behind his new vision of claiming Wrangel Island.
In preparation, the men sought an English-speaking seamstress who could repair their gloves and boot soles during the expedition.
Hoping to earn enough to take Bennett back from the orphanage and give him proper care, Blackjack reluctantly agreed to join the venture for a promised salary of $50 a month — under the impression that other Iñupiat would also take part.
As the ship prepared for departure, however, she realized that she was the only Alaska Native and the only woman on board. She was assured that the vessel would stop at some “settlement between Nome and Wrangel to hire families in which Ada could then take her place” before their final destination. However, such a stop never occurred, and she proceeded to Wrangel Island.
In a statement printed in Stefansson’s 1925 book, “The Adventure of Wrangel Island,” Blackjack wrote: “The land looked very large to me, but they said that it was only a small island. I thought at first that I would turn back, but I decided it wouldn’t be fair to the boys.”
Upon arrival, Blackjack sought to marry Crawford or any of the other men, believing that they would protect her. Instead, they rejected her advances, and she became hysterical as a deep fear took hold.
She ran away into the mountains, attempted to poison herself and refused to work. To punish her insubordination, the men tied her to a flagpole and denied her food.
And then, just as quickly, she adapted to the environment.
“She sewed, cooked, washed dishes, scrubbed their clothing clean and scraped skins,” Jennifer Niven wrote in “Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic” (2004).
“She rose at 6:00 a.m. to bake bread,” Niven added. “She was pleasant, cheerful and friendly. It was hard to believe there was ever a time when she hadn’t been doing her share.”
But conditions worsened quickly. A ship that promised to bring new supplies failed to arrive when it encountered sea ice, and the expedition ran dangerously low on food. Crawford, Maurer and Galle, who set off to seek help on Jan. 29, 1923, are thought to have perished on their journey across the Long Strait to Siberia.
Blackjack stayed behind with Knight and became “doctor, nurse, companion, servant and huntswoman,” The Los Angeles Times wrote, while the explorer cursed her and blamed her for his illness.
In broken English, Blackjack wrote in a diary she began keeping in March 1923: “He never stop and think how much it’s hard for women to take four mans place, to wood work and to hunt for some thing to eat for him.”
In short order, she ignored his scathing remarks and decided to face the dangers of the island alone, except for the company of Vic, the expedition cat.
“If she made a mistake once, she didn’t make it again,” Niven wrote. “When she fell into the mouth of the harbor up to her ankles, she learned.”
“When she shot too far to the left or to the right and frightened off the birds without hitting one, she took note,” she continued. “When she pulled the trigger, forgetting that she had already set the hammer, it nearly knocked her over, but she wasn’t hurt. And she never forgot again. She also learned to keep the fox skins out of reach of the cat, who kept trying to eat them.”
Knight died on June 23, 1923, according to Blackjack’s diary.
A rescue ship arrived two months later, found Blackjack and took her back to Alaska.
There, she reunited with Bennett and took him to Seattle for tuberculosis treatment, even as her existence continued to be fraught with hardship.
Her total promised wages from the expedition were never deposited. She was criticized for taking inadequate care of Knight, and she was manipulated into sharing her story for the profit of Stefansson and others. She ultimately fell into poverty and found herself so miserable that she wished for the solitude and hardship of Wrangel Island.
Her second marriage ended in divorce. Her son from that marriage, Billy Blackjack Johnson, died in 2003. Her son Bennett died in 1972 at the age of 58.
“I consider my mother Ada Blackjack to be one of the most loving mothers in this world and one of the greatest heroines in the history of Arctic exploration,” Billy said, according to a 2018 article in The Nunatsiaq News. “She survived against all odds.”
Blackjack died in Palmer, Alaska, on May 29, 1983. She was 85. On her gravestone, a simple plaque reads, “Heroine — Wrangel Island Expedition.”