The Hard Life Of Ada Blackjack Johnson



Ada Blackjack Johnson, an Inuit American, was born in 1898 in Solomon, Nome County, Alaska.

By the time she was 21 she was already a single mother- her husband was drowned in a fishing accident. Two of her three children died in infancy, her surviving son suffered from tuberculosis and later spinal meningitis.

Desperate for money to get medical care for her son, in 1921 she signed up for a risky expedition to Wrangel Island, a barren island inhabited by Eskimos, lying between the northern coast of Russia and the North Pole. She was hired as a seamstress for a party of four men sent to claim the island as the property of Canada.

Life was very tough on Wrangel, the island was constantly surrounded by ice fields and often blanketed in dense fog. They had six month supply of food, and understood that this supply would be replenished by a supply ship in due course. The supply ship never showed, the weather worsened and food began to run low, the five standed expedition members began to think they had been abandoned to their fate.

Things eventually got so bad that three of the four men on Wrangel Island decided to take a sledge across the ice to try and raise help, leaving Ada and a man called E. Lorne Knight, who was too sick to attempt the journey. Ada never saw the three men again, to this day their fate is unknown.

After only a couple of months, E Lorne Wright died, despite Ada's best efforts to care for him. She was now completely alone. Ada had to learn to hunt seals to feed herself and was at the mercy of the many polar bears who wandered the island, on more than one occasion she had to run for her life.

Finally after months of total isolation, she was rescued in August 1923, the supply boat had eventually been able to break through the ice to get to the coast of Wrangel. Her return to civilisation was an unhappy one. She did not receive the promised payment for undertaking the expedition - it was deemed to be a failure as she was the only survivor.

She married again and gave birth to another son, her husband then abandoned her. She had so little money that she chose to place both her sons in a childrens home, where they remained for the next nine years. When she finally scraped together enough money, she took the two boys home where she worked herding reindeer and fed the children by hunting and trapping. After her younger son,Billy, left home, his mother continued to care for Bennett, her elder disabled son, until she died, still poor, in Palmer, Alaska on May 29, 1983.

The author of these words pauses to take stock of the hardships that Ada Blackjack Johnson must have endured. What must she have gone through when she was left as the only surviving member of the expedition? How did she cope with the mental torment of months of isolation? And why wasn't more done to assist this remarkable lady when she returned to her home?

Ada's son Billy Johnson has this to say about her "...Her story of survival in the Arctic will be a great chapter in the history of the Arctic and Alaska. Time is running out, and soon this chapter will fade away unless we care enough to make a record of it,” he said.

The author of these words is happy to assist in keeping the memory of Ada Blackjack Johnson alive

1 comment:

Bob Bernard said...

I am working on her legacy, time will tell.