One hundred thirty-five years ago this spring, a six-week ordeal began for Alferd E. Packer. The starving and disoriented man stopped eating wild rose hips. Trapped in the deep snows of the San Juan Mountains of western Colorado, he began gnawing on the corpses of his deceased comrades. Thus began one of the West's most grisly and enduring legends and murder mysteries.
Packer had been part of a larger band of 20 gold-seekers who left Utah and split up into two groups. On Feb. 9, 1874, he and five other prospectors departed Chief Ouray's winter camp. Instead of accepting the chief's gracious offer to stay, the would-be miners foolishly headed out into deep snow.
Packer later stated, "Three or four days after our provisions were all consumed, we took our moccasins, which were made of raw hide, and cooked them ... Our trail was entirely drifted over. In places, the snow had blown away from patches of wild rose bushes, and we were gathering the buds from these bushes, stewing them and eating them."
Packer left Utah with few provisions and no weapons. Nine weeks later at the Los Pinos Indian Agency south of present day Gunnison, Colo., he arrived with a Winchester rifle, a skinning knife and a coffeepot containing live coals. He looked surprisingly fit.
Packer drifted over to Dolan's saloon to play high stakes poker and bought a $70 horse. Another of the original gold-seekers arrived and asked him where he had gotten his spending money. Packer reluctantly admitted that the small band had starved in the San Juans. After Israel Swan, the oldest member of the group, died from hunger and exposure, Packer admitted they had eaten him.
Jailed in Saguache, Packer escaped, changed his identity and was arrested in Wyoming before being returned to Hinsdale County for trial. The area northeast of Lake City where Packer's party became lost is now listed on maps as Cannibal Plateau. The site where the bodies were found five miles beyond town is known as Deadman's Gulch.
After being recaptured, Packer said that while he was out trying to find the Indian Agency, Shannon Bell killed James Humphrey, George Noon and Frank Miller as they slept around the campfire. Packer had been out searching for food, and when he returned to camp, a raging Shannon Bell accosted him with a hatchet. Packer said he fired twice with a pistol, shooting Bell in self-defense.
He explained that after killing Bell, "I tried to get away every day, but could not, so I lived on the flesh of these men the greater part of the 60 days I was out. Then the snow began to have a crust and I started out up the creek. ..." His lawyer mounted a spirited defense but Packer went off to prison for 17 years before the Denver Post petitioned to have him released. In the penitentiary he made horsehair bridles and built elaborate Victorian dollhouses. Though Packer died in 1907, his misspelled name and his reputation lives on. You might say he's evolved from Old West infamy to New West celebrity.
The Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction contains a rusted 1862 Colt Police Model, .32 five-shot revolver with two shots fired. Mesa State College's Electron Microscopy Facility proved that bullet fragments exhumed from the burial site match lead from the old pistol found in the 1950s on the Cannibal Plateau. Perhaps Packer really did shoot Shannon Bell in self-defense. Museum curator David Bailey believes so: "Alferd didn't deny he ate the bodies, but he killed only in self defense. It's never too late for the truth. He was wrongly convicted."
His memory is alive and well in Lake City as well, where "Al Packer Days," the Packer Burger at the Cannibal Grill and a large wooden marker proclaiming the Alferd Packer Massacre Site are popular attractions. Students at the University of Colorado in Boulder renamed their student union restaurant the Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill, and in print there's Alferd Packer's Wilderness Cookbook. Two students at the University of Colorado's film school, who later created the TV hit South Park, produced Cannibal! The Musical! But like Packer's companions, the film was short-lived.
Prospectors nowadays rarely trudge through deep snows searching for gold mines. Still, we have lots of backcountry skiers, boarders and snowshoers heading for deep powder. However you choose to enjoy the high country, take a lesson from the Al Packer story: Keep your gear in good condition, carefully choose your companions, and take a few extra granola bars -- just in case.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.