Historical Marker #2259 in Barren County notes the location of Diamond Cavern, which was discovered by a slave in 1859.
When most people envision slavery, they think of agricultural workers toiling away in fields on farms and plantations. For the majority of enslaved people, that was their life's fate. A number of Kentucky slaves, however, held unusual responsibilities. For some, one of those unique roles was that of a cave tour guide.
While Diamond Cavern was discovered by a slave, Mammoth Cave used slave guides during the nineteenth century. Probably the most famous slave guide there was Stephen Bishop. Bishop, taken to Mammoth Cave in 1838, when he was a teenager, remained there until his death in 1857. Bishop initially learned the cave routes from white guides, but the slave guide soon took trips into unexplored portions of the cave where he mapped the miles of new sections that he discovered.
One visitor wrote of Bishop, "He is a slight, graceful, and very handsome mulatto of about thirty-five years of age, with perfectly chiseled features, a keen, dark eye and glossy hair and mustache. He is the model of a guide-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."
Cave guiding allowed slaves and, later, African Americans after slavery, to exercise some sense of power that they rarely experienced above ground. While guiding whites through the caves, they were in control. Other slave guides, including Materson Bransford and Nick Bransford, were also noted guides in Mammoth Cave. After slavery, African Americans such as Ed Bishop, Ed Hawkins, and Matt Bransford carried on the tradition that slaves had started. When the last black guide, Louis Bransford, retired in 1939, it signaled the end of an era.
Mammoth Cave is now a National Park.