The tale of a doomed gold-seeking trek that started in Provo and ended in cannibalism.
In 1873, a man by the name of Preston Nutter traveled to Utah with a friend after hearing rumors that miners in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains were striking it rich. When Nutter and his companion reached Provo, they joined up with a group of nineteen men also itching to make their fortunes in the Colorado gold fields. The group foolishly selected as their guide a man named Alfred Packer, a choice that – at least for some of the men in the party – would turn out to be disastrous.
By the time the group reached Colorado, it was late in the season and any attempt to cross the high mountain passes was reckless at best. Ute leader Ouray tried to convince the party to stay with him and wait for the spring thaw. By this time, Nutter believed Packer to be a “whining fraud” and decided, along with most of the miners, to wait out the winter with Ouray. But five men followed Packer into the mountains, believing his claim to be familiar with the San Juan country.
When spring came, Nutter crossed over to the Los Pinos Indian Agency – near present-day Gunnison, Colorado – just as Packer arrived in town looking remarkably fat and healthy, despite a long, miserable winter in the high country. Nutter was immediately suspicious, as were local authorities, who questioned Packer about his time in the mountains.
Eventually, Packer cracked and admitted that his group had become trapped in the heavy winter snows and resorted to cannibalism. He was the lone survivor, he confessed, because he’d killed his last remaining companion and had eaten him. Packer was arrested and convicted of murder, although his sentence was eventually commuted.
Preston Nutter, on the other hand, became a wealthy Utah cattle baron. No doubt he was happy he hadn’t made the mistake of trooping into the Colorado mountains with “man-eater” Alfred Packer.
Just another reason to choose your travel companions carefully.
Brandon Johnson for Utah Humanities © 2014
Image: "A Colorado Tragedy," in Harpers Weekly, October 17, 1847. Illustration by John A. Randolph. Randolph discovered the skeletal remains of five prospectors who had been killed and partially eaten by Alfred Packer. He then sat down and sketched the scene.
See Virginia N. Price and John T. Darby, “Preston Nutter: Utah Cattleman, 1886-1936,” Utah Historical Quarterly 32 (Summer 1964), pp 232-251; Paul H. Gannt, The Case of Alfred Packer, The Man-Eater (Denver: University of Denver Press, 1952); Max Evans, Preston Nutter Made Utah the Home of His Cattle Kingdom, 1995, accessed at http://historytogo.utah.gov/
The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org