Podcast Episodes

The 14th Colony

Everyone knows America’s legendary origins — 13 colonies fighting off the tyranny of the British Empire to form our Union — but did you know there was, if only for a brief time, an extra-legal 14th colony? If that blows your mind, you’ll be even more astounded to find out its name … it was called Transylvania.

It was made possible by a famous name, too, a man called Daniel Boone. On this episode of America’s National Parks, The Transylvania Purchase, a land which laid its gateway at a gap in the Allegheny Mountains, now known as Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where the borders of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.


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Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


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You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park – National Park Service Website

The Cumberland Gap Tunnel – Official Website

The Wilderness Road – The History Channel

The Colony of Transylvania – The North Carolina Booklet, Vol. 3 No. 9 (Jan. 1904)


Transcript

The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

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—–

Everyone knows America’s legendary origins — 13 colonies fighting off the tyranny of the British Empire to form our Union — but did you know there was, if only for a brief time, an extra-legal 14th colony? Actually, there were a few other colonies like Nova Scotia and East and West Florida that didn’t join the revolution and remained loyal to the crown, but I’m talking about something different. This is a colony that was created by a private company that lobbied the Continental Congress to join the union that would become the United States. If that blows your mind, you’ll be even more astounded to find out its name … it was called Transylvania. Yeah, I didn’t hear about that in school either.

In fact, had events turned a bit differently, we could be eating Transylvania Fried Chicken instead of KFC, and horses might be running the Transylvania Derby.

It was made possible by a famous name, too, a man called Daniel Boone. On this episode of America’s National Parks, The Transylvania Purchase, a land which laid its gateway at a gap in the Allegheny Mountains, now known as Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where the borders of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.

A word before we begin: In this episode, we’re going to discuss treaties with indigenous people, people who already inhabited these lands, and conflicts with the so-called settlers. Clearly, people inhabited these territories long before colonizers arrived. The land wasn’t “purchased” from anybody. It was taken.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

—–

In the early 1700s, the Allegheny Mountains were the greatest obstacle for settlers aspiring to reach the west. In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker, an explorer, found a cut between two mountains. A crossing that would, for centuries to come, allow passage for travelers from around the world.

Through this gap was a vast tract of lands utilized and claimed by several tribes, comprising most of modern-day Kentucky and much of Tenessee. In 1774, Richard Henderson, a judge from North Carolina, organized a land speculation company with a number of other prominent people. The company was called the Transylvania Company, and its intent was to establish a new British colony by purchasing the lands from the Cherokee, who were the primary inhabitants of much of the area and claimed hunting rights in other sections of it.

Henderson hired Daniel Boone to blaze a trail through the mountain gap, set up towns, and negotiate with indigenous people in the area. Boone had been in southeast Kentucky long before the founding of any settlements, and he traveled to the Cherokee towns to inform them of the upcoming negotiations.

In March 1775, Henderson and Boone met with more than 1,200 Cherokee at Sycamore Shoals to sign a treaty procuring all the land south of the Ohio River and between the Cumberland River, the Cumberland Mountains, and the Kentucky River — 20 million acres.

One Cherokee chief, named Dragging Canoe, refused to sign at Sycamore Shoals even though his father did. But the majority won out. Dragging Canoe left the treaty grounds taking those who were loyal to him south, eventually landing in the remote area of the Chickamauga Creek (near modern-day Chattanooga). There they established eleven towns which resisted settlers for decades. The location gave the group the name “Chickamauga.”

Henderson believed that a British legal opinion had made his private purchase of the land legal, but the Transylvania Company’s investment was in violation of both Virginia and North Carolina law, as both colonies laid claim to parts of the land. A royal proclamation also prohibited the private purchase of American Indian land and the establishment of any colony not sanctioned by the Crown. But Henderson proceeded anyway.

Daniel Boone was originally from Pennsylvania and migrated south. He was what was known as a Longhunter, someone who hunted and trapped among the western frontiers of Virginia for long periods of time. Boone would sometimes be gone for months, even years, before returning home from his expeditions. The Kentucky area was alluring to Boone because of its large salt brine lakes. Salt was essential for preserving meat on these long hunts.

Along with 35 axemen, Boone cut a 200-mile trail from Kingsport, Tennessee through the forests and mountains across the gap. It was hardly more than a path, rough and muddy.

The Shawnee laid claim to some of the land purchased from the Cherokee, but were not involved in the Sycamore Shoals Treaty. They viewed Boone and his men as invaders. While camped 15 miles from their final destination of the Kentucky River, just before daybreak, a group of Shawnee, slinging tomahawks, attacked the sleeping men. Some of the party were killed and a few were wounded, but most escaped into the woods.

When Boone reached the Kentucky River, he established the settlement of Boonesborough (near present-day Lexington, Kentucky), which was intended to be the capital of Transylvania.

