No one holds history with Mammoth Cave National Park like Jerry Bransford. The tour guide’s family began in the labyrinth as slaves, and Jerry keeps their incredible story vibrant to this day.
“I remember being about 4 or 5-years-old. Mom and dad would bring us down here into Mammoth Cave often,” Jerry begins. That would have been 70 years ago. But the Bransford family legacy with Mammoth Cave far predates his long lifetime. In fact, Jerry’s ancestors were responsible for the first mapping expeditions in history of the world’s longest cave. Their involvement predates the National Park Service‘s involvement by more than a hundred years.
“This is everything a cave named Mammoth aught to look like, right here,” he smiles as he guides Today Show‘s Gadi Shwartz through the labyrinth. They’re in Jerry’s favorite “room” of the system: The Rotunda.
Mammoth Cave was created over millions of years by surging underground river: Styx, named after Grecko-Roman’s underworld waterway. It’s nearly as ancient as the North American continent itself. As soon as European settlers found its entrance, the Bransfords were there. Through their labor as slaves, the Bransfords would help map the over 400 miles known to us today. It’s estimated that another 600 miles may remain, too.
As they travel deeper, ancient beams protrude from the stone: remains of an excavation site. “What you see here is the result of what approximately 70 Black men brought in to make gun powder components for the War of 1812,” Jerry explains.
That gunpower went towards America’s independence. But not Jerry’s ancestors. “A fight for freedom that these poor men didn’t have,” he says.
After the war, Mammoth Cave would become a lucrative tourist operation. Jerry can trace his Bransford roots all the way back to this point.
Mammoth Cave’s Jerry Bransford: ‘We began here in 1838, and we were here continuously until 1941.’
Jerry’s great-great grandfather, Mattison ‘Mat’ Bransford, spent his entire life working in the caves. That’s at least five generations of his family embedded in the rocky walls. Specifically, Mat was one of the first three original slave tour guides of Mammoth Cave.
“It was a job that was unique for slaves in American history,” Jerry details. “Once you got down in the cave – and you knew the cave better than anybody – you were free.”
In Mammoth Cave, Jerry’s ancestors would give tours to the elite of society. All as a slave. Mat’s name can be found “several places” in the cave, Jerry reveals, both “far out and deep down.”
After over a century of Bransfords tending to the caves, 1941 brought stark change. That year, Mammoth Cave became a U.S. national park. When it did, “black people were barred from being guides,” Today‘s Schwartz cites.
As a result, the U.S. Government broke the line of Bransford guides in Mammoth Cave for 66 years. Until 2004, when Jerry applied to reclaim his ancestral history.
“This cave represents an American story,” Jerry smiles. Recently, a new passage was discovered, and the national park honored Jerry – and his family’s legacy – by naming it The Jerry Bransford Way.
At 74-years-old, Jerry Bransford is still giving tours. And he has no plans of stopping anytime soon.