Past is Present at Mammoth Caves

Interpretive Ranger Jerry Bransford shares the rich story of his family’s central role exploring and guiding tours in the world’s longest known cave system.

The Bransford Family History at Mammoth Caves National Park is America’s History.

I’m Michael Kleber-Diggs, a writer and outdoor enthusiast based in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m partnering with Public Lands to tell stories that illustrate how the history of African Americans in the National Park Service is visible in the work of Black park rangers today. The rangers we’ve profiled share that history as part of their work. They also advance efforts to make our national parks welcoming for all visitors. (Read our Part I profile of historian and park ranger Olivia Williams, as well Part II on Shelton Johnson, a Community Engagement Specialist at Yosemite National Park.)

No one represents the history of African Americans in the National Park Service, or the history of America itself, more than Jerry Bransford, an Interpretive Ranger at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Including Jerry, five generations of Bransfords have worked at Mammoth Cave, dating back almost 185 years. 

Mammoth Cave National Park comprises 52,830 acres in west-central Kentucky. The sprawling cave system includes 420 miles of surveyed passageways. In addition the cave, the park includes a forest and beautiful landscape shaped by soluble rock dissolving over long periods of time creating sinkholes, sinking streams, caves, springs, and natural formations in limestone, marble, and gypsum.

The story of how Jerry Bransford’s ancestors came to the land and the truth of most of their time there is difficult and dark, but Bransford’s work today at Mammoth Cave is a testament to his family’s resilience. By researching and sharing that history, Bransford not only shares the story of the world’s longest known cave system, he keeps his family’s role in it alive. 

MICHAEL KLEBER-DIGGS: I'm so honored to speak with you. I’ve read a lot about your family. I wonder if we can start by having you just talk about Mammoth Cave as a park?

JERRY BRANSFORD: Well, Mammoth Cave is America’s 26th national park. It was established in 1941. But that’s not where its history starts. There were tours. I think the first was recorded in 1906. And it has had several owners [though originally inhabited and explored by prehistoric Southeastern Woodlands tribes]. In 1838, my ancestors were introduced here in slavery from Nashville, Tennessee. Franklin Gorin had bought the cave for $5,000. He was an attorney who heard about people coming from far away, internationally, interested in the cave—long before it became a national park, when only a few miles had been explored and charted. 

Gorin brought on a slave named Stephen Bishop. He brings Bishop to Mammoth Cave, and he realizes that a single 17-year-old slave can't possibly meet the demands of exploring, guiding, and charting the cave. 

So he has a business associate in Nashville, Tennessee, named Thomas Krantz. He says ‘Thomas, you’ve got those slave boys. I can't possibly meet the demands [at Mammoth Cave], and I can't get my money back like I want.’ He says I'd like to lease those boys from you. So he leased my great-great-grandfather Mat and his brother Nick, in 1838. For $100 a year each. They were brought to Mammoth Cave at 15 and 17 years of age, approximately, and they adapted to the cave. These teenage boys were willing learners. 

And they learned the tricks of the trade quickly—eventually escorting kings and queens, scientists and geologists. The most affluent and most well-to-do people in the world would sometimes sail the Atlantic, traveling for weeks or months, to have teenage slave boys escort them through the cave. 

On the surface, they were slaves. But we think they were so anxious to be in the cave because in the cave, they were free men. And the cave was their avenue. The cave was their home. And there are places in the cave that I have been, where we can find their names with dates, like 1880 and 1857. It just scares my shoes off that they were the first ones there with lanterns and candles.

And the way that they got in there was much more difficult than the routes we take today. The cave can be friendly, and the cave can be very unforgiving. So it’s quite amazing that they continue to find the names of Nick and Mat and Stephen in places six and seven miles from the original entrance, and I assure you that they were the first ones there. 

And your family has been connected to Mammoth Cave National Park for five generations?

Five generations, yes. 

Tell me about your ancestors between Mat and you.

Well, Mat was about 17 when he was brought to Mammoth Cave. He was brought there in 1838, and in about 1841 he met a slave girl named Parthena. So to that union, four children were born. By 1863, three of the four children were sold away. We have it documented in the Bransford ledger, his wife [Parthena] went screaming down that road when they took that last girl away, bound behind a rider with a rope around her hand. 

