Alfred Packer's World: Risk, Responsibility, and the Place of Experience in Mountain Culture, 1873-1907

By Di Stefano, Diana | Journal of Social History, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Alfred Packer's World: Risk, Responsibility, and the Place of Experience in Mountain Culture, 1873-1907

Di Stefano, Diana, Journal of Social History

On the morning of April 16, 1874, the bedraggled figure of a lone prospector appeared at the Los Pinos Indian Agency near Gunnison, Colorado. Asking for a drink of whiskey, the man said that he and five others had left a larger party of miners at Chief Ouray's winter camp on the other side of the mountains in January. He claimed that his companions left him behind when due to exhaustion, frozen feet, and a bad case of snow-blindness, he could not keep up with them. He told his audience that he had spent months trapped in the snowy mountains existing off of the land.

But over the next few weeks the prospector's tale unraveled. When members of the original Utah party arrived at the Agency they pressured the man to explain what exactly had happened to his companions. He seemed too well fed for a man who had spent the winter in the mountains and he had more money than any of them had seen him with during the trip. He eventually broke down and revealed a horrible series of events that started ten days after their journey began. The prospector confessed "one after another" the men "had been killed by the remainder to be used as food by the rest." (1) He admitted that he had killed the last man in self-defense not twenty miles from the Agency.

Later that summer a search party led by the prospector failed to find the grisly trail of bodies. Despite the lack of evidence the Sheriff of Saguache decided to arrest the man under suspicion of murder anyway, an inclination strengthened after the discovery of the mutilated corpses in the mountains. The prisoner's claims of innocence weakened after an inquest decided that it looked as if someone had brutally killed the men in their sleep. A new warrant formally charged the prospector with the murder of the five men, but he escaped from jail before he went to trial.

Alfred Packer, sometimes known as Alferd, prospector, cannibal, and possible murderer followed others driven to extreme actions in the Mountain West. (2) The famous cannibalistic Donner Party preceded him by twenty-seven years, and perhaps he knew of the troubles of this group of overlanders caught in early winter snows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By the end of the winter of 1846-47, the original eighty-seven members of the Donner Party had dwindled to forty-seven, the few staying alive on the flesh of the dead. (3) Hints of foul play also followed the Donner Party incident. No charges were filed, but similar to the Packer case, while the idea of cannibalism revolted readers, the possibility of murder stirred public outrage more than the disgusting act. In fact, no laws forbade anthropophagism.

Even so, posterity remembers both the Donner Party incident and the Packer case for what they ate, the events attributed to a time when the elements held power over the ill prepared. As such, Packer's misdeeds have sat comfortably within the boundaries of Western legend. His guilt or innocence, as well as dining preferences, have found expression in countless biographies and his court cases have also received scholarly attention. (4) Others have remembered Packer creatively in the form of a song by Phil Ochs ("The Ballad of Alfred Packer", 1964), and three feature length films "The Legend of Alfred Packer," directed by Jim Roberson (1980), "Cannibal! The Musical," directed by Trey Parker (1996), and "Devoured: The Legend of Alfred Packer," directed by Kevin Rapp (2005). The University of Colorado, Boulder, honored Packer, where diners can eat at the Alferd Packer Grill, as well as frolic at the on-again, off-again celebration, Alferd Packer Days. Finally, if none of these options whets appetites, one can always run the Alferd Packer Trail Challenge near Denver and then whip up a meal based on a recipe from Alferd Packer's High Protein Cookbook. (5)

But behind the matter of his guilt or innocence, his place among notorious Westerners, and light-hearted tributes to his history, Packer's story offers an opportunity to complicate tendencies to define pioneers', settlers', miners', and others' relationship with their environment in simple "man versus nature" terms.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Alfred Packer's World: Risk, Responsibility, and the Place of Experience in Mountain Culture, 1873-1907


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?