The Grisly Tale of the “Colorado Cannibal” Alfred Packer, as Seen in the Records of the Office of Indian Affairs

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records.

What exactly happened in the brutal winter conditions of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains nearly 150 years ago, when Alfred Packer survived by eating the bodies of his five companions, will never be known—only Packer lived to tell the tale, and his story is known to have changed over the rest of his life. But as the newspaper editor character famously uttered in the John Ford classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when “the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In the years since, Packer’s legend has certainly grown—gallons of ink have been spilled detailing and embellishing the story along with even films; in 1993 Colorado native Trey Parker kicked off his entertainment career while still in college with “Cannibal! The Musical,” about Packer. Archival records also abound, in the form of newspaper accounts from the time, court and prison records, and personal correspondence. Denver Public Library’s Western History and Genealogy Department holds a collection of correspondence in their Alfred Packer Papers, the Colorado State Archives has an Alfred Packer Collection, and History Colorado also focused on Packer in a recent exhibit. But the genesis of the entire story, the initial bombshell of what Packer had done, is actually found in the National Archives Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, holdings in Washington, DC.

Image of a post card depicting Alfred Packer staring blankly while on his knees in the snow with a bloody bone in his hands. Around him are bloody skeletons laying in the snow, along with rocks and trees.
Depictions of Alfred Packer in popular culture are common. Here we see a highly sensationalized tableau that was at the long closed Denver Wax Museum. (Image of postcard front from author’s personal collection)

Our story starts at the Los Piños Agency in the Territory of Colorado. Originally called the Conejos Agency, it was established in 1860 to first administer the Tabeguache band of Ute. When the Ute Reservation was created in 1868, the agency was moved to a site on the Los Piños Creek and soon after assumed that name. Charles Adams had been appointed Indian Agent there in 1872 and was on post when Packer arrived in the spring of 1874.

Photograph of six individuals, four of whom are seated with two individuals standing behind them.
Noted here on the back as “C. Adams,” it is widely believed that the man standing in this frame is Charles Adams, taken when he accompanied Chief Ouray and Chief Ignacio as part of a Ute delegation to Washington, DC, in 1880. [Ute Tribal Delegation to Washington, D.C.], March 1880, Albumen silver print ,The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, there were three layers of bureaucracy in the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA): the individual Indian agencies, the superintendencies, and the headquarters. (Completely disestablished in 1885, the superintendencies were organized by state or territory and were in charge of all lesser OIA agencies, subagencies, and offices within their jurisdiction.) Until 1875 the records of individual Indian agents were considered their own property, so we only learn of their actions through the letters and reports they sent to their superiors. That is how we discover the sordid tale of Alfred Packer in our holdings. 

In 1870 the Colorado Superintendency had been abolished, and Indian agents from then on reported directly to the commissioner, so we turn to the correspondence collection, “Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824–1880.” This series is a massive, 629-cubic-foot collection of correspondence and reports sent to the OIA commissioner’s office by agency employees as well as private citizens, American Indians themselves, presidents, congressmen, and other federal agency officials. Topics covered run the gamut including education, health, medical care, finances, general administrative issues, agriculture, land, emigration, finances, claims, complaints, instructions, requests, and decisions. This series was microfilmed, and with the National Archives’ recent push to digitize microfilm publications, we can now browse these records through our online Catalog.

The collection is organized by OIA office, thereunder by year and loosely by a number filing system, so we turn to the heading “Colorado” to locate records coming from the territory. Nearly all the letters in the file for the first months of 1874, including that April, were from the Los Piños Agency and covered mundane topics like schools, acquisitions, road building plans, and instances of trespassing on the reservation that Adams had investigated. Packer arrived on April 16, but that alone didn’t warrant a letter to DC. It wasn’t until May, when Adams got the entire grisly story out of Packer, that Adams relayed the account to DC. On May 4 Adams submitted his typical monthly report but five days later sent along another letter, reporting “circumstances by which five men lost their lives on Ute Indian reservation.”

Close up of a map location of the Los Piños Agency in the upper right, still noted here as a Ute agency although it had moved west in 1875 to a location on the Uncompahgre River. Note Lake City to the southwest, where today the “Alferd [sic] Packer Massacre Site” marks where the bodies of the victims are supposedly interred.
In this excerpt from an 1880 Thayer’s Map of Colorado, held by our Cartographic branch, we see the location of the Los Piños Agency in the upper right, still noted here as a Ute agency although it had moved west in 1875 to a location on the Uncompahgre River. Note Lake City to the southwest, where today the “Alferd [sic] Packer Massacre Site” marks where the bodies of the victims are supposedly interred.

In his letter Adams sets the scene. That winter, twenty-one miners from Utah, enticed by stories of gold fields, had been caught in a brutal mountain storm. The group found Chief Ouray’s winter camp, where they were taken in and helped. In January five men departed against Ouray’s advice and were found nearly dead by Adam’s herders near the Gunnison cattle camp. Shortly after that group left, another six men including Packer set out on February 1, telling Ouray they wanted to reach the Los Piños Agency. Packer finally did arrive at the agency, alone, over two months later on April 14 and “evidently in good health and condition,” according to Adams.

Packer initially told Adams that his feet froze shortly after leaving Ouray’s camp, so his colleagues left him provisions along with a rifle and continued on. Packer said once healed, he continued on and had assumed the others perished. Adams initially believed the story and began planning to send a party out to find the men, but grew suspicious—especially after it was noted that Packer possessed several things that appeared to belong to the other men as well as large amounts of money. Packer finally confessed: “one after another of these five people had been killed by the remainder to be used as food by the rest, and he himself had killed the last remaining man only about 20 miles of this agency.” 

Packer then claimed instead that two died of starvation and those men were eaten first. As Adams told the commissioner, he did not doubt this story in the least; “Mr. Packer looked quite fat when he arrived here and has since shown traces of mental aberration, which is said to be the consequence of eating human flesh.” Adams turned Packer over to the local magistrate and pledged any assistance he could give. He closed his letter by noting that the ten men who stayed with Chief Ouray also arrived that same month, well cared for and thanks to the Ute had “suffered comparatively very little.”

Agent Charles Adams’ account of the Alfred Packer incident (Charles Adams to Edward Smith; 5/9/1874, “Colorado Superintendency, 1861–1880: 1874” Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824–1880, microfilm publication M234, roll 204, frames 63–68)

So how did the commissioner respond? To check, we turn to the series “Letters Sent by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824–1886,” which was also microfilmed and since digitized. These transcribed outgoing letters are organized chronologically, with each volume containing an index of letter recipients. Through this index we see the commissioner wrote Adams twice after the above letter was sent. On June 11 he informed Adams of Henry Bond’s appointment to be his replacement, and on June 15 he wrote about a visiting engineer corps officer. That’s it. It appears from this series that the commissioner had no appetite for the Packer story.

Author’s note: The spelling of Packer’s first name varies in places, between “Alferd” and “Alfred.” For consistency, and since the records cited here do not note a first name, I used “Alfred,” which is used in his subsequent court records and on his headstone.