Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven

  The only aspect that survived Milton Galle, besides a fragment of his diary, was his prized Corona typewriter. But even that has disappeared over the years. In fact, nobody in his family today is even certain it was returned to them by Stefansson, as he had promised. In New Braunfels, Texas, no one outside of his distant family members has ever heard of Milton Galle. There is no more Chautauqua to look forward to each year in New Braunfels, no more broad, brown tents promising the world on the center square.

  Train tracks still dissect the town, and Amtraks and carrier trains roar past the edge of Galle’s backyard, where his house still stands, his initials still carved into the wood of the basement eaves.

  The letter was dated June 28, 1950, and the return address was Seattle, Washington. “Dear Stefansson,” it began, “I’m hoping this would reach you as I need your help very much. I am writing this for you had promise to pay so much a year or so you had only given me 300. at the time you got the story suppose to be 500. Please sent me 200 dollars as soon as you get this. If don’t I will have to get a lawyer get it for me. As I had been sick for last two years with liver trouble.” It was signed “formerly Ada Black Jack, now Ada Johnson.”

  It seemed her “pathetic case,” as he termed it to Carl Lomen, was up again. Stefansson wrote to Ada to remind her that not only had she been paid off, he had paid her above and beyond what he owed her, citing all the gifts she had been given of clothes and toys for Bennett, and the additional money she had received from him and from Inglis Fletcher now and again when she had been down on her luck.

  “These charities finally had to cease,” he wrote her, “both because I could not spare the money and because, according to what my friends and yours told me who knew what you did with the money, you kept giving away to others what I gave you, instead of saving it up for your own use.”

  Stefansson never heard from her again. He died twelve years later at the age of eighty-two of a stroke.

  Bennett Blackjack died in 1972 at the age of fifty-eight. The following year, Ada Blackjack, then seventy-four years old, broke the long silence of the past four decades and granted a newspaper interview for the first time since she had taken the streetcar to the newspaper office in downtown Los Angeles in 1924. It is the only first-person record of her activities in the forty-nine years since she returned from California.

  “It is still awfully hard to talk about,” she told the reporter in 1973 when he asked about Wrangel Island. But she had promised Billy, then vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives in Seattle, that she would try her best to tell her story. You have an obligation to history, he told her, and she agreed.

  She remembered the food running out and the announcement that Crawford and Knight would go for help. She remembered their return and the defeated look in Knight’s eyes, and then the departure of Crawford, Galle, and Maurer. They were never seen again, “no trace at all,” Ada said. “What happened, I don’t know. Maybe they fell through the ice. Or they might have been killed by the Russians.”

  She remembered vividly the decline of Knight’s health. “It was a bad time,” she said. “I don’t like to talk about it.”

  When she was able to speak again, she told of teaching herself to shoot and to hunt, of cooking soup from ducks for Knight when he was unable to swallow anything heartier. After Knight died, she wondered if she would die as well, but somehow she never gave up hope. “I think I would have died, too,” she told the reporter. “It’s hard to talk about what you feel when someone dies and you are alone.”

  Even at age seventy-four, the memories of those horrific months on Wrangel Island were as vivid and disturbing as they had been in 1923. Sometimes, she told the reporter, when she heard the howling of the sled dogs beneath the midnight sun, their noses turned to heaven, she knew they were singing a song for those who had been lost. To her, they sang for Crawford, Galle, Maurer, and Knight. For years, she had tried to forget, but there were reminders everywhere and her dreams were still interrupted, and sometimes in her head she heard Noice’s words, telling the world that she could have done more.

  Her son Billy called her brave, but Ada never thought of herself in that way. “Brave? I don’t know about that,” she would say. “But I would never give up hope while I’m still alive.”

  It was the last interview she ever granted.