Mat described his wife and her condition to James Fowler Rusling, a Union soldier and abolitionist from Philadelphia. He said to Mat: ‘It seems that when you slaves lose your children it doesn't seem to bother you.’ Mat said, ‘Oh, no Captain. Don’t you believe that. Slaves got feelings just the same as freed people.’ He said, ‘Let me tell you what it did to my wife when they sold that last child. She went to bed, and she seemed like she don’t care about nothing no more.’ 

Well, we found out in more recent years that Mat was able to get one of the girls back. She was 14 with a baby. But the other girl and the boy, we don’t really have an idea of what became of them. 

So they kept one son and got one daughter back. I assume the son was your great-grandfather?

Yeah, they did keep Henry [the son], and Henry learned the tricks to the trade. He was described as a handsome man, sort of a Tyrannosaurus in the cave. Of course, Henry came of age and married, and they had six children, and two of them became guides.  

My grandfather was not a guide, he was a chef in the old hotel, but his brother Matt (third generation) and great-uncle Louis, were guides. At one time there were nine Bransfords in the cave. 

When the Civil War was over, Fowler [the soldier-abolitionist], says, ‘Mat, I believe the North is winning this war. And you can go back to Nashville if you want to.’

Mat told that Union soldier, ‘No, sir, I can never go back to Nashville now. I've been in Mammoth Cave all my life. I know the cave. The cave is in my heart, and the cave is in my blood. If my children come back after the Civil War, they wouldn't know where else to find me.’

How did the cave become a national park?

My father was born in the Mammoth Cave area in 1914. Of course there was still segregation in the United States, but Blacks and whites in Mammoth Cave seemed to get along pretty well. But my dad would tell me that in the fall, before Christmastime, when the leaves were off the trees, the Ku Klux Klan would find a high hill on the ridge where the Blacks and whites lived and burn a cross—in the 1920s. He said there was never a word said: You didn't know who they were, but they let you know that they were there. Just in case you wondered. 

In 1941, when it became Mammoth Cave National Park, [the Black guides] were told that the cave was going to be sold to the government. Then they were told that there was no work for them at the cave. So you're in a place that you were raised up in, and you were a tour guide before any of the guides in the new Civilian Conservation Corps. You knew more about the cave than anybody, but you were no longer qualified to do a job that you had done all of your life.

Now. That’s a tough one, you know? The Black men were required to train men from out of town to do their jobs, men that knew nothing about the cave.

When my great-uncle Matt left, he never came back. He was old enough to retire but there were six or seven more Bransford boys that would have loved to have the job. The fact is Jim Crow discrimination is what forced them away.

That’s a powerful moment in history, when you had the integrated Park Service and Black guides and white guides, and then there’s this moment where Black guides are deemed not qualified. As you talk about that, I think about Black Americans and our relationship to the land. I see so much in the history of America, in displacement, in slavery, in the Great Migration—so many factors to drive us away from the outdoors.

I didn’t really visit national parks until I became an employee at Mammoth Cave National Park. And parks have opened up a whole world for me. It’s opened up my avenue of thinking of what national parks represent—the history, the geological facts of it. 

Sometimes I go into a cave, and I stand where my ancestors did in the 1850s and 1930s. And I try to place my feet where they would have stood at that time. Right where my great-great-grandpa Mat stood. 

And you know it. You know they stood there. I feel a connection to my ancestors when I’m on our family’s farm in Oklahoma. When did you make the connection here and join the National Park Service?

I got to the Park Service in 2004. By invitation from a guide [at Mammoth Cave]. She researched and found out that these Black guides were Bransfords. So she did a community search, she found my father, and they became acquainted. My father introduced us and we developed a friendship. When I retired [from a career in sales] in St. Paul, Minnesota, she asked me if I was interested in bringing the Bransfords back [to Mammoth Cave]. They’d been gone since 1941. And I thought, Well, jeez, you know, I'm 55 years old, I just left that company. I'm too old to learn anything new. But two years later, I did join the guide forces at Mammoth Cave.

And it’s been such a rewarding thing—I've experienced it as an honor, an honor to return on their behalf and tell their stories.

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