Ada Blackjack – Reluctant Adventurer Stranded in the Arctic

Ada Blackjack didn’t want to be a heroine; she just wanted to survive. But her courage and will to live is inspiring. Why was she cast as a hero? She survived two years on a desolate Arctic island, three months of that time alone with the body of a dead man and only a cat for company.

Ada’s Story – Before Her Journey

Ada was born in 1898 in an Inuit (native Canadian/Arctic people) community near Nome. She went to school in Nome and she missed all the traditional Inuit skills like hunting, trapping, and building a shelter.

She married Jack Blackjack, a violent man who gave her three children, but who beat her and the children. He finally left, stranding her and her surviving son Bennett. At age 21 she walked 40 miles to Nome carrying Bennett, who had tuberculosis.

Ada couldn’t make enough money to care for Bennett, so she had to put him in an orphanage. Then in 1921, she was approached by an Arctic explorer named Vilhjalmur Stefansson to go on an Arctic expedition as a seamstress and cook, promising her $50 a month, when she returned. This was a huge amount of money in Ada’s eyes, and though she was initially reluctant, she finally agreed to go on the expedition, expecting there would be other Inuit on the trip.

The Journey to Wrangel Island

Stefansson was a character of the highest order. He lied about many things, he was a con man, he exaggerated his adventures, and he was always after the glory, with little concern for others (especially a poor Inuit woman). He portrayed the Arctic as “friendly” and “hospitable.” (The men who survived the disastrous 1913 Karluk expedition, when he abandoned them, would surely have disagreed.)

The expedition Stefansson had planned was to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, just north of Russia. His idea was to send some men to claim the island for Britain and the U.S. (They weren’t interested and Russia, which actually owned the island, protested.) He didn’t plan to go himself (of course!), but he selected four men and Ada. And a cat named Victoria went with them.

The only time ships could travel through the Arctic was in July, August, and early September; there was too much danger of becoming ice-bound any other times. The four men and Ada left on September 9, 1921, planning to be at the island until the next summer.

They stayed a year on the island waiting for a ship to come the next summer. During that time, Ada became homesick and lonely, even though the men were kind to her. She started behaving strangely, sometimes working diligently and other times being sullen and silent. She developed an attachment to the commander, Allan Crawford, mooning over him and begging him to protect her from the polar bears that terrified her. Several times she ran away, and she tried to commit suicide by drinking liniment (a pain reliever). The men finally had to threaten her to get her to stop her craziness and get back to work.

If you think she was crazy, consider that she was alone on an island with four men strangers, during the cold dark Arctic winter. She was young and had lived in civilization, never in the wilderness, she missed her son, and she had no skills for survival.

When summer came, no boat showed up to take them off the island. They were running out of food, and one of the men (Knight) had scurvy. The other three men decided to take off to find help; they were never heard from again.

After Knight died in June 1923, she built a barricade of boxes around his body to keep animals away from it. She did what she could to find and shoot food and to protect herself from polar bears. She used driftwood spikes to strengthen the walls of the tent and she built a gun rack over her bed to be ready in case of an attack. She trapped white foxes, age seagull eggs, and shot what game she could find. Finally, on August 19, 1923, almost two years from the time they left for Wrangel Island, a ship came to rescue her…and the cat.

After Ada’s Arctic Adventure

Immediately after their return, the media circus began. She was accused of killing Knight, and there were questions about how she could have survived. Stefansson tried to avoid paying her but he eventually gave her the money he owed. He and the rescue ship’s captain, Noice, tried to exploit her story. She avoided the craziness and took her son to Seattle to get a cure for his tuberculosis. She and the Knight family connected and she talked to them about his last days.


Ada died in a retirement home in 1983, at age 85.

Jennifer Niven has written a good biography of Ada, including information from the diaries of some of the men and from Ada’s own diary. Reading it made me angry at the connivings of Stefansson and the way Ada was treated.

Was Ada Blackjack an Adventurer? A Heroine?

