The “Female Robinson Crusoe”
BSNC shareholder Ada Blackjack Johnson, nee Deletuk, was born in 1898 in Solomon, Alaska. She moved to Nome, Alaska where at the age of 16 she married Jack Blackjack and gave birth to three children. Only one, a son named Bennett, survived past infancy. Jack deserted Ada 40 miles outside of Nome and the young mother and child walked back to town together. When five-year-old Bennett, who was of poor health, was too tired to walk, Ada carried him. Destitute, with no resources to care for herself and Bennett, Ada joined the Wrangel Island Expedition of 1921 as a cook and seamstress, vowing to return to care for her son.
On Sept. 9, 1921, Ada boarded the Silver Wave with crewmen Crawford, Knight, Maurer, Galle and the ship’s cat, Victoria. The crew spent the first few seasons on Wrangel Island in relative comfort. Conditions turned bad in January 1923 when rations ran out and the crew was unable to kill enough game on the island to survive. Crawford, Maurer and Galle left to cross the 700-mile frozen Chukchi Sea to Siberia for help and were never seen alive again. Ada was left alone with Knight who was deathly ill with scurvy and for six months, she diligently cared for him. She served as “doctor, nurse, companion, servant and huntswoman in one,” said the Los Angeles Times in 1924. Knight died in June of 1923. After Knight’s death, Blackjack refused to fall into despair and instead threw herself into to the task of surviving in order to be reunited with her son. Ada’s resilience kept her alive until she was rescued in August 1923. The cat, Victoria, is also said to have survived the ordeal.
As news of the expedition’s tragic end spread, Blackjack found herself at the epicenter of a flurry of press attention lauding her as a hero and praising her for her courage. Newspapers called her a real “female Robinson Crusoe.” The quiet seamstress shied away from the attention and titles, insisting that she was simply a mother who had needed to get home to her son. Ada used the money she saved to take her son Bennett to Seattle to cure his tuberculosis. She remarried and had another son, Billy. Eventually, Ada returned to Alaska.
Ada Blackjack died May 29, 1983 at the age of 85 at the Pioneer Home in Palmer, Alaska. She is buried at Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery where her headstone reads: “HEROINE – WRANGEL ISLAND EXPEDITION.” One month after Ada’s death, the Alaska Legislature officially honored and recognized Ada as a true and courageous hero. Ada’s son, Billy Johnson, was active in many Alaska Native organizations. “Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic” by Jennifer Niven can be found on Amazon.