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Alferd Packer – Never Ignore Native Wisdom

Alferd Packer: Soldier, Prospector, and Cannibal

The tale of Alferd Packer, Colorado’s most notorious but strangely revered cannibal…

One summer day, A man named John Randolph was hiking through a remote forest in Colorado when he began to smell something terrible. Intrigued, he followed the smell until it brought him to this clearing. And in the clearing, John saw what looked like an old campsite. Now, John is out in the middle of nowhere, so the idea that somebody was camping out here in what looked like a long-term settlement was pretty bizarre to John.

And so John walked into the clearing to see what was going on. And when he turned the corner and saw the ground in the middle of the campsite, he saw something that at first he couldn’t even process. It was just so horrible, it just looked fake. But eventually, he realized what he was looking at was real. At which point, John turned around, sprinted out of there, and began screaming for help…

On the freezing cold night of February 8th, 1874, a 65-year-old man named Israel Swan sat around this roaring fire with a big group of men inside of this valley in western Colorado. The men around the fire, including Israel, were all gold prospectors, which meant they traveled the western United States looking for gold. But over the past several weeks, this group of prospectors had been trapped in this valley because of all the terrible winter storms. They had these storms coming in that each time would dump up to 6 ft of snow.

But on this particular night, as Israel sat by the fire, enjoying the flames and hearing people tell stories, one of Israel’s friends, one of the other gold prospectors whose name was Alferd Packer, he stood up and basically pitched the whole group as to why they should come with him and leave the valley right now.

Alferd Packer
Alferd Packer

Basically, Alferd told the group that the weather was starting to turn a bit. It’s not as bad anymore. You know, the snow’s starting to melt. And Alferd said, “I know a pathway out of here that will take us out of this valley in just 2 weeks. And it’ll bring us right to Breckenridge, Colorado,” which was an area that was known by prospectors for having lots and lots of gold.

And so Alferd’s basically telling them, you know, “This is a win-win. We can get out of here sooner, and we can get rich.” After Alferd Packer made this pitch, he sat back down, and everybody just stayed quiet for a second. And Israel, he kind of looked around and watched to see if anybody would take Alferd up on his proposition. Now, Israel knew, unlike him, most of the other prospectors didn’t like Alferd.

Alferd Packer
Alferd Packer

They said he was lazy and difficult. But Israel felt like that was really not the reason they did not like his friend. He believed the reason other people did not like Alferd was because Alferd had epilepsy, which meant he periodically had seizures. And because he had seizures, it kind of made him a liability for journeys like this, where, you know, the whole group really needs to rely on everybody, and everybody needs to pull their own weight. And so they were kind of worried about a guy who at any moment could just become kind of useless because he was having a seizure.

But for Israel, Alferd’s epilepsy really didn’t matter. He didn’t feel like Alferd was some huge liability. He felt like Alferd was actually very smart and quite bold. And so for him to stand up and make this pitch just kind of felt like in keeping with who he was. He was somebody that wanted to get things done. And, you know, Israel liked that about him.

However, just because Israel liked Alferd Packer, that didn’t mean he was just going to naturally go with Alferd and do his big plan. But he was at least thinking about it. And as Israel was weighing out the pros and cons of whether or not he should go with Alferd, he happened to look across the fire, and he saw one of the men, this really big guy, was sitting there looking really serious and just shaking his head slowly back and forth, like, “No, you guys can’t be considering leaving early.” And then the big guy stood up and held out his hand right in front of Alferd, basically telling him, like, “Don’t say another word.” And then this guy, while still looking at Alferd, he said, “If you leave right now, all of your friends will die.” And then this big guy sat back down again.

And then everybody around the fire just sat there really tense for a few seconds in total silence. The big man who had just spoken was not a gold prospector. He was actually very different than the rest of the people sitting around this fire. His name was Ouray, and he was a Native American chief of the Tabeguache band of the Ute tribe.