The trail was difficult and dangerous. Wagons could not travel it, and still, many settlers began making the journey into the west. Entire communities would often move together over the Wilderness Road to new settlements. Many came on their own accord, refusing to recognize Transylvania’s authority. Along with regular attacks from the Shawnee and Chickamauga tribes, robbers frequented the edges of the route, seeking to pilage weaker pioneers. Defensive log structures called “stations” were built alongside the road with portholes in the walls for firing at attackers. Venomous copperheads and rattlesnakes blended into the undergrowth endangering the people and their livestock.

When Henderson was ready to enter the territory, he led another expedition of 30 horsemen following Boone’s path, widening the road so travelers could bring through wagons. Around 150 pioneers joined them along the way, including some who had been traveling ahead of them, but were retreating from Shawnee attacks further down the road. Some of the streams were flooded, and the pioneers had to swim with their horses.

When Henderson arrived at Boonesborough, just under a hundred people resided there. The settlers were living in a precarious situation. They lacked supplies and shelter, and faced significant hostilities from the Shawnee, and now the Cherokee, too, who had joined with the Shawnee and other tribes in the Cherokee-American war, which would last another 20 years. Still, Henderson urged settlers in the area to establish the colony and hold a constitutional convention.

His plan was for the various settlements throughout Transylvania to send delegates to Boonesborough. In May 1775, under a huge elm tree, a three-day convention assembled. They passed nine measures, drafting a document that built a framework of government, known as the Transylvania Compact, including executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

With that business complete, Henderson returned to North Carolina to petition the Continental Congress to make Transylvania a legally recognized colony. Virginia and North Carolina, who both claimed jurisdiction over the region, did not consent, and the Continental Congress declined to get involved.

Still, the colony existed, if not legally, until just one month before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when the Virginia General Assembly prohibited the Transylvania Land Company from making any demands on settlers in the region.

Over 200,000 pioneers came over the Wilderness Road during this time. Many Scottish, Irish, and German. As the eastern lands were all taken, new immigrants had to push west, enduring severe hardships. Many families would walk hundreds of miles immediately after landing in America, crossing the icy creeks and rivers without shoes or stockings. One year, the weather was so cold that the Kentucky River froze to a depth of two feet. Many of the cattle and hogs froze to death. The settlers had to eat frozen livestock to survive. Often Dragging Canoe’s Chickamauga would ambush the Gap area for weeks at a time.

On July 5, 1776, Boone’s daughter and two other teenaged girls were captured outside Boonesborough by a Shawnee war party, who carried the girls north towards the Ohio lands. Boone led a group of men in pursuit, catching up with them two days later. They ambushed the Shawnee while they were stopped for a meal, rescuing the girls and driving off their captors.

Henry Hamilton, British Lieutenant Governor of Canada, began to recruit American Indian war parties to raid the Kentucky settlements. On April 24, Shawnee Indians, led by Chief Blackfish, attacked Boonesborough, and Daniel Boone was shot in the ankle while outside the fort.

While Boone recovered, Shawnees destroyed the surrounding cattle and crops. With the food supply running low, the settlers needed salt to preserve what meat they had, so in January of 1778, Boone led a party to the salt springs on the Licking River. While out hunting during the expedition, Boone was captured by Blackfish and his warriors. Boon’s party was greatly outnumbered, so he convinced them to surrender to the Shawnee.

Blackfish wanted to continue to Boonesborough and capture it, since it was now defenseless, but Boone convinced him to leave the Women and Children alone for the winter, promising that Boonesborough would surrender willingly in the spring. It was a bluff. So convincing, that many of his men thought he had turned his loyalty toward the British.

On June 16, 1778, Blackfish planned his return with a large force to Boonesborough. Boone learned of the plan and escaped, covering the 160 miles home over just five days on horseback and then by foot after his horse gave out.

During Boone’s absence, his wife and children had returned to North Carolina. Upon his return, some of the men questioned Boone’s loyalty, since after surrendering the salt-making party, he had lived quite happily among the Shawnees for months. He was even taken into one of their families and given the name Big Turtle.

To prove his loyalty, Boone led a raid against the Shawnees across the Ohio River, and then helped defend Boonesborough against a 10-day raid when Blackfish arrived in September.

After the siege, Boon was court-martialed by his fellow townspeople, some of whom still had family members held captive by the Shawnee. After Boone’s testimony, he was found not guilty, but it left him humiliated. He returned to North Carolina to get his family.

Three years after Boone blazed the Wilderness Road, In December 1778, Virginia’s Assembly declared the Transylvania claim void and took possession of the land. Henderson and his partners were given 12 square miles on the Ohio River below the mouth of the Green River as consolation – an area now known as Henderson.

Daniel Boon never returned to Boonesborough. He founded the settlement of Boone’s Station and went into business finding land for new settlers. Settlers now needed to file land claims with Virginia, and Boon would travel to Williamsburg to purchase their land warrants.

