Wrangel Island sits north of the Siberian coast in the harsh Arctic waters of the East Siberian and Chukchi Seas. Surrounded by ice for much of the year and buffeted by fierce cyclonic winds throughout it, it is the last known redoubt of the woolly mammoth and is the site of the highest concentration of polar bear dens in the world.

It was also the site of one of the most quixotic and ill-fated Arctic expeditions in history. In 1921, five people landed here and ignited a diplomatic incident; two years later, only one survived to tell the story: a 25-year-old Iñupiat woman called Ada Blackjack.

Expedition to Claim Wrangel Island

The expedition was the brainchild of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Manitoba-born Arctic explorer who railed against the notion of the northern polar region being an inhospitable wasteland, promoting it instead as “The Friendly Arctic.” Although Wrangel was Russian territory, the fact that it was uninhabited meant that, in Stefansson’s eyes, it would be possible to claim it for Canada or the United Kingdom, a dream seemingly motivated by the vision of transforming it into an air base for future pan-Arctic flights.

He recruited four young men for the task—three Americans and a Canadian who would be the nominal leader to give the team standing to make a territorial claim. After leaving Seattle on August 18, 1921, they arrived in Nome, Alaska, to secure passage to Wrangel for the four men and the Indigenous Alaskans they expected to hire to accompany them. Although they were, after some effort, able to find a ship that would take them to their destination, all the Iñupiat families who had expressed interest in being hired ultimately refused to go, leaving Ada Blackjack as the only one on the dock as they prepared to depart.

The plan was for the Iñupiat to provide essential hunting and survival skills—skills that Ada did not have. Originally Ada Deletuk, Ada Blackjack was born in 1898 in the Native settlement of Spruce Creek, Alaska. She had been sent by her mother at an early age to Nome, where she had been raised by Methodist missionaries, who taught her to read, write and cook “white people’s food.” She had become an expert seamstress, and her skills at making fur clothing would prove invaluable.

Stefansson had promised her $50 a month during her time on the expedition, far more than she could make otherwise. And it was money she needed: she had divorced her husband, Jack Blackjack, whom she had married at 16, after he beat her and starved her and eventually abandoned her; of the three children she had borne him, two had died and the survivor, Bennett, had chronic tuberculosis and lived in an orphanage because she could not afford to take care of him herself.

Blackjack: Nervous, Frightened About Expedition

Even so, she was understandably nervous about going. For one thing, she had a deep-rooted fear of polar bears. A visit to a shaman in Nome did not exactly assuage her anxieties: death and danger lay ahead, the shaman told her, and she should be watchful of fire and knives.

She also did not think it right for her to travel alone to a remote island with four men and they in turn considered it unseemly to travel with a single female—but she had given her word, and she was assured they would hire more Inuit during a stop in Siberia. And so, on September 9, they set forth—20-year-old Canadian Allan Crawford; Americans Lorne Knight and Fred Maurer, both 28, and Milton Galle, 19; Blackjack; and the expedition kitten, Vic, presented to the men by the crew of the ship that had brought them to Nome.

One week later, they arrived on Wrangel—a brief port of call in Siberia having failed to produce any Inuit reinforcements—and Ada immediately felt overwhelmed by what lay ahead. As the men raised the Union Jack and declared the island to be a British possession, she walked to the beach, her eyes on the departing ship, and cried.

Even so, the weather was surprisingly mild, and the team soon settled into a rhythm. After a couple of weeks, however, the situation took a turn. Ada, painfully homesick and frightened, became withdrawn. Every sight of the men’s knives terrified her, convinced as she was by the shaman’s warning. She knew none of the men particularly wanted her there and that they all regretted taking her, and was convinced that Knight was going to kill her. 

She walked off into the snow one day with a bottle of liniment that she planned to drink to kill herself; on another occasion, she followed fox tracks away from the camp because she believed that there were spirits that disguised themselves as foxes and if she could find them, she would be treated kindly. Her cooking and sewing became sporadic, and in response the men at first tried coaxing her, then mocked her, then turned to denying her food, forcing her to stay outside in the cold, and even tying her to the flagpole. At one point, they threatened to whip her.

