Dr. Luther Cressman is considered the father of Oregon archaeology. Among his findings, he proved people were living in the Americas thousands of years earlier than previously thought. You can still visit a handful of these historic sites today. Skip below to check out the rural destinations.
Cressman is an interesting figure in Oregon history. He was a former Episcopal minister. While studying sociology at Columbia, he surrounded himself with future luminaries of the field and was briefly married to one: Margaret Mead. He was a workaholic. He was also a tireless adventurer.
While teaching sociology at the University of Oregon, Cressman’s interests led him outside of the classroom and into the field. As a sociologist, he connected with postmasters, locals and Native Americans around the state. As an academic, he drew upon their expertise to learn more about the landscape and culture. And as an adventurer, he mapped their collective stories to make groundbreaking discoveries.
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In 1938, Cressman and his students unearthed ancient artifacts that seismically altered the field of archaeology. Cressman’s findings continue to have profound effects on science today.
“He knew these rural sites were ancient in the ’30s and science is just now proving him right,” says Kami Horton, a producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Oregon Experience series. Horton has spent the last six months working on the hour-long documentary Luther Cressman, Quest for First People. It premieres May 12 at 9:00 p.m. on OPB TV.
Horton shares four Oregon locations that played a crucial role in Cressman’s discoveries that you can still check out today.
Note: Remember any object, no matter how small, can be important to the archaeological record. Visitors are welcome to check out some of these important archeological sites, but please leave everything the way you found it.
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“Photograph shows Klamath Indian chief in ceremonial headdress standing on hill overlooking Crater Lake, Oregon,” 1923
Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Crater Lake served as a geological compass for Cressman. When Mount Mazama exploded, it spread a blanket of ash as far as the Great Plains. In the 1930s, when Cressman uncovered artifacts from rural caves, he used the ash line as a time marker. Cressman didn’t know the exact date of the eruption; he just knew it was old.
That changed in 1949 when Willard Libby discovered the carbon dating process. It was a landmark technique that allowed organic materials to be dated up to 62,000 years in the past. Cressman understood the importance of this discovery immediately. Among the first material tested was ash from the Mount Mazama explosion.
“It was vindication of him for sure,” says Horton of Cressman. “People were still skeptical of his methods. He wasn’t a trained archaeologist. His dates were too old. People didn’t believe him.”
Carbon dating showed that Mount Mazama exploded around 7,000 years ago. Anything below that line was older. “Once the radiocarbon dates came back, he received a lot of positive feedback,” says Horton.
Did you know?: The public is allowed to scuba dive in Crater Lake. It’s a high plunge and takes a lot of planning and work. Check out Oregon Field Guide’s exploration of the mysterious dead peat moss tunnels.
Videographer Greg Bond shooting at Paisley Caves
Cressman’s work still lives on in the Paisley Caves. This series of shallow caves are wave-cut terraces. They were formed when a great lake — hundreds of miles long — was receding. The wetlands in front of the caves made perfect hunting grounds.
In 1938 and 1939, Cressman trenched and excavated three of the eight caves’ interiors. Buried below pre-Mazama ash, Cressman’s team uncovered Pleistocene camel and mastodon bones, mixed with human artifacts. His discoveries were largely dismissed “because no one else was making these kinds of discoveries.”
“He said it was one of the most promising sites in all of North America, 70 years ago. Testing now proves him right,” says Horton.
In 2002, University of Oregon’s field school returned to this site to test Cressman’s findings. Five years later they uncovered the oldest DNA yet discovered in North America. The team found coprolite (fossilized feces) that was more than 14,500 years old.
When you visit the caves, you’ll get a glimpse into the oldest discovered home on the North American continent.
Where to eat: An hour and a half north of Paisley Caves is the Cowboy Dinner Tree, one of Oregon’s best-kept secrets. The restaurant only takes reservations. It’s $27 per person. And there are only two options for the main entrée at dinner: a whole chicken or a 26-30-ounce steak.
Cressman with boys from the Klamath Tribes in 1949
University of Oregon Natural and Cultural History Museum
Chiloquin is a tiny city. The population falls below 1,000. Half of the city’s residents are Native American. The majority of the population is from the Klamath Tribes.
Cressman’s work in the field was deeply influenced by his education as a sociologist. A fundamental aspect of his research was learning from local experts. Cressman worked tirelessly with members of the Klamath Tribes. He consulted them and studied their oral history. It led him to discover that the baskets they made was a practice that went back thousands of years.
“At the time, most of the white community dismissed Native Americans. The policy at that time was assimilation,” says Horton. “But he [Cressman] went and listened to them. He encouraged them to talk about their culture and heritage.”
What to see: The longest hobbyist train rail track in the world lies just outside this rural community. Train Mountain has 24 miles of railroad through the countryside.
Fort Rock Caves
Fort Rock cave
The Oregon Historical Society
This is the location that brought Cressman international recognition. In 1938, he excavated a cave located a half-mile west of iconic Fort Rock. He pulled out 75 sagebrush sandals (now known as Fort Rock sandals).
“It was an interesting find. But at that time he wouldn’t know the date,” says Horton. “He could guess at the age — but there was no way to prove their age until carbon dating.”
Fort Rock was called “Cow Cave” by the locals because cattle would go there to seek protection from the elements. Back then, early Americans did the same thing. The cave is a large overhang overlooking the desert. But 12,000 years ago it was part of a peninsula into a giant lake. The Great Salt Lake in Utah is one of the last remnants of the great pluvial lakes that once covered the Great Basin.
The sandals were sent to Willard Libby for carbon dating. The shoes dated back thousands of years. They are the oldest-known shoes on the planet, constructed before the pyramids — before written language.
What to do: The area is a photographer’s playground. Fort Rock is a giant volcanic tuff ring projecting from the ground in a half circle. You can also visit the homestead museum, which is housed inside still-standing homestead-era structures.
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