He became a leading citizen of Kentucky. When Kentucky was divided into three Virginia counties in 1780, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Fayette County militia, fighting in several revolutionary war battles.

In 1781, he was elected as a representative to the Virginia General Assembly. He traveled to Richmond to take his seat in the legislature, but British captured him and several other legislators near Charlottesville. The British released Boone on parole several days later. After a term in office, he returned to fight in the war, including the Battle of Blue Licks, in which his son Israel was killed. In November 1782, Boone took part in an expedition into Ohio, the last major campaign of the war.

—–

The word Transylvania has little to with Dracula or Eastern Europe. it merely translates to “beyond a pleasant, wooded area.”

That break in the mountains became known as the Cumberland Gap, and it is of global importance. Settlers from around the world chose to pass through it to settle the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, along with a whole lot of slaves who didn’t have a choice. Nearly 300,000 pioneers journeyed through the nation’s first doorway to the west.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was dedicated in 1959. Even then, the area’s importance as a route through the mountains hadn’t changed. 50 years prior, the Bureau of Public Roads built a 2 and a half mile ribbon of crushed, compacted, and rolled limestone highway through Cumberland Mountain to link the towns of Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, and the wilderness road later disappeared under U.S. Highway 25E. As the highway became heavily trafficked, accidents became more and more frequent on the winding mountain road, earning it the nickname “Massacre Mountain.”

In an unlikely alliance, conservationists, historians, the park, and highway engineers joined forces to push for a major construction project that would reroute the highway through a tunnel beneath the historic Cumberland Gap.

In 1973, legislation was passed allowing the National Park Service to construct tunnels through Cumberland Mountain in order to remove traffic from the historic corridor and restore the image of the Gap and Wilderness Road.

The project cost $265 million and required rerouting two U.S. highways, the construction of twin 4,600-foot tunnels, five miles of new 4-lane approaches to the tunnels, two highway interchanges, and 10 bridges, including a 200-foot railroad bridge and two pedestrian bridges on hiking trails.

In 1985, Construction began on a pilot tunnel that was 10 feet wide and 10 feet high, drilled from both sides of the mountain. It took two years to drill, and revealed springs that produced 450 gallons of water every minute varying rock and clay, massive caverns, and a 30′ deep underground lake.

It took another 10 years to build the actual tunnels, which were are lined with a waterproof PVC membrane. A massive water management and drainage system was designed and installed, and water quality was constantly monitored during the construction process.

The tunnels opened to traffic in October 1996, and the section of U.S. Highway 25E was closed, and the asphalt removed. Now, there’s just a six-foot-wide trail—not too different from the one carved by Daniel Boone.18,000 vehicles passed through the park on an average day before the tunnels were built, now double the amount passes through the tunnels.

Today, you can discover the rich history of the area while experiencing the stunning nature, from spectacular overlooks to cascading waterfalls, along an extensive trail system that traverses Cumberland Gap National Historical Park’s 24,000 acres.

A guided tour takes visitors a mile down the Wilderness Road to the majestic Gap Cave. Another takes you to the historic Hensley Settlement, where the stories of early pioneers and settlers come alive in the numerous historic buildings and structures.

Wildlife is abundant in the park, including deer, beaver, fox, bobcat, bear, and over 150 species of birds. Rock formations abound and mountain streams flow over them to create beautiful waterfalls.

The 160-site Wilderness Road Campground is located 3 miles from the park visitor center off of Highway 58 in Virginia. Electrical hookups are available at 41 of the sites, and the campground provides hot showers and potable water. Campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Backcountry camping is available in some of the more remote, wilderness areas.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Legends of Denali

In 1896, the highest summit in America was named by a gold prospector in support of then-presidential candidate William McKinley, who became president the following year. Of course, for centuries before, it had gone by a different name.

On this week’s episode of America’s National Parks, Denali, the 20,310 Alaskan summit, and the six million acres of land that surround it in Denali National Park.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Denali – National Park Service Website


Transcript

In 1896, the highest summit in America was named by a gold prospector in support of then-presidential candidate William McKinley, who became president the following year. Of course, for centuries before, it had gone by a different name.

On this week’s episode of America’s National Parks, Denali, the 20,310 Alaskan summit, and the six million acres of land that surround it in Denali National Park.

Up first is the late Chief Mitch Demientieff of Nenana, and the legend of Denali.

(Transcript not available)

Denali may not be the highest summit on earth, that, of course, belongs to Everest in the Himalayas. But Denali is actually a taller mountain from base to peak, rising 18,000 feet. That’s about the equivalent of 14 empire state buildings. Everest rises only 12,000 feet.

The climb up Denali is nowhere near as technical as Everest, but its sheer elevation change and its location still make it one of the most challenging climbs.