Although she was a reluctant traveler, she showed bravery by getting on the ship taking the explorers to Wrangel Island. She had no idea what would happen but she was willing to do it to help her son. Yes, she did have some problems on the island, but she settled down. She learned the skills she needed to survive, learning to shoot seals and other animals to survive. She built herself a shelf in the tent and slept with her rifle close, to protect herself from polar bears.


When she was left alone, she could have given up, but she didn’t. In her diary, she says, “I would never give up hope while I’m still alive.”



  • The book by Jennifer Niven I mentioned above
  • An article in Atlas Obscura 

Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.




Jeanne Baret – Naturalist and 18th Century World Traveler

Traveling around the world sounds glamorous to us, but for Europeans in the 18th century, it was no picnic. All sailors at the time were men, but imagine a woman sailor on a voyage with a shipful of men. Jeanne Baret was the first such woman to travel around the world in a sailing ship, and she did it disguised as a man.

How Jeanne Baret Might Have Dressed / In Public Domain

Sailing ships in the 18th century were still crude and unreliable; shipwrecks were common and diseases, including scurvy and syphilis (sailors headed for brothels when in port). The cause of scurvy (caused by a deficiency of vitamin C) was not known, so sailors routinely died on long voyages. Food rotted or ran out, ships were becalmed or lost, and starvation was often their fate. Privacy onboard ships was unknown – sailors relieved themselves in a hole opening into the sea and they slept on hammocks above or below deck.

If the European sailing voyages managed to find land, it was often full of what they considered savages, and being killed by natives was not uncommon (it’s how the famous Captain James Cook died).

A typical voyage from England or the Continent might take months, while a voyage around the world would take several years. Dr. Samuel Johnson, in a description of sailing voyages of the 18th century, said,

“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get him in jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned”.

Add to the picture of the rigors of travel the image of a woman disguised as a man aboard an around-the-world sailing ship, and you have what sounds like a nightmare. Yet Jeanne Baret did this, sailing around the world with the expedition of Louis-Antoine de Bougainvillea in  1766.

She signed on to this expedition as the “assistant” (assumed to be a man) of the voyage’s naturalist, Philibert de Commerson and kept hidden through most of the voyage – or did she? Much of Jeanne’s story is open to interpretation because there is little written about her and there are conflicting accounts of the events of her life and especially of the Bougainvillea voyage.

Why did she go on the Bougainvillea expedition? Jeanne was born in France in 1740, a peasant girl who was an herbalist and healer. She was very familiar with medicinal plants and natural remedies. Somewhere (it’s not clear where or how), she met Philibert de Commerson, a botanist. They worked together identifying plants, and she probably taught him a good deal about native plants and their healing properties.

When Lous-Antoine de Bougainvillea put together his expedition around the world, one of his main purposes was to find commercially viable plants that France could cultivate for profit. He invited Commerson on the voyage as its botanist. By this time, Baret had had a child by Commerson and he termed her his “housekeeper.” The voyage was planned to take several years and Jeanne would have had a difficult time financially if she were left in France.

By French law, women were not allowed on naval ships, so Baret couldn’t travel as a woman. Glynis Ridley, the author of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, believes they concocted the story of Baret as Commerson’s “assistant” so they could travel together. They carried this fiction on until she was discovered.

Did she manage to hide her identity through most of the voyage? When was she discovered to be a woman?  Bougainvillea in his journal claims Jeanne was not discovered to be a woman until the expedition reached Tahiti. When the party disembarked, the Tahitians immediately recognized her as a woman, although they might have thought she was a transvestite. Other accounts of the voyage by officers and a passenger make it seem likely that she was discovered almost immediately. Bougainvillea, the captain, and some officers knew she was a woman before the ship reached Rio de Janeiro, its first stop. It also appears that she told everyone on the ship that she was a eunuch. The officers probably kept her true identity quiet so the sailors didn’t find out. The superstition of the sailors and the possibility of rape made discovery a serious threat to Jeanne.

After Jeanne was “discovered” on Tahiti, her life became a nightmare. On an island in Papua New Guinea, she was, Ridley says, probably gang raped. It was a traumatic experience for her, and the discovery that she was pregnant didn’t help her situation.

