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Ada Blackjack Johnson was born in Solomon, Alaska. Early in her life Blackjack relocated to Nome, Alaska. She married and gave birth to three children but only one survived past infancy. The death of her husband by drowning left her destitute, and she temporarily placed her son in an orphanage. Soon after, in 1921, she joined an expedition across the Chukchi Sea to Russia’s Wrangel Island led by Canadian Allan Crawford but financed, planned and encouraged by Vilhjalmur Stefansson.
Stefansson sent five settlers (one Canadian, three Americans, and one Iñupiat, Ada) in a speculative attempt to claim the island for Canada. The explorers were handpicked by Stefansson based upon their previous experience and academic credentials. Stefansson considered those with advanced knowledge in the fields of geography and science for this expedition.
On 16 September 1921, the team was left on Wrangel Island north of Siberia, to claim the island for Canada or Great Britain. The team included five people: Ada who had been hired as a cook and seamstress; the American men Lorne Knight, Milton Galle, and Fred Maurer; and Allan Crawford, a Canadian. Maurer had spent eight months in 1914 on the island after surviving the shipwreck of the Karluk.
The conditions soon turned bad for the team. After rations ran out, the team was unable to kill enough game on the island to survive. So, on 28 January 1923 three men tried to cross 700 miles across the frozen Chukchi Sea to Siberia for help and food, leaving Ada and the ailing Lorne Knight behind. Knight was afflicted with a dietary deficiency, scurvy, and was cared for by Ada until he died in April 1923. The other three men were never seen again, and so Ada was left alone except for the company of the expedition's cat, Vic.
Ada learned to survive in the extreme freezing conditions until she was rescued on 19 August 1923 by a former colleague of Stefansson's, Harold Noice. Some newspapers called her a real "female Robinson Crusoe." Ada used the money she saved to take her small son Bennett to Seattle to cure his tuberculosis. She remarried and had another son, Billy. Eventually, Ada returned to the Arctic where she lived until the age of 85.
She was quiet and hated the media circus that developed around her and the attempts by her rescuer Noice and Stefansson to exploit her story. Except for the salary that she made on the trip and a few hundred dollars for furs that she trapped while on Wrangel, Ada did not benefit from the subsequent publication of several very popular books and articles concerning this disastrous voyage.
- Niven, Jennifer (2003). Ada Blackjack: A True Story Of Survival In The Arctic. New York: Hyperion Books. p. 431. ISBN 0-7868-6863-5.
- Alexandra J. McClanahan, The heroine of Wrangel Island