Mountain climbing tales in history tend to read like fish stories, so it’s not a surprise that there has long been controversy around the first person to reach the top of Denali.

The first claim was laid in 1906 by an explorer, Dr. Frederick A. Cook. In fact, he took a camera and had pictures to prove it. The photo was published in 1908 along with Cook’s account of how he had braved avalanches and ice cliffs to make the first ascent of the then titled Mount McKinley. ”At last!” Cook wrote. ”The soul-stirring task was crowned with victory. The top of the continent was under our feet.”

A couple years later, Cook also claimed that he was the first to reach the North Pole, But a guy named Robert Peary really did reach the North Pole, and challenged Cook’s claim to have gotten there first, putting the Denali claim in doubt as well.

Not many believed Cook’s story, save for a few historians and family members over the years that tried to prove it. Many of his photos seemed like they were taken elsewhere, and finally, in 1998, the negative of the summit photo was discovered. It showed that the published photo had been heavily cropped, and in fact showed Cook at a spot only 5000 feet up the mountain.

Meanwhile, back in 1910, four Alaskan gold miners were sitting in a bar debating Cook’s claim to have reached the top of McKinley. They were unconvinced, and bragged, that they, as Alaskans, would fare far better on the mountain. The bar owner bet them $500 that they couldn’t do it.

Now, these guys were not climbers. They were middle-aged, overweight, and had no real climbing experience. Yet in mid-February, 1910, these four miners set out to climb Mt McKinley. And on April 3, they made it to the top where they planted a flag.

Or so they said.

Their claims were a little far-fetched. Honestly, who could believe they really did it? For example, they said they climbed the last 8,000 feet in one day. Hikers today take 10 to 15 hours to do the last 3-4000 feet, which they save for the last day. And even though they brought a camera, none of the photos they took were at the summit. But they were so adamant that they did.

A couple weeks later, the New York Times Magazine published expedition leader Thomas Lloyd’s story of their climb. It filled three pages, including notes from his journal, and it convinced a lot of people, but for others, the claim was still very much in doubt.

So, another expedition set out in 1913 to reach the summit, and to verify Lloyd’s story. And, in fact, they reached the North summit and found the flag that Lloyd’s party had planted. Four overweight miners with no hiking experience actually did it!

Not so fast.

It’s important to note here that Denali has two peaks. The South, which is the tallest, and the North is about 300′ shorter. It would appear that Lloyd and the miners only made it to the North. Now, the story changes a bit. The miners claim that they only put the flag on the North peak because it would be visible from below (which it wasn’t), and they actually reached both peaks. Many years later, a couple of the miners admitted that they only reached the North peak, but claimed that it was the more challenging climb of the two.

The story would have been incredible enough without the lie, but now it taints their claim forever. That said, the climbers that set out to verify Lloyd’s story actually did reach both peaks, and are credited with the first summit of Denali in 1913.

On the 100th anniversary, in 2013, Jay Elhard of the National Park Service described the first summit and explored the reasons why climbers climb.

(Transcript unavailable)

Denali national park didn’t actually include the mountain when it was set aside to protect Dall Sheep in 1917. It was expended over time, and is now a massive wilderness, with very few trails, intentionally, to preserve hiking and backpacking in a trail-less landscape. The marked trails that do exist are centered mainly around the two visitor centers.

There’s one road through the park, it’s 92 miles long, but only the first 15 miles of it are paved. That portion, leading from the park entrance to Savage River, is open during the summer for vehicles. Travel beyond mile 15 is limited to bikes and hikers, and park buses. It can snow heavily almost any month of the year, so the road in spring or fall may be open or closed depending on conditions.

You can see a lot from the park road, including the namesake mountain and incredible wildlife. One of the best ways to see the vastness of the park is a “flightseeing tour,” where a small private plane or helicopter soars you over gentle foothills, along meandering glaciers, up to the rugged peaks of the Alaska Range.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

 

Podcast Episodes

An Island Prison

If you only know the name Geronimo from the call that paratroopers in old war movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons shout, it’s a nickname bestowed upon a Native American hero by Mexican soldiers. During repeated conflicts, The Apache warrior attacked them with nothing but a knife, surviving each time despite being continually shot at. The soldiers would plead to Saint Jerome as they faced him. Geronimo is Spanish for “Jerome.”

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Geronimo, and his imprisonment at Fort Pickens, now a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola, Florida.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

or download this episode (right click here and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Gulf Islands National Seashore – National Park Service Website

Chiricahua National Monument – National Park Service Website


Transcript

If you only know the name Geronimo from the call that paratroopers in old war movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons shout, it’s a nickname bestowed upon a Native American hero by Mexican soldiers. During repeated conflicts, The Apache warrior attacked them with nothing but a knife, surviving each time despite being continually shot at. The soldiers would plead to Saint Jerome as they faced him. Geronimo is Spanish for “Jerome.”