As winter drew in tightly, Ada’s mood appeared to lighten as the men’s sagged; she threw herself into work and the five united to survive the dark, cold months, to stay fed and warm, and to deter the polar bears that stalked the camp. They looked forward to summer and the arrival of a relief ship; but even as summer marched on, peaked, and passed, the icy barrier around the island remained, and the ship that Stefansson had dispatched from Alaska was unable to reach them.

The return of winter saw the group struggling, not just emotionally but physically. Notwithstanding Stefansson’s promises that game would be plentiful, much of their would-be prey, foxes, seals and bears, had moved elsewhere on the island. They began to weaken, especially Knight, who had fallen ill while on a solo exploration that fall and was showing signs of scurvy. Finally, in January 1923, with temperatures plummeting to minus 50 degrees, Crawford, Maurer, and Galle set out across the sea ice toward Siberia, intending to raise the alarm and arrange rescue. They were never seen again.

Ada was now left with a swiftly deteriorating Knight. It was now incumbent on her, the young Inuk who had never lived in the wilderness before, to provide for them both. She taught herself to catch foxes in traps and shoot birds out of the sky. She even summoned up the courage to scare bears away from camp. She gave Knight the lion’s share of the fresh meat to combat his scurvy, but as his decline intensified, he berated her endlessly, accusing her of not doing enough to keep them fed and alive. All the while she, too, was becoming ill with early signs of scurvy.

Ada Blackjack Becomes Sole Survivor 

Sole survivor of the Wrangel Island tragedy, Ada Blackjack, with her son in Seattle, November 17, 1923.
Smith Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Sole survivor of the Wrangel Island tragedy, Ada Blackjack, with her son in Seattle, November 17, 1923.

On June 23, Knight died. Ada could not bear, and did not have the strength, to remove him from his sleeping bag, so she erected a barricade of wooden boxes around him to protect him from wild animals and moved into the storage tent to escape the smell of decay. Ada was now, apart from the welcome company provided by Vic the cat, truly alone. She hoped and expected that the others would return, but she could not know for sure. What would happen to her if she was forced to spend another winter in this cruel and remote place? Would she ever see Bennett again?

Shortly after Knight’s death, she killed her first seal, but with ammunition running low, she focused on collecting eggs, and even used wood and skins to build herself a boat. When the wind washed it out to sea, she built herself another one. And she waited.

On August 20, she woke from her slumber believing she had heard a noise. She heard it again. And again. She grabbed her field glasses and rushed outside. The perpetual fog enshrouded the island, but for a brief moment it lifted and through her glasses, she saw a ship. She raced down to the beach and splashed into the water just as a boat reached the shore.

She expected Crawford, Maurer, and Galle to be on board; the man who stepped out of the boat, Stefansson accomplice Harold Noice, expected them to be ashore. With the first words they exchanged, they both realized the full gravity of the situation. Ada Blackjack, the Iñupiat seamstress who had been a reluctant afterthought on the expedition, who had been belittled and berated and tied up, who had had to teach herself to hunt and trap and live in the Arctic, was the last survivor. She was alive, and she was going home to her son. And with that, she collapsed into Noice’s arms and cried.

Her return, and the death of the other expedition members, generated a huge public furor, but Ada tried to avoid all of it. She took Bennett to Seattle to cure his tuberculosis, had another son called Billy, and eventually returned to Alaska. She died there on May 29, 1983, aged 85, and is buried in Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. On her grave is a plaque, erected by Billy, with the words: “The Heroine of Wrangel island.”

A century later, her story continues to resonate and inspire, not least among her fellow Alaska Natives.

“As an Inuit woman who was raised like Ada—in a village, but so contemporary—I wonder, would I survive that?” says Holly Mitiquq Nordlum, an Iñupiat artist who co-produced a short documentary on Ada. “Here in Alaska, that strength and survival that she showed, doing what you can and figuring things out, those are things that all of us have to have to survive, even just growing up in a village. She’s one of us; I see myself in her. That’s what inspires me.”


Stream thousands of hours of acclaimed series, probing documentaries and captivating specials commercial-free in HISTORY Vault