Make the McKenzie Connection!

Luther Cressman: Oregon's real-live Indiana Jones, only better

In the summer of 1981, a little action-adventure movie titled Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, and fans have been speculating ever since on whom the character of Indiana Jones might be based.

The most popular speculation — Vanity Fair magazine goes so far as to opine that he is “almost certainly” the basis for Jones — is Roy Chapman Andrews, a globe-trotting paleontologist and former director of the American Museum of Natural History.

Well, the fact is that Jones probably wasn’t based on any real person. Indy is the brainchild of George Lucas, the Star Wars guy. Lucas was a serious fan of pre-war pulp magazine fiction, and the adventure pulps back in the day were full of characters like Indiana Jones.

But then again maybe he was based on a real person because in the era Jones was set in, the real world was full of those characters too.

Besides Andrews, there were dozens of swashbuckling academics and sorta-academics adventuring around the world — digging for dinosaur bones, bushwhacking through the Amazon looking for the “Lost City of Z,” or of course digging among ancient Egyptian tombs and pyramids. Names like Othniel Marsh, Howard Carter, and Percy Fawcett spring to mind. Even mystery author Agatha Christie and her second husband, Max Mallowan, could be counted among this adventuresome cohort.

Oregon, too, has a couple of candidates it could field as potential proto-Indiana Joneses. One of them was Gilbert Gable, a swashbuckling explorer and paleontologist with a rich wife and a regular nationwide NBC radio show called “Highway to Adventure.” Gable is better known later in his life after he settled down (sort of) as mayor of Port Orford and became the brains behind the “secession” of the State of Jefferson in 1941.

The other candidate is a far more likely prospect, though. He was a maverick anthropologist with an unimpeachable Ivy League background, a tenured faculty member at Oregon’s flagship university, a former military man who did his fieldwork in an Army surplus campaign hat with a big revolver on his hip in case he ran across a snake. He hated snakes.

As far as I know, he never used a whip. But other than that, the parallels with Indiana Jones are quite striking.

There’s even an echo of Indy’s love life in our man. Instead of Marian Ravenwood, our candidate’s love interest was a diminutive classmate four years younger than he — a woman you just might have heard of. Her name was Margaret Mead.

As was the case with Indy and Marian, our hero started dating her when she was still a child — a 15-year-old high-school student. As was implied to have not been the case with Indy, though, their relationship stayed respectably Platonic until six years later, when they married.

Our man’s name was Luther Cressman, founder of the University of Oregon Department of Anthropology and the first director of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Luther Cressman was born in 1897 in Pennsylvania and grew up on the East Coast.

In 1914 he enrolled at Pennsylvania State College, where he studied classics and English literature and met Margaret Mead, who at the time was a sophomore at one of the local high schools. Upon graduation in 1918, he headed into the recruiting office to “do his bit,” and went into training as an artillery officer; but the war ended abruptly before he could be deployed, and he was released.

But the brief military experience threw Cressman into a bit of a moral crisis. He had been spared from the requirement to go to France and try to kill people, but it bothered him that he’d been on his way to do that, and as the war fever faded in America Cressman got more and more determined to do his part to help society transcend war.

“The sensitive among us could not help but find the conflict between the utter brutality of the behavior for which we were being trained, and the moral values on which our lives were based,” he later wrote. “The haunting question of ‘why did I have to kill?’ would not go away.”

He took orders as an Episcopal minister in 1923. But at the same time, he continued his education at Columbia University. By this time, Mead had her undergraduate degree as well, and the two of them became grad-school classmates at Columbia. They were married that same year.

The two of them became a sort of golden couple in the intellectual circles at Columbia. Their apartment became a social hub for free-thinking Bright Young Things at the university. They studied under Franz Boaz, who was already known as the Grand Old Man of American anthropology.

But in 1925, they separated to pursue their studies abroad — Mead in Samoa, and Cressman in Europe. Neither one of them was willing to subordinate his or her career to the other and become a “trailing spouse.” So they decided to end their marriage (although they remained lifelong friends) and go their separate ways.

Cressman’s career took him to the West Coast, where he started at the Washington Teachers’ College in Ellensburg (known today as Central Washington University). A year or so later, he moved south to take a job at the University of Oregon. By this time he was married once again, to Fabian Society member Dorothy C. Loch, a brilliant English woman nine years his senior whom he met at the British Sociological Society while doing research in Europe.

At the UO, Cressman started as a sociology professor. But when, in 1930, a farmer in Gold Hill uncovered some Indian burial mounds, Cressman was invited to come take a look; and when he arrived, the archaeology bug bit him hard.

Cressman’s work collecting and documenting the artifacts and human remains from the Gold Hill site sent him off in a new professional direction.

He took on the project of documenting and preserving pictographs and petroglyphs all over the state. Over the first three years of the 1930s, Cressman roamed across the state in his Model A Ford, visiting every piece of rock art he could learn about. He would contact local postmasters to ask about rock art in their delivery areas, and then he and a graduate student or faculty colleague (often his friend Howard Stafford from the Geology department) would make lengthy trips into the Oregon outback, camping in abandoned homesteaders’ shacks and photographing and documenting everything they could find, meeting the locals and learning the stories and legends of the rock art from the remaining Indian communities out there.

(Sources: “Luther Cressman: Quest for First People,” an episode of Oregon Experience produced by Kami Horton and first aired in 2014; “Luther Cressman,” an article by Virginia Butler published by The Oregon Encyclopedia on Sept. 15, 2022; Dorothy C. Cressman papers at UO Archives)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His most recent book, Bad Ideas and Horrible People of Old Oregon was published by Ouragan House early this year. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

Continued Next Week


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