On today’s episode of America’s National Parks, Geronimo, and his imprisonment at Fort Pickens, now a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola, Florida.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

One of the leading causes of the Civil War was westward expansion, and whether new states like Kansas would be slave states or not, tipping the scales of power toward to the North or South. After the Civil War ended and the question of slavery was decided, the U.S. government turned its military prowess towards the native people of the West. Tribes gave up most of their traditional lands and ways of life as they were forced onto reservations.

Eventually, the reservations were encroached upon as miners and settlers moved in and demanded more land. The Chiricahua Apache reservation shrank to nearly one-third of its original size. Bands of Apaches hostile to one another were forced to live together on the shrinking lands, and as conditions on the reservation deteriorated, some bands escaped. Including a band led by a man named Geronimo, who lost fear when he lost his family during a Mexican raid. In the summer of 1850, a contingent of Apaches went on a trading mission into Mexico. While the men were in town, a force of Mexican troops attacked the lightly-guarded camp. When Geronimo returned, he found his mother, his first wife, and his three children all dead.

Geronimo became the #1 target of the U.S. Army and President Grover Cleveland, who made Geronimo’s capture his personal mission, saying “I hope nothing will be done with Geronimo which will prevent our treating him as a prisoner of war…if we cannot hang him, which I would much prefer.”

In 1886, Cleveland dispatched a full quarter of the U.S. Army, 5000 soldiers, in an effort to capture Geronimo, who was also evading 3000 Mexican soldiers as he raided across the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. Eventually, the Army hired 500 scouts from rival Apache bands to track Geronimo, two of which found his band and negotiated a surrender to General Miles in Arizona’s Skeleton Canyon.

After the surrender at Skeleton Canyon, the entire Chiricahua tribe were exiled to Florida where they were to be held as prisoners. President Cleveland publicly stated that they were “guilty of the worst crimes known to the law, committed under circumstances of great atrocity, and public safety requires them be removed far from the scene of their depredations and guarded with strictest vigilance.”

His orders to the Army commanders stated that “all the hostiles should be very safely kept as prisoners until they can be tried for their crimes, or otherwise disposed of.”

Three days before the dedication of the Statue of Liberty — October 25th, 1886. A train arrived in Pensacola, Florida. Onboard, 16 Apaches who surrendered at Skeleton Canyon in Arizona. Their leader – the renowned warrior Geronimo.

The rest of the Chiricahua were sent to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, but it was claimed that Geronimo himself and his warriors would be better guarded at Fort Pickens than at the overcrowded Fort Marion. However, an editorial in a local newspaper noted that Geronimo would be “an attraction which will bring here a great many visitors.” Upon their arrival, the paper’s editor said: “we welcome the nation’s distinguished guests and promise to keep them so safely under lock and key that they will forget their hair-raising proclivities and become good Indians.” In fact, it was local business leaders that lobbied for the move. President Cleveland himself approved the petition, separating the men from their families, breaking the terms of the surrender.

In February 1887, tourists from all over the country began arriving in Pensacola, crossing Pensacola Bay on a ferry to visit the island fort and see the Apache prisoners and the famed warrior Geronimo. Admission was fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for children. Visitors talked with the captives, bought souvenirs from them, and brought them gifts. Geronimo learned his part. He became a genial sideshow attraction, doing what he could to coax tourists to hand over a few nickles. He was well-liked, particularly by the women who visited. A writer from the local paper gave this advice to visitors: “We think that the ladies who visit these savages indulge in too much gush, and we are certain they would not do it if they were to pause and reflect upon the barbarities practiced upon the people of their own race by these cutthroats.” One woman asked a guard what kind of gift would be appropriate for Geronimo, and he responded by saying “a piece of lead in the forehead.”

Now that Geronimo was of no concern for harm, he was a celebrity. Were he alive today, he’d be making the talk show circuit and guest-judging on cooking shows. But Geronimo was still a prisoner. He and his warriors spent many days working hard labor at the fort, another violation of the agreements made at Skeleton Canyon. “they put me to sawing up large logs,” Geronimo said. “There were several other Apache warriors with me, and all of us had to work every day. For nearly two years we were kept at hard labor in this place and we did not see our families until May 1887.”

The families of the warriors were moved to Fort Pickens, creating an even bigger attraction. The Indians held traditional dances. Soldiers would put pennies on the posts for the Indian boys to shoot off with their arrows.

After Grover Cleveland left office, Geronimo, his warriors, and their families were moved to Vermont, Alabama, where they stayed another five years, working for the Government. “We were not healthy in this place,” Geronimo said, “for the climate disagreed with us. Many died, others committed suicide.

