By Jason Epperson

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Deep within Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, one can find so much more than rock formations. The shale-capped mass of 400 known miles of caverns holds the history of America, told by the Black enslaved cave guides that made it one of the country’s top tourist attractions, then and now.

Houchins and the Bear

According to legend, at the turn of the 19th Century, a Kentucky hunter named John Houchins found a black bear, and shot. He failed to kill the bear, and it ran, wounded, while Houchins gave chase until it led him to the entrance of a cave. Some say the bear chased Houchins, who, either way, is credited with the modern discovery of a cave system that sprawls for nearly 400 documented miles, so large that it is yet to be fully mapped, and may go on for up to 1000 miles.

Stephen Bishop

On the ceilings and walls of Mammoth, one can find thousands of names written in smoke from a time when such a thing was encouraged. One of the oldest and most prolific names — sometimes written backward — is simply “Stephen.” Stephen Bishop, Mammoth’s most famous explorer, would take his candle to the ceiling and trace his name, sometimes in reverse due to the mirror he was looking in to avoid the wax dipping in his eyes.

In 1838, the 17-year-old Bishop was brought to explore and lead expeditions into Mammoth by the cave’s new owner Franklin Gorin, a lawyer from nearby Glasgow, Kentucky, who purchased the property, seeing the cave’s potential as a public attraction. Previously, the cave had been used as a Saltpetre mine during the War of 1812, when slaves mined valuable potassium nitrate, a primary ingredient in gunpowder.

Bishop quickly got to work, guiding tourists and exploring the depths of the cave, and creating its first map. This is what Gorin had to say about Bishop: he was “handsome, good-humored, intelligent, the most complete of guides, the presiding genius of this territory. He has occupied himself so frequently in exploring the various passages of the cavern, that there is now no living being who knows it so well,” Gorin said.

“The discoveries made have been the result of his courage, intelligence, and untiring zeal. He is extremely attentive and polite, particularly so to the ladies, and he runs over what he has to say with such ease and readiness, and mingles his statement of facts with such lofty language, that all classes, male and female, listen with respect, and involuntarily smile at his remark. His business as a guide brought him so often in contact with the intellectual and scientific, that he has become acquainted with every geological specimen in the cave.”

Stephen wore a chocolate-colored slouch hat, a jacket for warmth, and striped trousers. Over his shoulder on a strap swung a canister of lamp oil. In one hand he carried a basket of provisions for the longer trips – fried chicken, apples, biscuits, and often a bottle of white lightning for refreshment. In the other hand, he carried an oil lantern – a tin dish holding oil and a wick, with a small heat shield held above the flame by wires.

A visitor described Stephen bishop’s “perfectly chiseled features,” his “keen, dark eye and glossy hair, and mustache. He is the model of a guide” the visitor said, “quick, daring, enthusiastic, persevering, with a lively appreciation of the wonders he shows, and a degree of intelligence unusual in one of his class…I think no one can travel under his guidance without being interested in the man, and associating him in memory with the realm over which he is chief ruler.”

But a ruler of Mammoth, Bishop was not. Quite the opposite, Stephen Bishop, like the saltpeter miners before him, was an enslaved Black man.

America’s Indigenous People

The hunter John Houchins may be credited with Mammoth Cave’s modern discovery, but Stephen Bishop quickly found that man had been deep within the cave long before him.

In the summer of his first year in the cave, Stephen began to probe the obscure passageways. In what was then known as the Main Cave, behind an enormous rock called the “Giant’s Coffin,” he squeezed into a small room and down through a crack into a maze of passages beneath. Here he found the fragments of a burned cane torch and grapevine ties left by natives who had explored Mammoth Cave long before.

Nearly one hundred years later, in 1935, Civilian Conservation Corps workers Grover Campbell and Lyman Cutliff were exploring a new passageway. They climbed a ledge and discovered the unnerving scene of an ancient tragedy. A human head and arm, the only visible parts of a body pinned beneath a six-ton boulder. A digging stick lay nearby, the cause of the boulder’s collapse – its owner had dug too deeply.

Like the cane torches found by Stephen Bishop, the twenty-three-hundred-year-old body had been well preserved by the cave’s steadfast temperature and humidity, and by the salt in the soil.

