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Celebrating Kentucky: Stephen Bishop

By Jenn Shockley |

Bishop was the first modern man to explore and map large new section of Mammoth Cave.

Stephen Bishop was the first great American cave explorer. Bishop was the first person to ever cross Mammoth Cave's "bottomless pit," using a ladder to traverse the large opening. Soon after, he also discovered the first underground river found in the cave, and several new species of aquatic creatures. Using only torch light, he ventured far deeper into the cave system than modern man had previously visited, mapping his findings and opening up huge new sections of the cave system for exploration.

Bishop was born into slavery in 1821. When Franklin Gorin purchased Mammoth Cave in 1838, he brought three slaves with him to serve as guides, including Bishop. Bishop was self educated with an excellent sense of humor, a quick wit, and a little knowledge of both Greek and Latin.

The cave and all the slaves were purchased again in 1839 by Dr. John Croghan. Bishop had grown bored with the initial rooms, in the cave and had branched out his explorations. Croghan eventually sent Bishop to his estate, Locust Grove, to draw a map of the underground passages and rooms. In 1844, Bishop's hand-drawn map was replicated and sold as a pull out in Alexander Clark Bullitt's, "Ramble in Mammoth Cave in the Year 1844." It was published by Morton and Griswold, and full credit was given to Stephen Bishop for his work. This was very abnormal acknowledgement for a slave during the times. Bishop won his freedom in 1856.


Though his original map was only a 10 miles of the Mammoth Cave's system, Bishop managed to show the amazing connectivity. He also provided relevant passage length and dimensions. Stephen's nephew Eddie also became a guide at Mammoth Cave. Bishop died in 1859, and was laid to rest in the Old Guide's Cemetery on the Mammoth Cave State Park property.

Head on over to for more profiles of prominent black Kentuckians.

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