First Black Man Guide of Mammoth Cave

Since it’s Black History month, I thought I’d share this delightful story I found hidden in an old book. Stephen Bishop was a black slave in the 1800’s in Kentucky, owned by Mr. Gorin. He was five- foot- four, lean, hard, and with an athletic build. He had an assured air and quiet pride. In 1838, Stephen learned the routine passageway in the Mammoth Caves to make money for his master by engaging visitors to the cave. He wore a chocolate slouch hat, a jacket for warmth, and striped trousers. Over his shoulder, he slung a canister of lamp oil. In his hand, he carried a basket of provisions, including a bottle of white lightning. In his other hand, he held a lantern. Soon, Stephen conducted visitors with ease through 2-3 miles of passages. He yearned to explore passages leading off the commercial route. His charm and wit by day and determination to unravel Mammoth Cave’s secrets on exploring trips at night made him known and sought after by tourists all over the world.

Stephen Bishop was the first to connect substantial pieces of the big cave. He was the first to venture beyond the obvious walking passages to explore the crawlways, pits, and rivers of Mammoth Cave. Mammoth Cave became a celebrated stop for visitors and Stephen was the main attraction. By 1841, everyone who came to Mammoth Cave had heard of Stephen Bishop and asked for him to be assigned as their guide. In one winter, Stephen had doubled the known length of the cave. In a few months, he discovered more new passages than any other guide. He pushed relentlessly through every passage that was in any way passable in hopes of finding big discoveries. Stephen became a trainer for new guides and was considered a great teacher.

One visitor, Dr. Croghan offered Stephen’s master $10,000 for the land, the cave, the inn, and the slaves. Gorin accepted. Dr. Croghan asked Stephen to sketch a map and he penciled in a fair likeness of the cave. It was detailed more than any map Croghan had seen. Stephen had filled in every lead and interconnection. Stephen’s reputation soared and he got full credit for his cartography. In 1852, Nathaniel Parker Willis visited Mammoth Cave and asked Stephen his view on slavery. Despite the fact he’d be free in 5 years, Stephen told Nathaniel he planned on saving money to purchase his freedom for his wife, himself, and his son. Freedom meant more to him than the Mammoth Cave he loved. However, Stephen was set free in 1856. He died in 1857.

If you visit Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, inside the Snowball room passage, Stephen and hiswife, Charlotte wrote their names on the wall.

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