Chief Ouray
Chief Ouray

And Chief Ourayhad actually saved the lives of everybody, Israel and Alferd included, who was sitting around this fire. Because a few weeks earlier, this whole group of gold prospectors had wound up lost in this valley, which was the valley where Chief Ouraylived with his tribe. And he had found them stumbling around on the brink of death with all the snow coming down.

And so Chief Ourayand his people brought the prospectors some food and water. They helped them set up a campsite right near a river. And then Chief Ouraytold them to stay put in this campsite and ride out the winter. And then in the springtime, when the snow melts, it’ll be safe for you all to leave. Now, at first, the gold prospectors were only thankful and just totally psyched that Chief Ouray had found them and given them this campsite. I mean, this was great. And so they had no problem agreeing to, you know, wait until the spring to finally leave.

But now, after several weeks of being kind of trapped in this camp, the whole group was really starting to get restless. They were worried if they didn’t leave soon, there’d be no more gold for them to mine. And for Israel specifically, there was even more pressure on him to go out and find gold because he had told his family that this would be his last treasure hunting adventure ever. And so he really couldn’t go home empty-handed. He literally needed the gold in order to continue to survive and take care of his family.

So when Alferd Packer stood up and broke the kind of tense silence and said to Chief Uray, “you know, thank you for your concern, but I am going to leave early and I just hope others will come with me,” you know, at that point, Israel saw the conviction in Alferd, and Israel really felt like he did need to leave now, he needed to get that gold. So Israel said, “you know what, I’ll go with you as well.” And then after Israel said he would go, four other gold prospectors also volunteered to leave early with Alferd.

Chief Uray could tell he was not going to change any of these guys’ minds. And so, even though he felt like this was a terrible idea, he shifted his focus from trying to stop them to just trying to give them as much information as he could about the area they were going to go into. And so, he called all the volunteers who’d be leaving early over to him.

Then Chief Uray drew a map in the dirt on the ground and he told Alferd, Israel, and the other four volunteers that, “you have to follow the river out of here. It’ll bring you to this mountain range called the San Juan mountain range, and you cannot attempt to go over those mountains. You will not make it. You got to follow that river and go around the mountain range. And then, once you do, on the other side, there will be an outpost where you can stop, get supplies, rest, and then continue the rest of the way towards Breen Ridge.”

The San Juan Moutain Range In Colorado
The San Juan Moutain Range In Colorado

And then after Chief Uray had explained all this, he made sure to mark an ‘x’ on his dirt map exactly where the outpost would be. And then Chief Uray just turned around and walked over to his horse and rode away. And then shortly after that, Alferd, Israel, and the rest of the gold prospectors also turned in for the night.

The next morning, Israel, Alferd Packer, and the other four volunteers who were going to be going on this journey got up early and began packing up their stuff. As they did, one of the other gold prospectors who had not volunteered to go with them, who would be staying in the valley until the springtime, actually came forward and said he would help them carry their supplies as far as he could go, you know, using his horse. But at some point, he would need to stop, drop off their stuff, and then they would be on their own. The men were very thankful about this, and so shortly after eating breakfast, they were all ready to go, and they hit the trail.

As Israel and the rest of the prospectors began to hike their way up and out of the valley, they began to see off in the distance the huge jagged mountains of the San Juan mountain range. But they were careful to kind of veer closer to the north to stay along that river path because they knew they were not supposed to go up and over the mountains.

As Israel trudged through the snow in a line of men, he held onto a coffee pot, a metal coffee pot that he kept hot coals inside of. This not only kept his hands warm but also if he ran out of matches, he could easily start a fire using the coals. It was an old trick he had learned. So as he’s clutching this magnificent warm coffee pot in the freezing cold weather, Israel heard someone walking up behind him. So he turned around and saw it was Alferd, and he looked totally miserable, way more miserable than Israel was. Without even thinking about it, Israel just handed off his warm coffee pot to Alferd, and Alferd took it and clutched it and was obviously so thankful.