They were then sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where, though imprisoned, houses were built for them by the Government. They were also given cattle, hogs, turkeys and chickens. They were operating upon the understanding that they could raise the stock and sell grain in order to establish their own support system, but again the government had misled Geronimo. Part of the money was given to the Indians and part was placed in what the officers call the “Apache Fund,” to go towards clothing and other care, but the government-issued clothing eventually ceased, and the Apache were never given account of their earnings.

Geronimo lived the rest of his days as a prisoner. He visited the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and according to his own accounts made a great deal of money signing autographs and pictures, though he could do little with it. He died in 1909 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The captivity of the Chiricahua Apache ended four years later.

To the settlers of Arizona, Geronimo’s band were raiders and murderers. The Apaches’ exile and captivity eased their fears. The price of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache’s resistance was lost loved ones, lost lands, lost traditions, and 27 years their freedom. From 1850 to 1914, the Apache population dropped 95%.

On his deathbed, Geronimo confessed that he regretted his decision to surrender to the U.S. His last words were reported to be “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”

_____

The Gulf Islands National Seashore protects a chain of barrier islands between Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, several with intact fortresses from the early 1800s. On the eastern end, you can take a ferry from Gulfport, Mississippi to West Ship Island, for swimming, hiking, and touring the historic Fort Massachusetts. In nearby Ocean Springs, Mississippi, the Davis Bayou portion of the seashore offers trails through the wetlands, with plenty of opportunities to view alligators and other wildlife. There’s a developed campground on site, with water and electric hookups and a modern bathhouse.

In the Florida panhandle, historic Fort Barrancas lives on the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Crossing the Pensacola Bay Bridge into the town of Gulf Breeze, you can find the park headquarters at the Naval Live Oaks area. This is the first piece of federally managed land in the United States. The Live Oak trees with their thick, crooked branches, were excellent for ship-building. The original United States Naval fleet was built largely from this grove of trees.

Crossing a $1 toll bridge onto the community of Pensacola Beach you’ll find a typical Florida beach town full of sugar sand, sunbathers, and outdoor eateries. But as you pay your entrance fee at the gate for the Gulf Islands and drive the 6 miles to the end of Santa Rosa Island, the world changes. The party atmosphere, the music, and the people disappear, but the sugar sand remains. You can explore miles of pristine beaches, watching osprey hatchlings leave their tiny footprints while the wide-winged adults loom overhead. Ghost crab almost disappears into white shores, and dolphin leap in the bay. At the end of the island is Fort Pickens, Geronimo’s tourist-attraction prison, which offers self-guided and ranger-led tours. All around the island are cannon batteries that developed over time as the armed forces protected Pensacola Bay, an important naval harbor. The giant cast-iron cannons of the 1800s and large-caliber disappearing grey gun batteries of the early 1900s are set among the palm trees and sand dunes all over the island. It’s like being in an episode of LOST, as you climb and play on the deprecated war equipment, almost wondering what decade you are in.

The campground near Fort Pickens at the end of the island is one of the best places to camp in all the National Park system. For $25 a night, you have water, electricity, and private access to the sugar sand beaches and trails to the fort and gun batteries. The legendary Blue Angels team of stunt jets is based across the bay at the Pensacola Naval Station, and they regularly practice right overhead and fly low over the water. It’s a particularly interesting affair since warplanes are the entire reason the gun batteries along the island are no longer necessary.

National Park Service sites across the southwest also relate closely to Geronimo’s history, especially Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona, which is also a place of wondrous natural beauty.

The tradition of yelling “Geronimo” comes from the forties, when the Army was testing parachute jumps. A unit had gone out drinking and watched the 1939 film “Geronimo.” As fellow soldiers were harassing a young private who was acting tough about the jump. Early paratroopers didn’t have the greatest survival rates. His comrades said he’d be so scared, he wouldn’t remember his own name. He told them that to prove he wasn’t scared, he’d yell “Geronimo” as he jumped, referencing the warrior’s bravery in battle against the Mexican Army. He did, and his company followed suit, starting the tradition of making the expression in the face of death.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and Narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. 

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media. 

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC. 


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.



Podcast Episodes

Pirates and Parks

Piracy, the act of seizing a ship or its cargo from its lawful owners, has been a plague since people first set sail on the high seas. By the Elizabethan Era, English piracy entered a Golden Age, as pirates plundered its coastal waters unchallenged. As Spain gradually increased its wealth through its own savagery in the New World, English pirates feasted on Spanish ships, eventually spreading piracy to the Carribean Sea.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Pirates, and their role in the creation of America, immortalized at National Park Service units up and down the East Coast.

In fact, there are so many stories of piracy and privateering in today’s National Parks, that choosing just one was difficult, so we settled on two – centered around Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site – with many more to touch on in a future episode.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


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You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Cape Hatteras National Seashore – National Park Service Website

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site – National Park Service Website

Pirates and Privateers – National Park Service Website


Transcript

Piracy, the act of seizing a ship or its cargo from its lawful owners, has been a plague since people first set sail on the high seas. By the Elizabethan Era, English piracy entered a Golden Age, as pirates plundered its coastal waters unchallenged. As Spain gradually increased its wealth through its own savagery in the New World, English pirates feasted on Spanish ships, eventually spreading piracy to the Carribean Sea.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Pirates, and their role in the creation of America, immortalized at National Park Service units up and down the East Coast.

