The Robinson Crusoe of Alaska

In the time of the adventurers of frigid Alaska, there is a woman who stands out. This is Ada Blackjack. It is called the Robinson Crusoe of Alaska. She endured two years alone, after all her fellow expedition members died. They found her, at last, one freezing night in August 1923.

Alaska’s Robinson Crusoe Ada Blackjack appears in the center of the photo.

He had no expedition experience. Ada Blackjack was an unlikely candidate for Arctic exploration; in 1921, aged 23, she was a destitute and divorced single mother. He was in desperate need of money when a ship named Victoria arrived in Nome. He was transporting four young men tasked with an overwhelming mission. At the urging of the famous Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, they were heading to remote Wrangel Island. The team planned to live on the uninhabited land for two years to claim the territory for the British government.

Chance knocks on the door

In Nome they intended to recruit several Iñupiat (Alaska Native) people to help with the camp tasks. Blackjack, known as a skilled seamstress, was a perfect candidate. It was an opportunity he couldn’t afford to turn down.

On the afternoon of September 9, 1921, Blackjack joined the team that set sail from Nome aboard a different ship, the Silver Wave. After a week, Wrangel Island was on the horizon. The first months were tinged with optimism. Stefansson had assured them that a ship would arrive with more supplies in the summer. So the team made no attempt to ration its supplies for six months. Slowly, the mood in the camp began to change. Hunting opportunities began to disappear when a disorienting Arctic winter brought 61 days of darkness.

With no previous experience, he embarked on a dangerous expedition.
With no previous experience, he embarked on a dangerous expedition.
Waiting

They knew that if they could hold out until summer, Stefansson’s ship would arrive with new team members and supplies. The team followed the progress of the icebergs as the seasons changed, eagerly awaiting arrival.

What they didn’t know was that the resupply ship, Teddy Bear, had been stuck in one of the worst frosts in 25 years. The team slowly realized that no one would come to relieve them. Their rations were almost exhausted. And hunting missions were becoming more and more fruitless. There simply wasn’t enough food to keep the five of them alive.

One of them, Crawford, made a difficult decision. Together with his companions Galle and Maurer, he embarked on an ambitious return journey across the frozen sea. They left Blackjack in the camp with Knight, the last of the expedition, sick with scurvy. They left with part of the supplies and the remaining five dogs, aware of the danger they were running. They were never seen again.

Alone

Knight died. Ada, the Robinson Crusoe of Alaska, taught herself to shoot with her huge, heavy rifle. He built a platform from which he could see the dreaded polar bears. He counted each day on a calendar made from Galle’s typewriter paper. The skills Ada acquired on her own were essential to staying alive.

His story is a magnificent example of persistence and uncompromising determination.
His story is a magnificent example of persistence and uncompromising determination.

He set traps for foxes and learned to hunt birds and seals. When the wind blew away a fur boat that Ada had carefully crafted, she wept in frustration. But she refused to be defeated. Almost two years after arriving on Wrangel Island, Ada’s ordeal finally came to an end when she was rescued.

Fame

Upon his return to Alaska, Blackjack found himself in the middle of a media storm.

The press clamored to hear how the “Robinson Crusoe woman” had survived a terrible ordeal. She later had a second son, Billy, but money problems forced her to leave him and Bennett in a charity home for nine years.

She eventually moved to Alaska to work as a reindeer herder and lived to be 85. His adventure and determination continue to impress us a hundred years later.

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