  In 1979, Ada visited with the nieces of Fred Maurer in Ohio. She stayed with them for three days and spent most of her time working a Star Wars puzzle. Ada loved solving puzzles, enjoying the way the pieces fit so neatly together, each having a place, and the feeling of satisfaction she had when it was finished. Maurer’s nieces, Jeannette and Marian, were impressed by her graciousness, and the following year Jeannette visited Ada at the Palmer Pioneers’ Nursing Home in Palmer, Alaska, where she had moved. Ada was longing for a taste of dried salmon, but when Jeannette couldn’t find any she brought Ada some fresh fruit instead. She thought it tasted wonderful.

  Not long afterward, Ada suffered a stroke that left her without speech. She also was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder. Then, on May 29, 1983, Ada Delutuk Blackjack Johnson died at age eighty-five at the Palmer Pioneers’ Home, where no one knew she was once an Arctic hero.

  On the day of her death, Ada’s son Billy traveled from Seattle to visit her, his arms filled with flowers and gifts. But when he arrived at the nursing home, he was told she had died just hours before.

  “Am I beautiful?” she asked him once.

  “Yes you are,” he had told her. “The most beautiful mother in the world.”

  For ten years, Billy had been campaigning to obtain official recognition for his mother’s bravery in the Arctic. After Ada’s death, he was determined that she should not be forgotten. “I consider my mother Ada Blackjack to be one of the most loving mothers in this world and one of the greatest heroines in the history of Arctic exploration,” he said. “She survived against all odds. It’s a wonderful story that should not be lost of...a mother fighting to survive to live so she could carry on with her son. Her story of survival in the Arctic will be a great chapter in the history of the Arctic and Alaska.”

  Only a handful of people attended the funeral of Ada Blackjack— Billy and his wife Janice, and a scattering of familymembers and friends. With Bennett buried at her head, there was only a makeshift aluminum marker to indicate Ada’s grave. Ada herself had not wanted a stone or plaque. Without one, she figured, she might at last be granted the anonymity she had been seeking in the last years of her life.

  But Billy Blackjack Johnson wanted his mother to be remembered after death. In his new hometown of Wilson, North Carolina, he ordered a large, rectangular plaque, which he and his wife transported across the countrybyplane. Now mounted on Ada’s grave in Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, it reads simply: HEROINE—WRANGEL ISLAND EXPEDITION.

  But to Ada’s son, it was not enough. Ada had been badly hurt by Noice and badly used by Stefansson. Her life, since 1923, had been a constant fight to survive—grief, poverty, public accusation and humiliation, illness, and the nightmares that haunted her. But she alone had sustained herself and her boys, and when she was too ill to care for her sons, she had made sure they were sent to those who could. She alone had done the work to earn the money to bring them back to her so that they could once again live together as a family, and she alone had lived to tell the story of Wrangel Island.

  “The final chapter,” Billy Johnson wrote to the Alaska Legislature, “should read that the State of Alaska recognized Ada Blackjack as the heroine of the Wrangell Island expedition. It could read that the State of Alaska has a true native heroine that participated in the early exploration of the Arctic. The State of Alaska has within it the power to write a happy ending to such a sad happening.”

  One month after Ada’s death, she was granted her happy ending. The Alaska Legislature officially honored her and recognized her on June 16, 1983, as a true and courageous hero, “a small token of remembrance for a woman whose bravery and heroi
c deeds have gone unnoticed for so many years.” Representative John G. Fuller added, “I deeply regret that we were not able to serve Ada with this citation while she was alive.”

  Born in 1898 just east of Nome, Ada was selected to travel with the ill-fated expedition organized in 1921 by Vilhjalmur Stefansson to explore remote and uninhabited Wrangel Island. It was two years before the young woman was rescued from the island, the only member of the landing partyto live through the ordeal. The fate of some members is unknown to this day.

  What is known is that for month after lonely and terrifying month Ada Blackjack Johnson cared for an ill member of the crew, lived off the land, battled polar bears and somehow managed to survive until a rescue boat arrived nearly two years after she had arrived on the island.

  Not many Alaskans remember this soft-spoken and vital woman. In the years following her heroic feat she was forgotten by most people who knew of her ordeal. The middle years of her life were not pleasant, although we are convinced she would have been the last to complain.