None of these gold prospectors had struck it rich; they were all basically poor. But of all these gold prospectors, Alferd really had the least of all of them. And as a result, Israel felt protective of Alferd. Also, Alferd was half the age of Israel; Alferd was 30 years old. So Israel kind of viewed Alferd as like a lost kid trying to find his way.

Alferd Packer had also confided in Israel that when the Civil War broke out in the United States, Alferd had attempted to join the Union Army on two different occasions because he wanted to fight the slaveholding Confederate Army. But in both cases, they kicked Alferd out for his epilepsy. But that had not stopped Alferd from tattooing on his arm his Battalion information and his name. Unfortunately, because Alferd could not read or write, he misspelled his name when he gave it to the tattoo artist. And so when he got the tattoo, it did not say Alferd for his first name, it said Alferd, A-L-F-E-R-D. And from that point on, that was his name. Nobody called him Alferd; they called him Alferd. So this was kind of embarrassing for him.

This map shows how the party's path diverged significantly from their intended route, driving them deeper into the snow-covered mountains rather than skirting them along the river.
This map shows how the party’s path diverged significantly from their intended route, driving them deeper into the snow-covered mountains rather than skirting them along the river.

After getting rejected from the military, Alferd had bounced around from one job to the next, never really putting his roots down and never starting a family. So again, you know, Israel just felt like this was a guy who needed some help. So after Alferd very happily accepted that coffee pot from Israel, he in turn reached into his jacket and pulled out a flask with some alcohol in it, and he handed it to Israel, almost like a thank you for giving me this warm coffee pot. And then the two friends walked side by side for a while, you know, passing back and forth the flask and the coffee pot.

Then by late afternoon that day, when the snow was really starting to come down, the prospector who had volunteered to use his horse to help move some of their supplies had finally reached a point where he said, you know, “my horse can’t go any farther, the weather’s too bad.” And so he dropped all their supplies, and then he turned and headed back down the trail. Very likely as these men watched him disappear down the trail, they all had the same thought: “I just got to suck it up for two weeks to get through this treacherous journey, and I will get to Breen Ridge, and I will become rich.”

Two weeks would pass by, and Alferd Packer, Israel, and the other four prospectors did not show up at that outpost that Chief Uray had pointed out, which was on the other side of the San Juan Mountains. That was going to be their first official stop before they continued the rest of the way to Breen Ridge. And then another two weeks went by, and still, they did not show up at the outpost, and they didn’t show up at any of the other camps in the surrounding areas.

Now Alferd’s big plan for this group was really dependent on the weather holding up. When they left, it was true that the weather was improving; it was snowing less. But within a couple of days of this group setting off on the trip, those winter storms came back with a vengeance and just dumped snow all over the valley and all across the trail this group would have been on in their attempt to leave. But the only people who knew that these men had embarked on this perilous journey were the men themselves, and then also Chief Uray and the other gold prospectors who had decided to stay in the valley until spring. But even if Chief Uray and those other prospectors knew that Alferd, Israel, and the others were in trouble, you know, they would have no way of helping them or getting to them or even communicating to the outside world. They were completely stuck in the valley and basically couldn’t do anything.

And so in short, it appeared that Alferd, Israel, and the other four men were totally lost somewhere out in the wild, but nobody knew. But that would all change on April 16th, 1874, roughly two months after Israel, Alferd, and the others had begun what was supposed to be a two-week-long journey.

That morning, a group of officials who manned the outpost that Israel, Alferd, and the others were supposed to go to were having breakfast in one of the outpost’s little log cabins. And as they’re eating and talking to each other, suddenly from behind them, the door to the cabin flies open. And these officials, they turn around, and they see standing in the doorway is this totally disheveled-looking guy with long hair that’s sticking up in the air and a huge bushy beard.

And in one hand, he’s got a rifle, and in the other hand, he’s got a metal coffee pot. And his eyes were darting like crazy side to side, and he was clearly in shock, and he was trying to speak, but he just couldn’t. This man was Alferd Packer, and it was obvious to the officials that this man is in desperate need of help. And so without even asking him any questions, they whisked him inside, shut the door, got him some food, got him some water, and immediately Alferd’s wolfing down the food as fast as he can until he began vomiting.

