So it was interesting reading in the LA Times today that an archaeological excavation of a camp occupied by the Donner family that winter failed to find any evidence of human bone in the food remains. Julie Schablitsky and Kelly Dixon presented a paper this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology giving the results of their excavations at the camp at Alder Creek. It seems that the Donner Party had settled into two different camps after they were stranded, and the Donner family camped with part of the group near Alder Creek.
The researchers found food residue that showed the people were stressed - they ate their pets - but nothing to indicate cannibalism. They are careful to say that this is not absolute proof either way, but descendants of the Donners are claiming vindication as their ancestors reported they had not taken part in cannibalism.
I have posted here before on cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest, but this reminded me of another tale of 19th century American cannibalism and archaeology less well known than the Donner Party. That is the story of Alferd Packer.
Packer (1842-1907) was a Union Army veteran from Pennsylvania who headed West after the Civil War. In fall of 1873 he was the member of a party of 21 gold prospectors who left Provo, Utah headed for diggings near Gunnison, Colorado. The progress of the party was stalled by winter weather. Despite advice to wait until spring to resume the trip, Packer and five other men pressed on in February, 1874.
Packer straggled in alone to the Los Pinos Indian Agency near Gunnison in April. He told officials there that he and his companions were trapped by snow in the mountains. His five fellow travelers left to hunt for food and never returned. He toughed it out alone and came down from the mountains when he could. Later he ran into some members of the original party of 21 in a bar at Saguache, Colorado. They didn't believe his story and reported him to the authorities. He was arrested and began telling the first of what became many versions of what happened.
When Packer and his party were trapped by snow and ran out of food he did admit to having cannibalized his companions' bodies after their deaths. But at various times he either said that he hadn't killed any of them, or had shot and killed one man in self-defense. He signed a confession in May, 1874, and was jailed in Saguache. The judge who was remanding him for trial is famously said to have stated, "There was only seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you done et five of them." That month the bodies of the five men were found near what is now Lake City, Colorado (the area is called Cannibal Mesa on USGS maps) with evidence of foul play. The bodies were in bad shape either from cannibalism or scavenging by animals.
Later in May, Packer escaped from jail and was not seen again until discovered living under a alias in Wyoming nine years later. He was returned to Colorado for a sensational trial in 1883. He was found guilty of murder, that was overturned on appeal, and he was convicted of manslaughter in a second trial. Packer was sentenced to 40 years in prison and was paroled after 17 years. He lived the rest of his life quietly near Denver and is buried in a VA cemetery there.
There have always been many questions about Packer. He always maintained he was not a murderer and that he had been forced into a survival cannibalism. He was paroled after a campaign by sympathizers convinced the governor of Colorado that he was likely innocent of murder.
A friend and graduate school colleague of mine, Doug Scott, relocated Packer's camp in the late 1970s when he was BLM district archaeologist for that area. In 1989, the grave where the five bodies were buried was excavated, and the remains subjected to a forensic examination. The results of this were reported by Alison Rautman and Todd Fenton in an article in the April 2005 American Antiquity.
This picture of the excavated bodies comes from their report. Their analysis leaves little doubt that Packer was a murderer. To quote: "...the forensic interpretation of this peri-mortem bone damage on all five skeletons is that the individuals were killed, one after another, by repeated blows to the head with a heavy sharp object such as an axe...Defensive wounds to the arms of three individuals suggest that at least three of the men were conscious during the attack and had attempted to defend themselves."
And he did butcher them out. These charts from the Rautman and Fenton report are "cut mark" maps of two of the skeletons. You can see how Packer filleted meat from the arms and thighs.
Alferd Packer has reached a sort of folkloric status in Colorado. At the University of Colorado in Boulder the snack bar in the student union is the "Alferd Packer Grill." When I was in school there they had an Alferd Packer Day in the Grill each spring with poetry contests, eating contests, and songs about his life. They even printed Alferd Packer Day t-shirts with the slogan "Have a Friend for Lunch." I'm told there is a statue of him on campus now. Folk-singer Phil Ochs wrote a song about him. Cannibal! The Musical is a movie based on Packer.
Interesting, isn't it, the strange take our modern culture has on this subject.