  We urge Alaskans to become familiar with the story of Ada Blackjack Johnson who recently passed away in Palmer. From her story we can each gain an insight into the life and personal courage of a resident of our state who survived under unbearable circumstances only to be forgotten by her friends and neighbors.

  It is our duty and obligation to honor Ada Blackjack Johnson for her astounding courage, her spiritual strength and her commitment to her fellow man.

  If his mother had been alive to receive her memoriam, Billy knew she would have smiled in that slow and enigmatic way she had, head tilted to one side, brown eyes peering upward, saying simply—if she even spoke at all—“I am so grateful.”


  The pagination of this electronic edition does not match the edition from which it was created. To locate a specific entry, please use the search feature of your e-book reader.


  • BBJ—Billy Blackjack Johnson

  • DART—Dartmouth College Library

  • DN—Don Knight

  • FG—Fitzhugh Green Papers, Georgetown

  • IFP—Inglis Fletcher Papers, East Carolina Manuscript Collection, East Carolina University

  • KL—Kathy Long Private Collection

  • LAW—Bill Lawless Private Collection

  • MR—Marian Reiss Private Collection

  • NAC—National Archives of Canada

  • NLS—National Library of Scotland

  • TUSC—Tusc-Kent Archives

  • UAA—Archives and Manuscripts Department, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage

  Primary Sources and Methodology

  As cited in the endnotes, Ada Blackjack is based on the diaries, journals, letters, unpublished manuscripts, and papers written by the members of the 1921 Wrangel Island Expedition and their families. Ada Blackjack, Lorne Knight, and Milton Galle left diaries or diary fragments, and, in the case of the Knight and Galle journals, numerous versions exist, varying slightly in content. In these cases, I consulted all versions, but have only quoted from the original version of each, provided to me by the family of Milton Galle.

  Ada Blackjack is also based on the personal papers of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and other pertinent letters and journals, as well as on documents and public records in government and library archives.

  In addition to the primary written sources, I conducted interviews and/or carried on extensive correspondence with the following sources:

  • Billy Blackjack Johnson, son of Ada Blackjack

  • Bill Lawless, great-nephew of Milton Galle

  • Kathy Long, niece of Milton Galle

  • Mary Pat Hughes, niece of Milton Galle

  • Don Knight, cousin of Lorne Knight

  • Marian Reiss, niece of Fred Maurer

  I have also been in contact with numerous other family members, family friends, and acquaintances who had memories and information to share.

  Government Documents

  • Canadian House of Commons Debates, June 10,1925, NAC

  • FBI Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts Section; Vilhjalmur Stefansson, File: 100–7516 Section 1

  • Hearings Before the General Board of the Navy, 1923, Vol. 2, Navy Department, Washington, DC

  Major Unpublished Sources

  In addition, I have relied on the following sources:

  • Anderson, Rudolph Martin, Papers and Documents, Rudolph Martin Anderson Collection/Anderson-Allstrand Collection, NAC/R6390-0-1-E

  • Blackjack, Ada, Diary, papers, and documents, Billy Blackjack Johnson Private Collection

  • Blackjack, Ada, Papers and documents, UAA

  • Fletcher, Inglis, Papers and documents, Joyner Library

  • Galle, Milton, Diary, papers, and documents, Bill Lawless Private Collection

  • Galle, Milton, Papers and documents, Kathy Long Private Collection

  • Johnson, Billy Blackjack, The Jesse Lee Home: Shelter from the Storm, Billy Blackjack Johnson Private Collection

  • Knight, Lorne, Diary, papers, and documents, Kathy Long Private Collection

  • Knight, Lorne, Diary, papers, and documents, NAC, Lorne Knight Fonds, NAC/ R6640-0-8-E

  • Knight, Lorne, “Summary of Wrangel Island Expedition,” NAC, William Laird McKinlay Fonds, NAC/R2289-0-X-E

  • McKinlay, William L., Correspondence and Papers of William Laird McKinlay, NLS/DEP 357

  • McKinlay, William L., First Draft of Manuscript Karluk, unpublished manuscript, William Laird McKinlay Fonds, NAC/R2289-0-X-E.

