Jerry Bransford is a fifth generation guide at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. His ancestors were hardworking, excellent guides who probably knew more about the cave system than anyone in the state. They worked as explorers and guides for over a century, but the first Bransfords working there were not paid for their knowledge and expertise because they were enslaved. They were highly sought after because word had spread far and wide that these men knew the cave and there were no better guides to be found. Along with a few other enslaved men, they fearlessly explored the cave, discovering new areas and mapping them. They charted many previously unknown miles inside the cave. As tour guides, when they were down inside the cave with visitors, they were second to none and were respected for their abilities as guides. The black guides were in high demand and over the years, they met the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and General George Custer, as well as many politicians, kings, queens, and actors. Sadly, when they ascended to the surface, they were treated as second class citizens again. But deep in the caves, they were revered because of their knowledge and skill and today they are considered legends.
The first enslaved men were brought to Mammoth Cave as teenagers by Frank Gorin, an attorney who purchased the property in 1838. He “leased” Mat and Nick Bransford, ages 15 and 17, from a man in Nashville to work in the caves. Along with Stephen Bishop, another slave, they quickly learned their way around the cave and worked as guides.
Here is how Mat was described in a 1869 publication called The Mammoth Cave and its Denizens:A Complete Descriptive Guide: “During the thirty years in which Mat has acted in the capacity of cave guide, he has collected a vocabulary of scientific terms that would do credit to a man of letters. Sometimes he handles these musical phrases with as much skill and appropriateness in hewing down the barriers of ignorance as a mechanic who understands the use of tools might display in swinging a broad axe. Upon some occasions he is really amusing, as well as somewhat instructive. No one should fail to secure Mat’s services as a guide.”
Of Nick, a visitor in 1863 said this: “…seemed thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the place in which he had spent the greater portion of his time for 17 years. He was as grave and taciturn as some cave-keeping anchorite. During our inward progress, he had carefully pointed out every place and object of interest …If I paused or made a misstep, he instantly looked around.”
Mat’s son, Henry, started working as a tour guide in 1872, following in his father’s footsteps. His father taught him everything he knew about the cave and about guiding. Even with the end of slavery in the US, the Bransford family continued to serve Mammoth Cave and the area at large where they were respected members of the community. Henry’s son, Matt, followed in the family tradition and became a guide as well. He and his wife, Zimmie Bransford, saw a need for lodging for the black tourists as well as the enslaved people accompanying the white tourists since blacks could not stay in the hotels nor dine in the restaurants nearby. They opened the Bransford Summer Resort which enabled the black community to enjoy the cave as the white tourists had been enjoying the area for many years. The resort was very popular in the early 1900s.
In 1941, Mammoth Cave officially became the twenty sixth national park. Sadly, when that took place, all the black guides were let go, ending the Bransford family tradition. At the time, there were five fourth generation Bransfords working in the caves. In 2004, Jerry Bransford, retired from a long career in another town, was asked to come to the park and renew the Bransford tradition. Now he tells the stories of his ancestors and says he is proud of their contribution. Jerry says he can’t change the past and the stain of slavery, but he can tell the present generation the marvelous stories of the Bransford legacy. Finally, in October of 2022, a monument was erected commemorating the contributions of the Bransford family.
I had hoped that Mr. Bransford would be on duty when we visited Mammoth Cave so that we could meet him, but we didn’t see him Saturday. It would have been great if Harvey could have met him and Mr. Bransford could have shared his story, but it just wasn’t to be. The park had a nice exhibit about the enslaved guides and showed a video telling the story of the Bransfords that was narrated by Jerry Bransford. Below is a picture of the monument erected honoring the legacy of the enslaved guides that I found on the Friends of Mammoth Cave website. The monument is located a short distance from the Visitor Center in the Bransford Family Cemetery and is a wonderful tribute to these men who gave so much to Mammoth Cave.
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