Thousands of ancient artifacts have been found in Mammoth — gourd bowls, pottery, woven cloth, and a handful of petroglyphs. From 4,000 years ago until nearly 2,000 years ago, Native Americans explored at least six miles of the cave, until one day, for reasons unknown, they disappeared.

The Slave Guides

Stephen Bishop and the other slave guides such as Materson and Nick Bransford continued to escort the curious along their choice of two routes. The short route, a 6-hour journey, and the long route, a 14-hour journey, took visitors through all the curious formations, rooms, and obscurities Mammoth had to offer. For a nickel, they’d lash a candle to a stick and write your name upon the ceiling. They would journey down Echo River in small boats and entertain tourists with songs in a round with the echo of the cave. On one such tour, Bishop’s boat full of travelers capsized, and all the oil lamps were extinguished. In complete darkness, he led his party through the neck-deep water for five hours, until Materson Bransford arrived to save them.

Materson went by Mat, with one T. He was the son of affluent Tennessean Thomas Bransford and a slave woman named Hannah. He began guiding at Mammoth Cave in 1838, and ultimately became the property of his own half-brother after the death of his father. He married a slave girl named Parthena, and built a home for her and their four children. As the children grew, however, Mat was powerless to stop his wife’s owner from selling first his two daughters, and then his youngest son.

Mat Bransford

Many did not view such an act as horrendous, including opponents of slavery. In the 1860’s Mat guided abolitionist John Fowler Rusling on a tour. Rusling remarked, “I don’t suppose you missed these children much? You colored people never do they say.” Mat was quick to inform him differently.

Just months before the civil war ended and slaves were emancipated, Mat used his life savings from cave tour tips to buy back one of his daughters, who was fifteen years old and pregnant at the time. His other two children were never found.

Mat remained a Mammoth Cave guide for the remainder of his life. His eldest son Henry became a guide, and then his grandson, too, whose name was also Matt, but with two “T”s. Matt with two Ts Bransford decided that, after the civil war, Black people shouldn’t just work Mammoth Cave, they should visit it. They were still not welcome in most establishments. They were not allowed to be on the same tours with whites or stay in the same hotels. Matt traveled to larger cities to appeal to the African American community to visit the world-famous Cave. He led Special tours for them, and provided lodging and meals for Black visitors with his wife Zemmie at their home called the Bransford Resort. White visitors had been touring Mammoth for a century, and now, thanks to the younger Matt Bransford, Black visitors could share the experience.

Cave Wars

There are more cave attractions throughout the Midwest than you can shake a stick at, but Mammoth is different. “A grand, gloomy and peculiar place,” Bishop called it. Instead of the elaborate configurations of drip formations that you’ll find elsewhere, Mammoth is full of gigantic rooms formed by ancient underground rivers that sculpted the sandstone and limestone, capped by a shale roof. It’s more labyrinths and domes than wedding cakes.

As the industrial revolution raged on, railways brought more and more visitors to Mammoth. By the 1880s, tens of thousands of yearly visitors were arriving by a rail line built specifically to accomplish that task. The Mammoth Cave Railroad would operate successfully for 50 years, making runs from Glasgow Junction every 25 minutes in the summer.

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the great National Park idea had taken hold. Half a dozen parks had been proclaimed by Congress, including one cave — South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park. Interest in protecting Mammoth in the same fashion began to spring up, but by 1920, a war of economics had broken out in the Kentucky Cave Country. The Mammoth Cave Estate and dozens of other caves that had been discovered in the area competed for the massive profit in showing tourists the wonders below the earth.

Colossal Cave, Long Cave, Short’s Cave, Great Onyx Cave, Indian Cave, Salts Cave and Crystal Cave all tried to snag motorists bound for the world-famous Mammoth, often by stopping them on the road using ringers dressed as authorities saying that Mammoth was the other direction, or that Mammoth was flooded.

An oilman named George Morrison believed that the Cave’s length extended beyond the surface boundaries of the Mammoth Cave Estate. He searched for clues in the cave and above ground until he got word of a sinkhole where kids played in the summer because cool air came up from below.
Morrison bought the property and drilled until he found a cave that was revealed to have a direct connection to the rest of Mammoth. He dubbed his site “the New Entrance to Mammoth Cave” and began selling tickets to motorists on their way to the Old Entrance.