In fact, there are so many stories of piracy and privateering in today’s National Parks, that choosing just one was difficult, so we settled on two – with many more to touch on in a future episode.

First off, here’s Abigail Trabue with the story of the lost colony of Roanoke.

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In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh, known for bringing tobacco and perhaps the potato to England and laying his cloak on the ground for the Queen to avoid puddles, was authorized to search out and take possession of, for himself, “remote, heathen and barbarous lands.” He sent his a party to Roanoke scout a suitable location. Colonization ventures were extremely speculative at the time, so Raleigh lured investors by combining colonial plans with privateering enterprises, the disruption of Spanish shipping having been officially sanctioned by the English Crown. The colony was to be a base, underwritten by English investors, for attacks on Spanish shipping in the western Atlantic. Roanoke was ideally suited to prey upon Spanish treasure ships as they sailed up the coast from the Caribbean to catch the Gulf Stream to cross the Atlantic.

Raleigh settled a self-governing community in Roanoke bent on privateering. They were led by John White, an artist and friend of Raleigh who had accompanied a previous expedition. The were told they were to settle the Chesapeake Bay and had been ordered to stop at Roanoke to pick up the small contingent left there the previous year, but when they arrived on July 22, 1587, they found nothing except a single skeleton. The master pilot refused to let the colonists return to the ships, for unknown reasons, and they were forced to settle Roanoke.

The business of settling and the business of plundering ships were in direct conflict with each other, and the colony was failing. The colonists persuaded White to return to England to explain the colony’s desperate situation and ask for help. Left behind were 115 colonists – the remaining men and women who had made the Atlantic crossing — and White’s newly born granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas.

In England, White procured two supply ships and set out to return to Roanoke after the winter. The ships and their crews were distracted by a piracy attempt of their own on the Journey back to Roanoke, but they lost the battle. They were badly damaged, and their supplies were seized. White was forced to return to England, and when he finally made it back to Roanoke in 1590 with another privateering squadron on his granddaughter’s third birthday, the colonists had vanished.

There was no sign of struggle, and the only clue was the word “CROATOAN” carved into a post of the fence around the village, and the letters C-R-O carved into a nearby tree. The houses had been dismantled, which signaled that their departure had been intentional and unhurried. White took this to mean that they had moved to Croatoan Island (now known as Hatteras Island), but he was unable to conduct a search.

Some evidence of English living among the Croatoan Native Americans has been found, but nothing conclusive. The fate of this “lost colony” remains one of the world’s great mysteries.

______

England’s first outing to Roanoke — the one that left the Skeleton behind for White’s colony to find — was actually rescued by another pirate: Sir Francis Drake.

Having pillaged the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean through the spring of 1586, Drake arrived at Roanoke in June of that year in time to rescue the 115-man military detachment from starvation and an impending Algonquian attack, transporting them back to England.

Drake made a name for himself as the second man to circumnavigate the globe, plundering Spanish shipping along the way. In 1588, he led an English fleet of warships to destroy the mighty Spanish Armada off the coast of England, paving the way for England to become a global superpower it is today.

Our next story, over 150 years before the Lost Colony, involves a pirate so famous that most pirate lore — especially all of those Pirates of the Caribbean movies — is drawn from him and his men, even though he was only an active pirate for two years.

_____

Edward Teach served England as a privateer in Queen Anne’s War until turning to piracy in 1713. His career in piracy began in the Caribbean with fellow pirate Benjamin Hornigold. In 1717, after Hornigold rewarded him with a hijacked ship, Teach set out on his own.

Queen Anne’s Revenge, Teach called the ship, which carried a crew of 40 cannons and 300 men. He always introduces himself as Edward Teach, but those who knew him or feared him called him Blackbeard.

Blackbeard and his men sailed the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast of North America, torturing merchant ship crewmen and passengers, stealing cargo, and gaining a reputation as one of the most notorious pirates in history.

Blackbeard developed a reputation for being superhuman in battle, partly because he knew the importance of image. For battle, he dressed in all black. He strapped 6 pistols to his chest, and swords to his waist. His beard was wild, covering most of his face up to his eyes. He would twist colorful ribbons into it, and slow-burning cannon fuses that would flash and smoke, enveloping him in a supernatural fog that lit his wild eyes.

Most of his victims simply surrendered their cargo rather than fight, which was good business for Blackbeard — he rarely lost any men taking over a ship, and he often rewarded a quick surrender with respect. A damaged ship was less useful to pirate than an undamaged one, and if a ship sank in battle, the entire prize would be lost. So pirates sought to overwhelm their victims without violence, by building a frightening reputation.

