Originally from Solomon, near Nome, Ada Blackjack was scraping by in 1921 – a widow and mother of a sickly young boy. To earn money for his medical bills, she signed on as a seamstress, along with other Native families, for a 2-year expedition to Russia’s Wrangel Island.
When the day came to leave, Ada was the only Native to show up and she tried to back out. The explorers, four young men, needed her help and convinced her to come along. That decision nearly cost her life.
Expected resupply ships didn’t make it to Wrangel, and during their second winter on the island, the men decided to trek 700 miles over the frozen Chukchi Sea to get help in Siberia. But one of the men, Lorne Knight, had fallen ill and couldn’t travel, so Ada was left behind to tend to him. She survived for months, developing skills she didn’t have before: hunting seals, trapping for furs, and avoiding the plentiful polar bears on the island.
The other three were never heard from again. Ada tended to Knight until his death of scurvy later in the spring of 1923. She was rescued in August of that year, and was lauded by the media as a “female Robinson Crusoe.”
Ada had earned a little money from the expedition – enough to get treatment for her son. But her rescuer and the expedition’s funder earned a lot more. Quiet by nature, Ada was disturbed by their exploitation of her story, and criticisms that she had not succeeded in saving Knight’s life.
Ada’s story – of determination and a mother’s enduring care for her children – is one that residents of Nome want people to remember. There’s a local push to name Middle Beach the “Ada Blackjack Golden Beach Park” so that her story of survival is not forgotten.