Investigating the life of Asa Packer proves quite challenging for the researcher. Lehigh University’s Special Collections has digitized the overwhelming majority of Asa Packer’s known writings, a paltry 11 letters. Three different twentieth-century biographies of the man combine to total 59 pages. W. Ross Yates, author of the most recent biography, wrote “there is no definitive biography of Asa Packer and none is likely to appear, for the simple reason that sufficient primary sources are lacking. Even the few accounts about him that appeared during his lifetime contain errors that he apparently made no attempt to correct.”
Part of the intrigue surrounding Packer is the lack of reliable information available to interested historians. This research team found material about Packer not contained in previous biographies and letters possibly unknown to earlier scholars. However, the total yield is still surprising for a figure of such national prominence. As a result, we have concerned ourselves with telling the story of Packer through some of the major events of the nineteenth century as well as unpacking some of the myths perpetuated about his life.
That Asa Packer remains an elusive mystery is perhaps best exemplified by the question of his birthday. Alexander K. McClure, an acquaintance of Asa Packer, recorded his birthday as December 29, 1806. In contrast, an account of Packer’s career written during his lifetime modestly noted that his birth occurred “near the beginning of the year 1806.” Charles Rathbone Stark wrote that Packer’s birthday was December 20, 1806. Yet, the most prominent birthdate for Asa Packer is December 29, 1805. No source gives concrete evidence for Packer’s birthday and it is not certain if Asa himself knew the actual day. Symbolically, the uncertainties surrounding his birthday perfectly indicate the mythic fog that surrounds knowledge about Packer. This exhibit endeavors to demystify or explain uncertainties about Asa Packer, but at times it also sparks new questions and thoughts about an often times mysterious figure. Please consult the timeline below to see a quick overview of major events in the life of Asa Packer, visit the map of "Asa Packer's World," and then continue your tour with "Packer the Industrialist."