Vail Daily column: A Halloween story from Colorado’s past

Katie Racette
Curious Nature

In the state of Colorado

In the year of seventy-four

They crossed the San Juan Mountains

Growing hungry to the core.

So really, when it comes down to it, cannibalism could be considered a natural technique used by wild animals and humans alike in order to survive.

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Their guide was Alferd Packer

And they trusted him too long:

For his character was weak

And his appetite was strong.

— From “The Ballad of Alferd Packer,” by Phil Ochs.

So begins the story of Alferd Packer, a Colorado cannibal and prospector whose attempt to get rich off of Breckenridge gold went horribly wrong. Alferd (rumor has it that the strange spelling of the name Alfred came about because he could not spell his own name correctly) and a group of five other men planned to travel from the Ute Camp of Chief Ouray near Montrose to Breckenridge with Packer as their guide. Their first mistake was ignoring the Utes’ warnings about the dangers of traveling across the Rocky Mountains during the winter months. Packer and his group were determined to be the first to exploit the newfound gold on the far side of the mountains, so they scoffed at the idea of waiting several months for warmer weather. Their second mistake was bringing along only 10 days worth of food. Although the trip would be a strenuous 75-mile journey, they were convinced that their unwavering ambition for riches would speed up their travel time. So, on Feb. 9, 1874, the crew set off into the wilderness unprepared.

Desperate Determination

Here, the story gets hazy, as Packer was the only surviving member of the party, and his story changed many times upon his return to civilization. As per the Ute’s forewarning, Packer and his party traveled for only a few days before encountering bad weather. A blizzard blew in and the group was forced to stop near Lake City, on what is now called Cannibal Plateau. The stories behind Packer’s companions’ deaths are unknown (Packer told several different accounts of what happened, making his tales unreliable).

From the follow-up investigation, however, it is known that at least one man was shot with Packer’s pistol, and all deceased men were obviously missing some flesh. Eventually, Packer admitted to eating his companions (but not killing them), although he claims that he was not the only member of the party to partake in cannibalism before they died. On May 16, over a month after the group began their journey, Parker arrived at the Los Pinos Indian Agency near Gunnison looking well-fed and healthy for someone who had just spent several weeks in the arduous mountain terrain.

Upon his emergence from the winter wilderness, Packer was tried for murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison. However, Packer was held for only a brief time before escaping from prison. He lived in Wyoming for nine years until he was recaptured. He then served a few more years in prison before receiving parole and moving to Littleton, where he became a model citizen (and a rumored vegetarian) for the rest of his days.

An Ecological Interaction

While humans may frown on cannibalism and view it as hostile behavior, it is an ecological interaction that is more common than you might think. It turns out that cannibalistic behavior is frequently recorded by insects, aquatic animals and even in cute, cuddly animals such as gerbils, owls and polar bears. Usually, animal cannibalism is a survival tactic and occurs if resources are running low or if there are stressful, rapidly changing environmental factors — not unlike Alferd Packer’s cannibalism situation.

So really, when it comes down to it, cannibalism could be considered a natural technique used by wild animals and humans alike in order to survive. If you were in Packer’s shoes, then would have done the same or would you have chosen to perish from starvation?

Katie Racette is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. She spends her time wandering around the White River National Forest on foot (and soon, skis!), with only slightly more direction than Alferd Packer.

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