Slavery is one of the darkest marks on American history.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked details of slavery in the United States is the multitude of contributions enslaved people made to society, both without pay or recognition. Take, for example, the story of Stephen Bishop, a man who moved managed to move science forward under the restraints of oppression and slavery. His geological discoveries cast a light in some of the darkest places that would otherwise go unknown.
Stephen Bishop was an American slave who was tragically forced to live his life as another person’s property. From the age of 17, he was owned by Franklin Gorin, Congressman from Kentucky who served in the House of Representatives in 1874.
However, Gorin wasn’t just a legislator and slave owner, he also happened to own quite a bit of property. In 1838, Gorin acquired the gargantuan Mammoth Cave, a huge gash in the Earth with depths that were still to be explored.
Gorin had high hopes for this cave. He planned on turning the Mammoth labyrinth into a tourist attraction. With its passageways and cathedral-like chambers, it was certainly a good place to get lost. It was also a good place for findings, as Bishop soon discovered.
Sculpted from the Earth over hundreds and of million years, Mammoth Cave is a massive mess of contorted tunnels, all in total darkness. This subterranean wonderland of towering limestone pinnacles is a place in which to stare in wonderment at nature’s artistry, or just get lost in forever.
The Worlds Longest Known Cave System
The underground tunnels that make up Mammoth Cave are known to extend for as much 400 miles beneath the rocky karst hills of central Kentucky. Mammoth is, in fact, the longest known cave system in the world, making it a fabulous place to get lost.
Mammoth Cave is also home to what is possibly the richest subterranean ecosystem on Earth. There are no less than 130 species of flora and fauna, including some totally colorless creatures that have never seen sunlight. There are also some things down there that will never see the daylight again…
A Place of Death
Mummies were found deep inside caves, indicating that it was used by the areas indigenous inhabitants in pre-colonial times. But the oddities don’t stop there.
The most incredible oddity of Mammoth Cave is the layers upon layers of stalactites and stalagmites. Cavities and grand sculptures have been wondrously carved simply by dripping water.
9. A Shackled Genius
Bishop was called, “a fine genius,” by his owner. Gorin was fond of Bishop, calling him, “a great fund of wit and humor” and noting that he possessed knowledge of Latin, Greek, and geology.
Slaves were typically forbidden from reading, so it’s odd that Bishop knew so much. Even more strange was the responsibilities he was given.
11. A Vast And Gaping Place
Bishop was an explorer and while he was allowed to explore the cave at will, he soon found himself at a threshold of something he dubbed the bottomless pit. Other guides refused to pass beyond this point. The pit plunged beyond the light of even the brightest of lanterns. This gaping drop was known as the limits of the Mammoth cave system at the time.
Pushing the Boundaries of Certain Death
Undaunted, Bishop went to cross the pit in 1838 with an equally daring tourist. He turned a long wooden ladder into a bridge over the hole. With strong determination, Bishop gripped a lantern between his teeth he carefully made his way across. Just one small slip meant certain death, but this American hero reached the other side, earning his place in history while still in the chains of slavery.
“Grand, Gloomy And Peculiar”
“Grand, gloomy and peculiar” were the exact word Bishop used to describe the subterranean world he unearthed. There were rivers with eyeless fish and snakes, and crickets that made no noise. But shortly after these discoveries were made, the property and therefore the cave, fell upon new ownership.
Despite owing discoveries to Bishop, when Dr. John Croghan acquired the property in 1839, Bishop was bundled in with the transference of property. His discovery hadn’t even earned him his freedom, but Bishop didn’t complain. He simply kept up his hard work, further contributing to the scientific community.
First Map Ever Made of the Cave
In 1842, to gain a better understanding of the underground network, Croghan had Bishop draw the cave’s first map. It was published two years later and showed roughly 10 miles of tunnels, over half of which were discovered by Bishop.
Freedom Finally Found
In 1849, Croghan died of tuberculosis. Under the terms of his will, seven years later Bishop was granted his freedom. Apparently, he actually had at one time talked of perhaps buying the freedom of his wife and son and traveling to Liberia which at the time was a self-declared independent nation of freed slaves.
First Guide And Explorer Of The Mammoth Cave
Ironically, Bishop dies in 1857, just one year after he was freed. His headstone was donated by a generous banker, James Ross Mellon, who had met Bishop’s widow while visiting the area in 1858. It simply read, “Stephen Bishop, First Guide and Explorer of the Mammoth Cave.”
Kentucky Cave Wars
Around the start of the 20th century, the areas around the cave succumbed to the so-called “Kentucky Cave Wars”, a period of very intense rivalry between local cave owners. During this time, arriving visitors were often misled by incorrect highway signs and scammers telling them that there was no entry to the Mammoth Cave.
Full Of Life
Yet Bishop’s legacy lives on. His work laid the first footsteps for biologists who went on to discover a number of rare animal species inhabiting the cave. They found species of bats, crickets, eyeless cave fish, cave shrimp, crayfish, and a species of salamander. Despite seeming like a deathly place, Mammoth Cave is full of life.
20. A Powerful Sense Of Terror
Today, Mammoth Cave National Park sees around two million visitors each year. The more adventurous people can crawl through mud and even visit the bottomless pit, all made possible by the groundwork of a man who the U.S. counted as property. It’s easy to forget what contributions have been made to America by enslaved people, but when we stop to educate ourselves, we’re floored by what we find.
[Featured image credit: Circleofblue.org Getty Images]