At which point, he apologized profusely and said, “you know, I’ve been starving out in the wild for weeks, and, you know, it must have done something to my intestinal tract, you know, it’s probably damaged.” But frankly, the officials did not care about the fact that he threw up all over the ground; they were worried this guy was going to die right then and there. And so the officials helped Alferd get cleaned up and put in warm clothes.

And then Alferd asked them, “you know, do you have any whiskey? I want to kind of warm my body up.” And they said, “no problem,” they handed him some whiskey. So Alferd threw a couple of shots back, and then after that, it was pretty obvious that Alferd had kind of relaxed a little bit. And then at that point, one of the officials asked Alferd, “what happened to you?” As soon as Alferd was asked this question, he shut his eyes and kind of grimaced like even the thought of what had happened to him was just too painful to think about.

But after a moment of silence, Alferd Packer, with his eyes still closed, told the officials that he had been with five men, and they were trying to hike their way out of the valley to get to Breen Ridge, Colorado, to look for gold. But as they were hiking this trail, this huge storm came in and made it really hard to navigate the trail they were on. And so the group decided they would actually cut through the San Juan mountain range, the thing Chief Uray said, “don’t do that, do not go over the mountains.”

The San Juan Moutain Range
The San Juan Moutain Range

They decided to do that. But as they were traversing these treacherous mountains, it was clear that Alferd was just not keeping up with the group. And so unfortunately, they made the decision to leave Alferd behind to die, and he knew he was being abandoned to die. And so he had to watch as his five friends disappeared into the snow.

But amazingly, Alferd did not die. Instead, he would spend the next nearly two months stumbling through the snowy forest, having no idea where he was going, eating roots and flowers, and looking for shelter any chance he got. But the thing that really allowed him to survive out in the wild was when he was abandoned by the five others; he was in possession of that coffee pot that had the coals inside of it.

And so at night, he was able to start fires. And then also at one point, he was so hungry that he cooked his leather shoes in the fire and ate them because, again, this guy is starving. And so really, he was on the brink of death when he randomly stumbled into this outpost and found this cabin.

After Alferd Packer finished telling his story, the officials were just totally shocked and silent, and Alferd eventually would ask them a question. He would say, “have any of my men come through here? Did anybody else survive?” And they would say, “no, it’s only you, we have not seen anybody else.”

Now, the officials did not send out a search party right away, mostly because it seemed kind of obvious that Alferd’s men were likely dead by this point. It’s been two months since they started that journey, you know, the chances are just not good that they have survived. But even if these other men were not dead yet, the officials had no idea where to begin their search.

They knew that if they actually wanted to go looking for these guys, they would need Alferd to lead the search because he’s the only one who knows where they could be. But Alferd was not healthy enough to go out in the wild and lead a search, and so for several weeks, Alferd just stayed in the outpost, resting and recovering.

Alferd Packer
Alferd Packer

And then finally, when he was healthy enough, he would go out and lead a search party to go find the missing men. But unfortunately, he couldn’t find anything. And so it wasn’t until that summer when all the snow had finally melted that the mystery was finally solved about what happened to those other men.

On August 20th, 1874, a traveling artist named John Randolph was hiking through a forest in western Colorado, roughly in the area where those other prospectors would have been walking on their attempt to leave the valley. And as John Randolph was walking through that area, he began smelling this horrible smell. And so John followed the smell until it brought him to this clearing.

And then in the clearing was what looked like an old beat-up campsite. And so, being curious, John walked into the clearing to see who was in this campsite. But when he turned the corner and saw what was on the ground in the middle of this campsite, he froze. Because on the ground in the middle of this campsite were five dead men all lying perfectly in a row. They were the source of the terrible smell.

