Notable Oregonians: Luther Cressman - Anthropologist
Luther Sheeleigh Cressman was born near Pottstown, Pennsylvania on October 24, 1897, one of six sons of a country doctor and his musician/educator wife. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1918 after majoring in the Classics. Profoundly affected by the carnage of World War I, Cressman decided to be an Episcopalian priest and was ordained in 1923. He continued his studies and in 1925 earned a Masters Degree and Ph.D. at Columbia University in Sociology with a minor in Anthropology. In 1923, Cressman married fellow student Margaret Mead, who would go on to become one of the most famous anthropologists in American history. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1927. The next year he married Dorothy Loch who would be his wife until her death in 1977.
In 1927, Cressman renounced the ministry and in 1929 he accepted a position as sociology professor at the University of Oregon. By 1935 his anthropology research helped him justify the creation of the Department of Anthropology at the university. He served as chair of the department from its founding until his retirement in 1963.
Cressman became known as the father of Oregon anthropology by challenging many aspects of existing theories about prehistory in the Northwest. For example, he argued that early man moved from south to north along the western side of North America, contrary to traditional theories. He is most known for his 1938 discovery of well-preserved sagebrush bark sandals at Fort Rock in remote northern Lake County. Radiocarbon dating placed the age of the sandals at over 9,000 years. This shattered the belief that human occupation of the Far West went back no further than 4,000 years. Three decades later, Cressman again raised questions about the earliest date of human occupation when he found ashes from a fire in the Fort Rock Basin suggesting that humans moved from Alaska to the Americas at least 30,000 years ago.
Cressman organized the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural History and was a founding director of the Oregon State Museum of Anthropology. While he was mostly known for his pioneering work in the Great Basin of Oregon, he also actively researched Oregon coastal archaeological throughout the 1950s. Under his direction, the Oregon Coast Prehistory Program began a survey of coastal sites in 1951 and carried out several excavations during the rest of the decade.
Cressman continued to be an active researcher and writer during his long retirement until his death in 1994. He was named a Distinguished Alumnus at Penn State University. The University of Oregon bestowed its prestigious Charles E. Johnson Memorial Award for exceptional service to the university in 1988. Other honors awarded to Cressman included the Guggenheim Fellowship and the John Alsop King Fellowship.