Black 'Sable Guides' Led Exploration

of Mammoth Cave National Park  


Welcome to Day #34 of our "365 Parks in 365 Days" adventure. This being Sunday, I hope you have a beautifully leisurely day, and the time to enjoy the intriguing story behind Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Our park system includes the most iconic representation of almost every feature of our country, and the cave system at Mammoth Cave is like none other in the world. Besides the physical uniqueness, this park also encapsulates much of the cultural history of our country. When Frank and I convened the conference, "Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great American Outdoors" in Atlanta, (Sept. 23-26, 2009) we honored "Sable Guide" descendant Jerry Bransford and Ranger Joy Lyons with Community Partners awards recognizing their unique status and contributions. Here's part of my description from Legacy on the Land:




                     Inside Mammoth Cave. National Geographic Photo.



"In February 2008 I received an invitation from Mammoth Cave National Park to an event honoring 'the Sable Guides of Mammoth Cave' in Kentucky. For years we had been hearing about these 'Sable Guides' and were intrigued by the story that young, enslaved Africans had been the primary explorers of the longest underground cave system in the world. 

"Our 13-year-old grandson Yero Winborne and I drove up from Atlanta for the weekend. Once we turned off the highway after the five-hour trip, the road wound through a thick forest with calming leafy views on either side. We emerged after a couple of miles into a developed area comprising the Visitor Center and the Mammoth Cave Hotel. We checked into the hotel, but found it unsuited to our taste, (a little too old and rustic) so Yero and I decided to spend the following night at a hotel in the nearby town of Cave City.




 I was so happy to be with Jerry Bransford in the cave system his ancestors mapped.


"We learned that Jerry Bransford, the great-great grandson of Mat Bransford, one of the original 'Sable Guides,' had recently returned to the park to guide tours in the summertime. We met him that evening, and I was struck immediately by his gentle personality and his humility. He was very proud of his ancestors and their relationship to the cave, and was pleased that they were getting the recognition that had been denied them for so long.


"It gave me the chills to be able to tour the cave system with him and Yero. I could hardly have constructed a better emotional bridge for myself. Being in the cave with Jerry, feeling his ancestors all around us, and having my grandson with me made me feel as if I was part of a long chain of life stretching backwards and forwards.


" 'I grew up in Glasgow, a little community at the edge of the park,' he said. 'When I came back to work for the park in 2003, I was a little emotional, because I remember my father taking us to the park when I was a kid, from the time I was about 8 years old. We'd go up on the ridge and sit in the place where he was born. I didn't understand then that he was coming back home. He had lived here his first 21 years, until our property was bought up from under us through eminent domain in 1937. He'd tell us stories of how he ran around as a kid, and how black and white families used to live fairly close together.



The cave system is not only the longest in the world, but multiple stories high inside. NPS Photo 



" 'We'd go to the restaurant, and even though it had become a national park, we couldn't sit down. Some of the folks there knew my father since childhood, and they made it clear that they would bring the refreshments to the back door, and we'd have to take it and go off. My father never said a negative word about it, but I was old enough to know it wasn't right.'


"The story of the Bransford family and the experience of the black cave guides at Mammoth Cave was like a microcosm of the American history involving the exploitation of African Americans for unpaid labor, the impregnation of black women by their white 'owners,' and the fate of their offspring as disposable chattel. It also showed the amazing ability of the enslaved to take lemons and make lemonade, and contribute to the advancement of our country in many different sectors.



                        An interpretive sign pays tribute to those buried in the cemetery.


"Jerry's great-great-grandfather, Mat Bransford, was the son of the wealthy white farmer, Thomas Bransford, born to a young enslaved woman named Hannah. Bransford 'leased' Mat and his brother Nick, to the man who bought Mammoth Cave and was looking to make it into a tourist attraction. The two teenagers and another of their peers, Stephen Bishop, are said to have had a spirit comparable to today's most extreme cavers. They squeezed their bodies through narrow cracks in the rock, hung suspended from ropes that they used to navigate over chasms, and generally went above and beyond the call of duty to explore the caves under the most hazardous circumstances. Their inscriptions have been found in some of the most inaccessible parts of the cave.


"As our group entered the cave, I was astonished by the lofty height and expanse of the entrance cavern. It looked like a great cathedral, subtly lit by well-placed electric lights which barely held back the darkness. Passageways meandered off to the side and we could even see what appeared like lofts above the main avenue. As the park ranger led the 20 or so people in our group deeper into the cave, explaining some of the physical characteristics and the history of exploration in the cave system, I felt a little extra confidence because Jerry was beside me. It was as though his ancestors, who had explored these caves in the thick gloom, were walking beside us and so we were doubly protected.