  • McKinlay, William L., Second Draft of Manuscript Karluk, unpublished manuscript, William Laird McKinlay Fonds, NAC/R2289-0-X-E.

  • Maurer, Fred, Lecture: “A Fight for Life in the Arctic.” 1914, Rudolph Martin Anderson Collection/Anderson-Allstrand Collection, NAC/R6390-0-1-E

  • Maurer, Fred, Papers and documents, Marian Reiss Private Collection

  • Stefansson Collection, including all official documents of the Wrangel Island Expedition of 1921 as well as papers and documents of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Ada Blackjack, Lorne Knight, Allan Crawford, Fred Maurer, Milton Galle, and Harold Noice, Dartmouth College Library

  Magazine and Newspaper Clippings

  In citing newspaper articles, many of which were contained in albums and private files, I have provided whatever data was available.

  I. Secondary Sources Cited in Notes

  • The Bible, King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers,1972.

  • Gould, Joseph E., The Chautauqua Movement. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1961.

  • Grun, Bernard, The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events. New York: Touchstone, 1946.

  • Knight, Lorne, Pechuck. Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1948.

  • Le Bourdais, D. M., Stefansson: Ambassador of the North. Montreal: Harvest House, 1963.

  • Muir, John, The Cruise of the Corwin. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1993.

  • Niven, Jennifer, The Ice Master. New York: Hyperion, 2000.

  • Noice, Harold, Back of Beyond. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1939.

  • Noice, Harold, With Stefansson in the Arctic. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1924.

  • Norman, Howard, Northern Tales. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

  • Petrone, Penny, Northern Voices: Inuit Writing in English. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.

  • Pierce, R. V., M.D., The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser. Buffalo, New York: The World’s Dispensary Medical Association, 1918.

  • Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, The Adventure of Wrangel Island. New York: Macmillan, 1925.

  • Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, The Friendly Arctic. New York: Macmillan, 1921.

  II. Other Selected Secondary Sources

  • Brower, Charles D., Fifty Years Below Zero: A Lifetime of Adventure in the Far North. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1994.

  • Brown, Dale, Wild Alaska. N
ew York: Time-Life Books, 1972.

  • Carlyle, Thomas, Heroes and Hero Worship. Chicago: Donohue Brothers.

  • Carpenter, Kenneth, The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

  • Case, Victoria and Robert Ormond, We Called It Culture: The Story of Chautauqua. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1948.

  • Daniel, Thomas M., Captain of Death: The Story of Tuberculosis. Boydell & Brewer, 1999.

  • De Coccola, Raymond and Paul King, The Incredible Eskimo: Life Among the Barren Land Eskimo. Canada: Hancock House, 1989.

  • Diubaldo, Richard J., Stefansson and the Canadian Arctic. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1978.

  • Feeney, Robert E., Polar Journeys: The Role of Food and Nutrition in Early Exploration. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press and American Chemical Society, 1997.

  • Harrison, Harry P. as told to Karl Detzer, Culture Under Canvas: The Story of Tent Chautauqua. New York: Hastings House, Publishers, 1958.

  • Harvard Classics, Pepita Jimenez, A Happy Boy, and Skipper Worse. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1917.

  • Harvie, David I., Limeys: The True Story of One Man’s War Against Ignorance, the Establishment and the Deadly Scurvy. Sutton Publishing, 2002.

  • Hess, Alfred, Scurvy: Past and Present. Academic Press, 1982.

  • LeRoux, Odette, Marion E. Jackson, and Minnie Aodla Freeman, Inuit Women Artists. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994.

  • McClintock, Captain Francis, The Voyage of the ‘Fox.’ Könemann, 1998.

  • Mountfield, David, A History of Polar Exploration. New York: The Dial Press, 1974.

  • Murray, John, Alaska. Compass American Guides, 1997.

  • Nelson, Richard K., Hunters of the Northern Ice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

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