Thursday, January 12, 2012

Slaves at Mammoth Cave

A fascinating quick read is Making Their Mark: The Signature of Slavery at Mammoth Cave. This little booklet, (65 pages with numerous pictures) written by Joy Medley Lyons is published by Eastern National, which handles books and souvenirs for the National Park Service.

I remember visiting Mammoth Cave on a family trip when I was a boy. The main thing that sticks in my memory is that they took us into the cave quite a distance and then turned out the lights. It was the darkest place I had ever experienced. I admit, I was so happy when they turned the lights back on. Little did I know back then that Mammoth Cave had such an interesting history; a story that included slave cave explorers and tour guides who must have experienced that dreaded darkness just as I did.

Making Their Mark briefly tells the stories of slave Stephen Bishop who came to work at the cave in 1838 and died of unknown causes in 1857 at the young age of 37. Bishop mapped out much of the cave and was the first person known to travel into many parts of the cavern's tunnels. His graffiti marks still exist in parts of the cave and he was an extremely popular guide with the cave's visitors, many of which mentioned him in their travel accounts.

This little book also tells the story of other slaves such as mixed race slave Materson "Mat" Bransford whose descendants worked taking tourists into the cave into the 20th century. Also, Nicholas "Nick" Bransford is covered. Owned by the same man as Mat, the older Nick was apparently not blood related to Mat. Nick retired as a guide and passed away in 1895.

Another point the booklet makes is that while much of the rest of Kentucky and the nation was experiencing the nadir of race relations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, apparently the settlement around Mammoth Cave was much more colorblind. White, black and mixed race guides lived next door shared games, hobbies and farming secrets and continued to take mainly white visitors into the cave to see nature's wondrous sights that were unimaginable outside the cave.

And, while the book hints at it, I wish the author had explored the idea more that the black and mixed race guides experienced some level of power over whites while in the cave. Since the guides knew the cave and areas that were both dangerous and safe their guests often had to place their lives in the guides' hands. If a black man, especially a slave, had told a white where to step and or to hurry up or slow down outside the cave, they could easily have been reprimanded or even punished, but in the cave, it was the guides' world and guides' rules.

For more on this topic see Mammoth Cave's website:

An additional article that I highly recommend and that does explore the slave guides' power while underground is:

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