Stretching for nearly 400 miles beneath the hills of southern Kentucky is the largest cave system in the world. Centered on Mammoth Cave, now a national park, it has drawn scientists, amateur spelunkers, and casual tourists since the 19th century, when a slave named Stephen Bishop mapped out many of the complex's most famous formations, uncovering miles of previously unknown passages in the process. By all accounts a charming and knowledgeable guide, Bishop conducted tours of the cave that did much to strengthen the reputation of what he once called, according to BlackHistory.com, "a grand, gloomy and peculiar" place.
Stephen Bishop was born into slavery in 1820, probably in Kentucky. In 1838, at the age of 17, he was purchased or leased by Franklin Gorin, an attorney who was determined to turn Mammoth Cave into a tourist destination. Although it was well known to the native peoples of the area, who often sought its shelter, and to the earliest white settlers, who mined saltpeter (a component of gunpowder) from its walls, Gorin was apparently the first to recognize its potential as a large-scale attraction. As a first step in developing that potential, he brought Bishop and several other slaves to the cave and told them to learn all they could about it from two white men, Joe Shackelford and Archibald Miller Jr., who lived in the area and served from time to time as paid guides.
Although Bishop had no formal education and no previous experience as a spelunker, he soon surpassed his teachers. Not content with learning the trails that had already been mapped out, he pushed farther and farther into the cave's interior, often alone. With only weak oil lamps and torches for light, he discovered miles of new passages and several new caverns, including one that was named, in keeping with the standards of that slave-owning society, not for him but for his master. Gorin's Dome subsequently became a featured stop on tours.
It was not a dome but a chasm, however, that arguably did the most to establish Bishop's reputation. Relatively narrow but very deep, the Bottomless Pit was widely regarded as uncrossable. Tour guides, Bishop included, often stopped there to throw in a torch, which would fall noiselessly until it was out of sight hundreds of feet below. Impressive as that gesture was, he was not content with it. Determined, on the contrary, to see what lay beyond, he and a companion stretched a ladder across and climbed to the other side, where they found several miles of new passages. Notified of those discoveries, Bishop's master immediately arranged for the construction of a bridge.
In addition to his growing mastery of the cave, Bishop became increasingly skilled as a public speaker and raconteur. Ordered by his master to entertain the crowds of tourists, he did so with a flourish, weaving fact and fable together in a way that entranced visitors, many of whom were unused to hearing an African American speak at length. "He is the model of a guide," wrote contemporary Bayard Taylor in comments quoted by the National Park Service, "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." Although Taylor was clearly well disposed toward Bishop, his comments also reflect the racism that pervaded the country at the time. Members of Bishop's "class"--African-American slaves, in other words--were simply not expected to be intelligent. Such attitudes undoubtedly made his work in the cave more difficult than it would otherwise have been.
By all accounts Bishop's master was delighted with his work. He was not freed, however, until he had been working in the cave, a damp and unhealthy environment, for nearly two decades. By the time he was finally emancipated in 1856, he was married and had fathered a child. Several sources suggest that his plans for the future involved immigration to Liberia, a West African nation that had been founded by former slaves in the 1820s; it became independent in 1847. Thousands of ex-slaves, eager to escape the burdens of racism, departed for Liberia in the mid-1800s. Before Bishop and his family could join them, however, he died of unknown causes. His passing in 1857 was followed by burial in a small cemetery near the cave's entrance. Over the following decades, other African-American guides, many of whom he had taught, were buried there as well.
Much of the knowledge and lore Bishop passed on is difficult to recover, because it was transmitted orally. He did, however, produce a map of Mammoth Cave in 1845 that proved an invaluable resource for guides and casual visitors alike. In what was perhaps a sign of his growing reputation, he was allowed to publish it under his own name.
As of 2011 Bishop was prominently featured on the official website of Mammoth Cave National Park, which covered more than 50,000 acres and was included in UNESCO's World Network of Biosphere Reserves, an honor reserved for the globe's most significant ecological sites. He was also the subject of a historical novel, Grand, Gloomy and Peculiar: Stephen Bishop at Mammoth Cave (2009), by cave enthusiast Roger Brucker. In an interview with BlackHistory.com at the time of the book's publication, Brucker described his ongoing efforts to increase public awareness of Bishop's accomplishments. "Stephen was noted for being the first systematic cave explorer," Brucker pointed out. "He was the prototype for guiding, educating and entertaining cave visitors. [And] he was the economic engine that put Mammoth Cave on the map of American natural wonders."
Born in 1820, probably in Kentucky; died in 1857; married Charlotte; children: at least one.
Cave explorer and guide, 1838-57.
- Map of Mammoth Cave (Kentucky), 1845.
- Anderson, Fred, "Book Tells Story of African American Cave Explorer Stephen Bishop," BlackHistory.com, November 5, 2009, http://www.blackhistory.com/cgi-bin/blog.cgi?cid=1&blog_id=158258 (accessed September 21, 2011).
- "Bishop, Stephen," University of Kentucky, http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/NKAA/all.php?sort_by=B (accessed September 21, 2011).
- "Black History at Mammoth Cave," National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/maca/historyculture/black-history.htm (accessed September 21, 2011).
- West, Peter, "Trying the Dark: Mammoth Cave and the Racial Imagination, 1839-1869," SouthernSpaces.org, February 9, 2010, http://southernspaces.org/2010/trying-dark-mammoth-cave-and-racial-imagination-1839-1869 (accessed September 21, 2011).