The Kentucky cave wars were not without casualty. When cave owner Floyd Collins was exploring for a more profitable cave and became lodged underground in 1925, a circus atmosphere developed around his entrapment, as the story drew national attention. Thousands of sightseers descended on Cave City, hawkers sold food and souvenirs. Reporters drafted hourly updates for the nation, including aviator Charles Lindbergh, who delivered news reports by air as federal troops were dispatched to keep order.

Rescue attempts failed, and Collins died on his eighteenth day below the surface.

Rampant commercialism aside, Kentuckians held a deep pride for the caves at Mammoth, and many initiatives were floated to transition the area into a National Park. For 30 years, surveys were taken up, bills were introduced and passed, land was purchased, and finally, in 1941, Mammoth Cave National Park was dedicated.

Jerry Bransford

On Memorial Day and 4th of July weekends, a young Jerry Bransford — the great-great-grandson of a Mat Bransford — would ride the half-hour drive from his home in Glasgow to visit Mammoth with his family in the back seat of their ’49 Chevy.

On those holiday family Picnics, Jerry’s father, David Bransford Sr, would tell him the history of his family at Mammoth — how the cave is a part of their heritage, even though they still weren’t allowed to go inside the hotel for refreshments. The staff, who still knew Jerry’s father, would give them ice creams and Cokes at the back door.

Post-slavery, the Bransfords, and other Black men were still the preeminent tour guides at Mammoth, famous even, but when the cave became a National Park, those guides had to look for new jobs. Many of their homes were forced to be sold to the government. The great act of protecting the underground wonderland turned away the people who knew it best.

When Jerry retired — nearly 200 years after the slaves mined the saltpeter for the War of 1812 — he began discussions with the National Park Service to return the Bransford family to the park. Jerry Bransford is now a 5th generation cave guide, and a National Park Service Ranger. His mission? To tell the stories of the great Black cave guides who were so instrumental in the discovery and interpretation of Mammoth Cave, so that they should never be forgotten again.

Visiting Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave

Today, when Jerry Bransford gives tours, he always notices the names scratched into the walls that were made by his ancestors. He’s found 14, including, the one that says simply, “Mat 1850.”

“Whenever I see a signature from my kin, I feel awed by what they did,” he told the New York Times. “But when I see Mat’s, it just knocks me down. I don’t know how anyone can have their kids taken away and never get them back.”

Mammoth Cave is one of the most conveniently located national parks, along I-65 just 30 miles outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Several different daily cave tours provide visitors with a wide range of sights to see, including the Gothic Avenue Tour, where you can see Stephen Bishop’s candle-written signature, and hundreds more. The more adventurous visitors can climb, crawl, and squeeze through the 6-hour Wild Cave Tour, seeing places only a small number of humans have visited. Along with the half-dozen or so paid cave tours, visitors can experience a wide array of above-ground activities, including, hiking, biking, kayaking and horseback riding. There’s still a small hotel on-site, as well as several primitive campgrounds. Several private campgrounds are just a stones’ throw from the park as well.

Jerry Bransford still gives cave tours on a seasonal schedule — he swore our three sons in as Mammoth Cave Junior Rangers. He’s raising money for a memorial to better honor the many Bransfords and other Black cave guides buried at the simple cemetery in the park. You can donate at

Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

In Kentucky, a Family at the Center of the Earth
A 2014 in-depth interview with Jerry Bransford and New York Times reporter Kenan Christiansen.
Jerry Bransford’s dream is to build a memorial in the Bransford cemetery at Mammoth Cave as a tribute to all the past slave guides and the entire Bransford family, especially Mat and Nick. He also would like to pass on his stories and memories to his future descendants utilizing the cemetery and memorial. You can the website to contribute, and it’s also full of much more detailed information on the Bransford family history at Mammoth.

Ranger Lore: The Occupational Folklife of Parks – Jerry Bransford Discusses Family Legacy
A YouTube interview with Jerry Bransford about visiting Mammoth as a child with his family:

Mammoth Cave National Park Website
Info on all of the cave tours, camping, and other activities at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Want more destinations? Love learning about Black American history? Try Dred Scott and Gateway Arch National Park!