The Robinson Crusoe of Alaska

In the days of the adventurers of cold Alaska, there is one woman who stands out. This is Ada Blackjack. It’s called Robinson Crusoe of Alaska. She endured alone for two years after all of her fellow expeditions died. They finally found her on a freezing cold night in August 1923.

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

He had no expedition experience. Ada Blackjack was an unlikely candidate to explore the Arctic. In 1921, at the age of 23, she was a destitute and divorced single mother. He was in dire need of money when a ship called Victoria arrived in Nome. He was transporting four young men charged with an overwhelming mission. At the urging of the famous Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, they made their way to the 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 wanted to recruit several Iñupiat (Alaskan Indians) to help with the duties of the camp. Known as a seasoned seamstress, blackjack 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 sailed from Nome on board another ship, the Silver Wave. After a week, Wrangel Island was on the horizon. The first few months were optimistic. Stefansson had assured them that a ship with more supplies would arrive in the summer. As a result, the team made no attempt to ration its supplies for six months. The mood in the camp slowly began to change. The hunting opportunities disappeared when a confusing arctic winter brought 61 days of darkness.

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

They knew Stefan’s ship would arrive with new team members and supplies if they could hold out through the summer. The team followed the progress of the icebergs as the seasons changed and waited eagerly for their arrival.

What they didn’t know was that the Teddy Bear supply ship was 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 became more and more fruitless. There wasn’t enough to eat to keep the five alive.

One of them, Crawford, made a difficult decision. Together with his companions Galle and Maurer, he undertook an ambitious return trip across the frozen sea. Blackjack was left at camp with Knight, the last of the expedition to suffer from scurvy. They left with some of the supplies and the remaining five dogs, aware of the danger they faced. They were never seen again.

Alone

Knight died. Ada, the Robinson Crusoe from 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 Galles typewriter paper. The skills Ada herself acquired were critical to staying alive.

His story is a great example of perseverance and uncompromising determination.
His story is a great example of perseverance 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 made, she wept in frustration. But she refused to be defeated. Almost two years after arriving on Wrangel Island, Ada’s ordeal finally ended when she was rescued.

Fame

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

The press was dying to hear how the “Robinson Crusoe woman” 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 years old. His adventure and determination still impress us a hundred years later.

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