Peter West: Mammoth Cave and Racial Imagination

Roundup: Talking About History

[Peter West is Assistant Professor of English at Adelphi University.]

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Kentucky's Mammoth Cave was a popular tourist destination for travelers from around the United States and beyond. The cave also functioned during these years as a dynamic symbol in the national imagination, appearing in travel books, lyric poems, private diaries, love letters, gothic novels, and even a moving panorama. Peter West examines this diverse body of cultural artifacts against the backdrop of Mammoth Cave as a site of American slavery. As this essay reveals, black slaves such as Stephen Bishop were the cave's most popular guides and its most celebrated explorers.

While writers have often depicted Bishop and his fellow guides as heroic figures of slave self-determination and power, West complicates this interpretation by revealing how the symbolic authority of the Mammoth Cave slaves served the white imagination. The theatricality of antebellum cave tourism — which included costumes, optical illusions, sing-alongs, and complex games of racial and sexual role-playing — emerges here as a way of containing the haunting spectacle of black authority and reaffirming conventions of white domination....

Geologically, Mammoth Cave is a network of underground caverns in central Kentucky believed to be the world's largest cave system. Understanding Mammoth Cave as a social and political space, however, means grappling with its singular place in the history of American slavery. During the War of 1812, the cave was an important source of saltpeter (used in the manufacturing of gunpowder), and African American slaves provided the principal labor for its mining and extraction. Following the war, when the price of saltpeter dropped dramatically, mining became unviable. In the decades that followed, as the cave emerged as a popular tourist destination for U.S. and European travelers, its economic value continued to depend on slave labor. Though it was by no means unusual that male and female slaves worked as cooks, laundresses, porters, and chambermaids in the hotel located near the cave entrance, Mammoth Cave slavery was noteworthy: the guides who led visitors on tours of the cave during the antebellum era were black men either owned by the cave's proprietor or leased out by a neighboring slaveholder. In a compelling racial scenario largely overlooked by historians, these slaves were responsible for the conduct and well-being of the many white men and women who journeyed through the cave in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

By far the most famous of these cave guides was Stephen Bishop, who began working at Mammoth Cave when his owner, Franklin Gorin, purchased the property above the cave in 1838. The next year, in 1839, Gorin sold the property, along with Bishop and another slave, to Louisville physician Dr. John Croghan. Until his death in 1857, Bishop accompanied thousands of visitors on cave tours, explored miles of the cave's passages and chambers, and produced detailed maps of the caverns still lauded for their accuracy. In the dozens of first-hand cave narratives that appeared in the 1840s and 50s, Bishop was often celebrated for his handsome and exotic appearance, his extensive knowledge of the cave's topography and history, and his bravery and winsome personality. Today, Bishop continues to capture the imagination, appearing as a central figure in a 2000 Yale Younger Poets volume of poetry, a 2004 children's novel, and a work of historical fiction....

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