A Brief History of Lake City:
The infamous prospect party led by Alferd Packer entered the San Juan region in winter of 1873 - 1874. Led by Packer, the party of 21 prospectors departed from Bingham Canyon, Utah on November 8, 1873 in hopes of being among the first to locate mining claims in the San Juan region.
They reached the Ute encampment near present-day Montrose on January 21, 1874 with their food and supplies exhausted. Here, the party of 21 prospectors split into three factions. Chief Ouray warned the men about the treacherous winter conditions ahead of them.
Some men paid a trespassing fee to Chief Ouray and camped with the Utes for the rest of the winter; others accepted a week's worth of provisions from Ouray and traveled on to the Los Pinos Agency in Saguache County (this group nearly perished after losing its way in the harsh mountain wilderness).
A third group ignored Ouray's warnings. Five prospectors outfitted with a week's worth of provisions followed Packer on February 9 southeast then south along the Lake Fork past the site that would become the townsite of Lake City within six months.
Nothing was heard from the six prospectors for nearly three months until Packer arrived alone on April 16 at the Los Pinos Agency. He proceeded on to Saguache, were he attracted suspicion by spending large sums of money and having in his possession a rifle that had belonged to one of the missing men. Packer was arrested and jailed at Saguache and issued a confession to the crime.
In August of that year, a prospecting party discovered the bodies of the five missing men. An illustrator from Harpers Weekly accompanied the group and recorded the scene in visual graphic detail that riveted national attention on the grisly crime.
Packer escaped the jail in Saguache and remained a free man for nine years. He was finally apprehended in Wyoming in 1883 and brought back to Hinsdale County where he was tried, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to hang.
Packer appealed for a re-trial on the grounds that the crime was committed on the Ute Reservation in early 1874 and should therefore be subject to federal rather than local jurisdiction. He was incarcerated at Gunnison where he awaited retrial for nearly four years, in the meantime becoming a local celebrity. Packer's retrial in 1886 found him guilty of five counts of manslaughter and he was sentenced to forty years of hard labor at the state penitentiary in Cañon City.
In the early 1900s, news reporter Polly Pry launched a journalistic campaign to release Packer, and Denver Post publishers Fred Bonfils and Harry Tammen hired a lawyer to defend him. Packer received parole in 1905 and died two years later at a ranch near Deer Creek in western Jefferson County.
Packer's case reflects the eagerness of prospectors to trespass into the Ute reservation and illustrates how swiftly development took place once the San Juan region opened.
The incident is also significant as the only known trial in the United States associated with human cannibalism, attracting national and international attention to Lake City and its environs. Although modern myth states that Packer was convicted of cannibalism, this is totally incorrect. Packer was tried and found guilty of murder in the first trial, and of manslaughter in the second trial.
Alferd G. Packer (1842-1907) is the prospector who was accused of committing murder during the winter of early 1874.
According to The Case of Alferd Packer, by Paul H. Gantt, Gunnison photographer Frank E. Deane took this portrait of Alferd Packer during the 1886 trial. Copies of the photo were sold for 50 cents "to the curious." Click on photo for larger pop-up version.
Packer and five others ventured into the wilderness of the San Juan Mountains in January of 1874, against the advice of Chief Ouray. The men became lost, and without proper provisions or equipment, they were cold and hungry.
Of the six men, only Packer lived. With a weak story and lack of cooperation, Packer made a confession and was arrested for suspicion of murdering and stealing from his companions.
First found guilty of murder in 1883 in Lake City, this conviction was overturned. Packer was eventually sentenced to 40 years in prison after being convicted of manslaughter in a second trial in Gunnison in 1886.
Packer admitted to eating the flesh of his companions in order to survive, but held to his story that Shannon Bell had killed the other men, and that Packer killed Bell in self-defense.