signed on as seamstress for a top-secret expedition into the unknown Arctic

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A 1921 expedition left Ada Blackjack (center) stranded for two years in the Arctic.

Ada Blackjack

Ada Blackjack was an unlikely hero – an unskilled 23-year-old Inuit woman with no knowledge of the world outside Nome, Alaska. Divorced, impoverished, and despondent, she had one focus in her life – to care for her sickly young son. In September 1921, in search of money and a husband, she signed on as seamstress for a top-secret expedition into the unknown Arctic.

It was controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson who sent four young men and Ada Blackjack into the far North to desolate, uninhabited Wrangel Island. 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.

Ada Blackjack Johnson was born in Solomon, Alaska. Early in her life Blackjack relocated to Nome, Alaska. She married and gave birth to three children but only one survived past infancy. The death of her husband by drowning left her destitute, and she temporarily placed her son in an orphanage. Soon after, in 1921, she joined an expedition across the Chukchi Sea to Russia’s Wrangel Island led by Canadian Allan Crawford but financed, planned and encouraged by Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

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