The Female Robinson Crusoe: Who Was Ada Blackjack?

Jennifer Niven
for National Geographic News
January 15, 2004

Jennifer Niven writes books about real-life adventurers. For her latest book she focused on the "female Robinson Crusoe" of the early 1920s—23-year-old Ada Blackjack, the unlikely hero of an arduous expedition into the far North to desolate, uninhabited Wrangel Island for the purpose of claiming the island for Great Britain.

I am not a rugged mountain climber or explorer. I do not thrive on extreme outdoor situations and adventures. I do not enjoy the cold nor do I particularly enjoy "roughing it." I like my conveniences, my creature comforts, and I am much more likely to subscribe to In Style magazine than to the REI catalogue. Perhaps that is why, whenever I tell strangers that I am an author, I usually hear: "Let me guess—romance novels!" When I tell them that I've actually written two nonfiction accounts of real-life Arctic adventure history, the second response tends to be: "Where's your beard? Your pipe? Your outdoor gear? What's a girl like you doing writing books like this?"

The answer, of course, is because of the story.

My first book—The Ice Master—and my second book—Ada Blackjack—have many things in common. They are both nonfiction. They are both set in the Arctic. They both feature a controversial leader and a thrilling struggle for survival. They even share two of the same characters. But the primary—and most vital—element they share is that they are inspiring stories about amazing everyday people who triumph over remarkable odds. It is this aspect of each that compelled me to write these books. And I didn't need to wear hiking boots to do so.

My mother, Penelope Niven, is an author as well, and ever since she instilled "writing time" into my childhood routine, I have loved a good story. While she sat at her grown-up desk, I sat at my little one, crayons in hand, composing fanciful tales about ordinary people who did extraordinary things. From her, I learned to find the story in everything, to appreciate wonderful characters, and to discover that I could actually realize my dreams of being a Charlie's Angel, an astronaut, an archaeologist, and an actress because a writer is detective, adventurer, explorer, researcher, scholar, and chameleon in one. It has never occurred to me to limit my imagination.

That is one reason I identify with Ada Blackjack. No one who met her would immediately classify her as a hero. Just 23 years old, she was barely five feet tall, unskilled, timid, and completely ignorant of the world outside Nome, Alaska. She was deathly afraid of guns and of polar bears. She knew nothing about hunting, trapping, living off the land, or even building an igloo. She had a questionable reputation and was despondent over a failed marriage and a chronically ill young son. When she signed on as seamstress of the 1921 Wrangel Island Expedition—in search of a husband and money to care for her son— the men considered her a hindrance and a nuisance. They scoffed that she would never make it. Yet Ada alone survived, having taught herself the skills she needed to endure.

I first heard of Ada when I was researching my book The Ice Master. I discovered that one of the men I was writing about, Fred Maurer, had miraculously survived that prior expedition—and the horrific elements of remote Wrangel Island—only to return to that same island years later. I was mystified as to why Maurer would go back after all he had suffered there. But even more than that, I was intrigued by the woman's story. Who was Ada Blackjack?

Searching for answers, I discovered numerous materials housed in archives in Canada, Alaska, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. But I also discovered descendants of Ada and the men, who came forward to share their memories and their private papers. First and foremost, there was Ada's own diary. The rest of the story is filled in by her collection of papers; the two-volume diary of her comrade Lorne Knight; the letters and papers of the other three men; and the memories and knowledge of Billy Blackjack Johnson, Ada's second son, who gave me full access to his own materials and information.

Additionally, I received from the great-nephew of Milton Galle—the youngest member of the expedition—a treasure box filled with papers, letters, telegrams, photographs, and a partial journal. Until Milton Galle's nephew, Bill Lawless, generously entrusted them to my care, these papers had never been read or seen by anyone outside of the Galle family.

As someone once wrote to the mother of Allan Crawford, the young Canadian placed in charge of the party, "Real history is made up from the documents that were not meant to be published." This is where I found my story.

Hardship and Tragedy

It was controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson who sent the four young men and Ada Blackjack into the far North to desolate, uninhabited Wrangel Island for the purpose of claiming the island for Great Britain. Only two of the men had set foot in the Arctic before. They took with them six months' worth of supplies on Stefansson's theory that this would be enough to sustain them for a year while they lived off the land itself. But as winter set in, they were struck by hardship and tragedy. As months went by and they began to starve, they were forced to ration their few remaining provisions. When three of the men made a desperate attempt to seek help, Ada was left to care for the fourth, who was too sick to travel. Soon after, she found herself totally alone.

Continued on Next Page >>


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