Real Artistic Sketch of the Scene
Real Artistic Sketch of the Scene

And right away, even though John was in shock from what he’s seeing, he could tell that these five men did not die from something natural. One guy was missing his head altogether, and the other four had obvious signs of something being smashed really hard, probably repeatedly into their heads. But that wasn’t all.

The other thing John immediately noticed is that the five bodies were in very different states of decay. Two of the bodies were basically skeletons, but the other three were not. They were basically intact. Their chests had been cut and flayed open, but they all looked like they had died somewhat recently.

In fact, one of the men looked so lively that it seemed like he was just sleeping, despite the gaping wound in his chest and his head that clearly indicated he was dead.

Now, John wanted to turn and run away, but he had this morbid curiosity. He wanted to know what he was even looking at, you know, what happened to these guys. And so, kind of against his better judgment, he walked a little bit closer to the bodies. And when he got close enough, he noticed something else that was totally off about the scene.

The bones of Packer’s five traveling companions showed signs of defensive wounds on their arms, as well as butchering marks that seemed to indicate they were partially defleshed.
The bones of Packer’s five traveling companions showed signs of defensive wounds on their arms, as well as butchering marks that seemed to indicate they were partially defleshed.

When he was looking down at these men, he could tell that the wounds they had sustained, especially in their chest, looked surgical. Like whoever had wounded them, whoever had cut them, had done so with an incredible amount of precision. This was not random hacks that got these guys killed. This was like a butcher carving up meat.

And then John happened to look up from these five bodies, and he noticed just a little ways away was the remains of a burned-out fire pit. And then there was a trail that kind of led off into the woods behind the fire. And so again, you know, John, he wants to run, but he can’t help but be really curious.

And so he walked past the bodies, he went to the fire pit, and he followed that trail kind of back into the woods. And he found this ramshackle shelter kind of tucked away in the woods that was abandoned. No one was in there, but it had all the signs of someone living there for a pretty long period of time.

And then suddenly, it was like all these pieces came together, and John realized what he had just stumbled on. Clearly, those five men had been murdered, and the person who murdered them very likely lived in this camp. And over the course of what looks like weeks or months, this person was butchering these men and then cooking their body parts over that fire and eating them.

This is like a cannibal camp. And John, you know, he’s thinking, “Is this guy going to come back? You know, whoever lives here, are they coming back soon?” He didn’t know. And so kind of in a panic, he pulled out a sketchbook, he sketched the area, and then he turned and sprinted out of there to go find help.

It would turn out John, the illustrator, was totally correct about what he thought was happening at that camp. After Alferd Packer was left behind to die, those five other men carried on into the night, up into the mountains. And then somebody attacked them, began killing them, and eating them. And that person was Alferd. That was why Alferd had survived for so long. It wasn’t just that he was able to make fires at night; it was that he was able to make fires at night and eat his friends.

Now, no one has ever been able to actually determine how Alferd went about killing these five men or even when he killed these five men. All we know is that based on the investigation, four of his victims appeared to have been asleep when they were murdered. But the fifth victim, who actually was Israel, the one guy who really liked Alferd and looked out for him and was kind of like a father figure to him, he was the only one who showed signs of a big struggle before he was murdered.

While Alferd denied killing all five of the men, he said that he basically only killed one of them, and it was self-defense, and somebody else killed the other four. You know, it was kind of confusing, you know, despite those claims he had.

The one thing Alferd Packer never denied was the cannibalism. In fact, Alferd straight up told authorities that he grew to really like the taste of human meat. In fact, when they searched that campsite that John Randolph found, they would find the remains of a dead deer that was right near the campsite. But despite it being right there, Alferd never attempted to carve it up and eat it. He just kept going back to his stockpile of human meat and eating that.

Real Courtroom Sketch Of Alferd's Trial
Real Courtroom Sketch Of Alferd’s Trial

In the end, Alferd Packer was convicted of murder, and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. But in 1901, when he was 92 years old, he was granted parole. And right away, Alferd became a vegetarian. And then he died a few years later.

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