Who made all the plant discoveries on the voyage? Although Commerson was the official naturalist and he had all the credentials, he has some serious leg ulcers that precluded him from hiking very far from the ship or wandering around looking for plants. It’s quite likely that Jeanne made the discoveries, including the bougainvillea plant, which Commerson promptly named after the expedition’s leader.

Some Comments About Historical Veracity

Before I get into a discussion of the voyage, I need to tell you a couple of things about this history.

  1. The image you see above of Jeanne is not really her. No images exist of this woman, so someone drew a sketch of a typical French sailor of the 18th century, gave it some feminine features, and put what looks like a cloth or a sheaf of wheat in her hand. Any resemblance between this image and the “real” Jeanne Baret is purely coincidental.
  2. The author of the biography of Jeanne Baret had to imagine and assume a lot. Glynis Ridley did a good job of finding information about her but there isn’t much available about peasant women in the 1700s. Except for the journals of the captain and sailors, there are precious few documents about Jeanne’s life. So Ridley had to assume and guess and go by what she knew of the historical background to get information about Jeanne to put into a book.
  3. Bougainvillea in Tahiti / In Public Domain in the U.S.

    Jeanne didn’t exactly travel around the world by ship with Bougainvillea. After she was discovered in Tahiti, and after some incidents on the island of New Ireland, she and her husband were put off the ship in Mauritius (off the coast of Africa). Yes, she did travel back to France via the Cape of Good Hope, so technically she did go all the way around the world. But she didn’t complete the voyage she started on. Just sayin’.

Jeanne Baret’s Journey

On the voyage, Jeanne spent time on the ship, mostly in her cabin to avoid spending time with the crew. Aside from trying to avoid discovery, Jeanne worked with Commerson on the collections of plants they were accumulating. In her free time, she could watch humpback whales or the solar eclipse that happened while they were traveling. I can imagine that by the time they left the voyage they would have filled a small room with all the collected specimens.

On shore, Jeanne and Commerson would “botanize,” searching for plants at each stop. When they stopped in Patagonia, in the Straits of Magellan, they immediately began looking for medicinal plants, one of which was a treatment for venereal disease. While Commerson watched from shore, Ridley says, Jeanne:

…climbed rock faces and scrambled up and down scree slopes, bagging specimens of ferns and lichen, anemone and grasses.”

The ship’s doctor describes his impression of her work by saying,  (Notice the feminine pronoun; he probably wrote this after he returned from the voyage.)

What Happened to Jeanne After the Voyage?

As noted above, Jeanne and Commerson were allowed to leave the ship in Mauritius, probably because of Jeanne’s pregnancy and Commerson’s ill health. They stayed on Mauritius for several years, working on their plant collection. After Commerson’s death on the island, Jeanne found herself a husband (a sailor) to take her back to France, where she collected a pension due her from her service on the voyage. She died in France in 1807.

Did Jeanne Baret Have a Plant Named After Her?

Famous explorers and botanists through the centuries have enjoyed the privilege of naming plants. Many have been named after patrons; Commerson’s naming of the bougainvillea plant after the explorer Bougainvillea is one good example. And many plants have been named after botanists (Commerson had about 70 plants named after him). But up until recently, no plant has been named after Jeanne Baret.

By Tepe E, Ridley G, Bohs L (2012) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Now that oversight has been rectified. Glynis Ridley mentioned the lack of a plant in honor of Jeanne in an NPR interview. In 2012 botanist Eric Tepe took up the challenge and named a new plant Solanum baretiae in recognition of her contributions to botany and her courage.

Why is Jeanne Baret Important?

Jeanne didn’t set out to be an explorer. Ridley says she was curious; she also wanted to be with Commerson, for a variety of reasons. But she endured what most of us would consider inhuman conditions on the voyage. She had no choice but to stay on the voyage once she started. Being put off on her own in a strange country was impossible. I would consider her courageous and persistent.

She was able to use her plantwise sense and her knowledge of herbs and healing medicines to help those on the voyage, and she was resourceful in finding plants. She was also determined to get back to France, which she did. The courage of this young woman makes me wonder if I could do the same.

My review of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret on Goodreads

Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.