BSNC shareholder and Elder John Tetpon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. John has graciously agreed to share with us a series of stories he compiled from decades of travels across Alaska and the Lower 48. Here is the story of Ada Blackjack Johnson in his own words:
I knew her only as Aunt Ada. She attended the same little church our family did back in the late 1950s and early 1960s at 11th and Karluk in Fairview. It was the forerunner of the First Evangelical Church of Anchorage located at 12th and C Street.
The church was in the front room of Rev. Job Kokochuruk and his wife Mary’s house and seated a couple of dozen people if that. They were an Inupiat couple from the village of White Mountain near Nome.
Ada Blackjack Johnson never missed a Sunday morning service and neither did my family. She passed away in Anchorage in 1983 and is buried in the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.
I didn’t know much about her until my father mentioned her Arctic survival story one day; Ada never talked about herself. She was a quiet, prayerful little lady — not much taller than five-feet and perhaps 100 pounds.
She held a countenance of serenity wrapped around steely rebar. One could tell she had seen a lot in her time. When I got to know her, she had gray hair and was in her 70s.
Dad said some people in Nome accused her of cannibalizing her shipmates so she could survive. That despicable allegation, which was untrue, deeply hurt Ada. Dad was angry about that accusation. “We would never do that,” he said.
Ada was born in the small village of Solomon about 40-miles southeast of Nome, Alaska in 1898. Her maiden name was Delutak, the same Inupiaq name of my late uncle Edward Jackson of Shaktoolik.
That is now my son’s Inupiaq name since I gave him the middle name Edward in honor of my uncle.
Ada married a dog musher named Jack Blackjack as a young woman and they had three children, two of whom died. When Blackjack deserted Ada and her son Bennett, she and her son walked back to Nome from Solomon. She was determined to carry on alone and make her own way.
Bennett was sick with tuberculosis and she had to carry him most of the way.
When she reached Nome, she learned that an Arctic explorer named Vilhjalmur Stefansson was looking for a Native woman who can sew skins and speak English. Stefansson was hell-bound to claim Wrangel Island for the British even though they adamantly said they didn’t want it.
Ada got the job, placed her son in a foster home telling him she would return and they would have enough money to make it. She was promised a salary of $50 a month. She was just 23-years old.
Stefansson was a celebrity by then and some say he really didn’t want to stay on the wind-swept little island through the winter and left, leaving Ada and four inexperienced young men to carry on.
He told the group another ship would be back to retrieve them in a few months and went back to civilization. Stefansson, who was from Canada, was roundly criticized by his colleagues and the public for the leaving four young men and Ada without able leadership.
The four men, Frederick Maurer, E. Lorne Knight, and Milton Galle from the U.S., and Allan Crawford of Canada, were ill equipped for the expedition.
The second ship did try and make the trip to bring the group home to Nome but couldn’t make it through the ice pack. The stranded crew’s six-month supply of food ran out that winter, and their stay turned into months of deprivation and desperation.
When one of the young men with Ada got sick, the other three tried to find help by walking across the ice toward the Siberian coast 87 miles away and were never heard from again. Soon after, the sickened man died and Ada was left to fend for herself.
Ada said she survived on seagulls and foxes.
When Ada was rescued and returned to Nome two years later, the U.S. Marshall there alleged that she was the only survivor because she had cannibalized the rest of the crew. He refused to let her off the ship. After a week, he changed his mind and Ada was allowed to go ashore.
She had kept a diary of her survival.
Had I gotten to know her better and had the presence of mind to pay attention, I would have talked with her more. I was a busy teenager then.
Ada lived alone in our Fairview neighborhood and seemed to be content with her life. No one at the church visited with her that I could recall. If she was a famous person, and indeed Ada was that, it would have been nice to have someone explain a few things to people like me.
But Alaska Native Elders always forbade talking about one’s self.
There’s another thought that runs through my mind. When she hired on for the expedition and ended up alone on Wrangel Island for two years, it might have changed her outlook on life. It was a Methodist minister and his family, however, who raised Ada, where she learned to read and write the English language.
Her story truly speaks of the will and spirit to survive against all odds.
Ada didn’t board the Silver Wave, Stefansson’s ship, for the adventure. Rather, she walked onto the ship to take a job so she and her son Bennett could live a better life. That’s what she was all about.