"At the time the cave was purchased by attorney Frank Gorin in 1838, only 20 miles had been explored. Gorin brought Stephen Bishop, and Mat and Nick Bransford, whom he 'leased,' to work in the cave. The three young men were taught the cave routes by two earlier guides, J.C. Shackelford and Archibald Miller, but they probed farther and deeper into the subterranean world. In 1938, Stephen was the first person to cross the great chasm, opening up more of the cave that was eventually found to be more than 300 miles long. 


"When Gorin sold the property about a year later, its new owner, Dr. John Croghan proceeded to develop amenities including a hotel, to publicize the cave system and attract guests. Stephen, Nick and Mat continued to explore the cave under the same economic system Gorin had established, namely with no money accruing to them.
 "Tourists to Mammoth Cave at the time were mostly wealthy, educated white people. Professors, scholars, writers, scientists and world travelers toured the cave under the guidance of the enslaved Africans. Before going underground, they were instructed to follow the instructions of their black guides instantly and explicitly, as it could mean the difference between life and death. As a result of the expertise they'd developed and the responsibility placed on them for the tourists' safety, Stephen, Nick and Mat occupied a unique position in American life: slaves above ground, they were masters underground.


"References to the Sable Guides that have survived include a visitor who wrote:


'In most regions of the cave, it is hazardous to lose sight of the guide. If you think you walk straight ahead, even for a few rods, and then turn around and return to him, you will find it next to impossible. So many paths come in at acute angles. They look so much alike, and the light of a lamp reveals them so imperfectly, that none but the practiced eye of a guide can disentangle their windings.'


Another stated:


'The services of a guide cannot be safely dispensed with, and guests should respect his authority, for the law holds him responsible for the safe return of those put under his care.'



 "The enslaved black guides had no opportunity for formal schooling, but soaked up the information they got from visitors to the caves.  


 Tourist Maria Child wrote of Stephen Bishop:


" 'His vocation has brought him into contact with many intellectual and scientific men and as he has great quickness of perception and a prodigious memory, he has profited much by intercourse with superior minds. He can recollect everybody that ever visited the cave, and all the terms of geology and mineralogy are at his tongue's end.'


"Frank Gorin wrote that Bishop's talents were 'of the first order,' and said that he considered him trustworthy, reliable and companionable.


" 'He was a hero and could be a clown. He knew a gentleman or a lady as if by instinct. He learned whatever he wished without trouble or labor.'


"According to one account, Mat had acquired 'a considerable degree of culture . . . by contact with scholars and professors of every science, especially of geology and mineralogy.'


"But the story of the Sable Guides might have remained in obscurity were it not for Joy Lyons, an enterprising young ranger at the park who became intrigued by the number of stories that persisted about one black cave guide, Steven Bishop. She began to wonder whether the stories were about one man, or several different black men.



                      Ranger Joy Medley Lyons at Mammoth Cave National Park.      



 " 'I went over to the curatorial room one day to look at photographs,' Joy explains, 'and noticed that a number of black guides were identified as being Stephen Bishop, even though they were obviously different people. One of the photographs had a car in it. But Bishop had died in 1857. I thought, What is the deal - was every African American man here called Stephen Bishop, no matter what the date? So I started looking for family descendants and reading historical accounts and newspapers, anything I could get my hands on.'


 "From that beginning, Joy has reconstructed the historical record which she presents in the book, Making their Mark: The Signature of Slavery at Mammoth Cave. She has also been instrumental in getting the story of the Sable Guides publicized, and American Legacy magazine and other publications have written copiously about it. Joy illustrates that one committed person can make a huge difference in what stories are revealed and emphasized at a national park. Although there is only one history, there are multiple stories and perspectives, but many remain dormant until someone has the passion to explore and publicize them.



"By a stroke of good fortune, Jerry Bransford retired from a career with Dow Corning and was also retracing his history at the same time Joy was looking to highlight his ancestors' story. She invited him to come back to Mammoth Cave, and he returned in 2003. Today, after a hiatus of approximately 70 years, a Bransford once again leads tours at Mammoth Cave, though only in the summer.


" 'I am the only employee at Mammoth Cave today that has direct ties to some of the first people in the cave,' Jerry observes. 'This is not fiction. This happened to my family. The last one of the black cave guides to leave, Louis Bransford, turned in his keys in 1937. Some say they considered hiring him, but the general understanding was that no black person was going to become a national park ranger. There wasn't a black national park ranger at Mammoth Cave until the 1970s.' "


Note: If you buy a copy of Our True Nature from my website today ( you will be helping me buy more copies to use in schools this Black History Month. Your books will be autographed with a personal message of appreciation.)


Publication of "Our True Nature" is supported by Delaware North Parks & Resorts, Forever Resorts and Guest Services.


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