Blackbeard vowed to butcher anyone who resisted and to offer tolerance to those who resigned civilly. He built his reputations on acting out those promises: killing resistors in horrible ways. Those who surrendered survived, and lived to spread the stories of mercy or revenge.

Despite the terror Blackbeard inflicted, he only spent two years as a pirate. After the Queen Anne’s Revenge sank, Blackbeard and his crew approached North Carolina’s governor Charles Eden for an official pardon. Eden, who was likely paid handsomely, granted their request. Blackbeard settled in the coastal town of Bath marrying and joining local society. But the temptation to plunder again was too strong, and one day, he set sail out of Bath and came back with a loot-filled French ship. He swore it was abandoned at sea when he found it.

Blackbeard’s pardon only fueled piracy in North Carolina, which was commonly ignored, as Blackbeard and several other pirates found the coastal waterway an ideal target. Eden helped Blackbeard appear legitimate, and Blackbeard returned to piracy and shared his takings.

After tolerating Blackbeard’s terrorism for eighteen months, North Carolina residents and merchant sailors begged Virginia’s colonial governor Alexander Spotswood for help. Acting in secrecy, Spotswood arranged an ambush of Blackbeard, offering a bonus for Blackbeard’s death.

The end of Blackbeard came at the hands of the Royal Naval Lieutenant Robert Maynard, sent by the Governor of Virginia. The legality of the intrusion of one colony on another was questionable, but North Carolina residents had begged for help. On November 22, 1718, Maynard cornered Blackbeard with two ships, Jane and Ranger, which were immediately fired upon by Blackbeard and his crew, severely damaging the Ranger. When the Jane began to take damage, Maynard ordered the crew to go below deck, creating the illusion of an abandoned ship.

Blackbeard took the bait. Leading a charge aboard the vessel, he and his men were surprised by Maynard’s crew. When he was finally killed, Blackbeard was found with twenty-five stab wounds and five gunshots. He was decapitated, his head hung on the Ranger’s bowsprit, and his body tossed overboard, bringing a literal end to Blackbeard and a symbolic end to Atlantic Coast piracy.

The governor of Virginia had it mounted on a pole near the intersection of the Hampton and James Rivers, where it stayed for years as a warning to other pirates.

______

On November 21, 1996, a private research company found the wreck of the famous Queen Anne’s Revenge, just over a mile off the shore of the Fort Macon State Park in North Carolina. The ship proved to be one of the most successful diving sites in the entire world, bringing to the surface over 250 thousand artifacts, including the combat gear and personal belongings of the pirate crew.

Blackbeard and his gang, as well as dozens of other pirates, ruled off the coast of North Carolina in an area now set aside as Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A 70-mile portion of the of barrier islands that rin from New York to Mexico.

The main activities are sunbathing on the pristine beaches, exploring the historic structures, fishing and birdwatching. From the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Bodie Island Lighthouse are open for climbing. Those with off-road vehicles can access the ocean and the sound with a permit seasonally.

Four campgrounds offer tent and RV sites near the ocean. No water, sewer, or electric hookups are available.

At the north end of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is Roanoke Island, home of the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, where you can see the now partially restored raised earthwork of the Lost Colony. There’s an interpretive nature trail, and a play entitled THE LOST COLONY has been performed since 1937 at the adjacent Waterside Theatre, telling the story of the settlement by the Roanoke Island Historical Association. The First Light of Freedom monument commemorates the Roanoke Island Freedman’s Colony that was set up during the Civil War. The colony provided a safe haven and education for former slaves to help prepare them for a new life.

While you’re in the area, make sure to also visit the neighboring Wright Brothers National Memorial, where you can follow the path of the first powered flight.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and Narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.



Podcast Episodes

Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar

Deep within Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, one can find so much more than rock formations. The shale-capped mass of 400 known miles of caverns holds the history of America, told by the Black enslaved cave guides that made it one of the country’s top tourist attractions, then and now.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

or Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

In Kentucky, a Family at the Center of the Earth
A 2014 in-depth interview with Jerry Bransford and New York Times reporter Kenan Christiansen.

bransfordmemorial.com

Jerry Bransford’s dream is to build a memorial in the Bransford cemetery at Mammoth Cave as a tribute to all the past slave guides and the entire Bransford family, especially Mat and Nick. He also would like to pass on his stories and memories to his future descendants utilizing the cemetery and memorial. You can the website to contribute, and it’s also full of much more detailed information on the Bransford family history at Mammoth.

Ranger Lore: The Occupational Folklife of Parks – Jerry Bransford Discusses Family Legacy

A YouTube interview with Jerry Bransford about visiting Mammoth as a child with his family:

Mammoth Cave National Park Website

Info on all of the cave tours, camping, and other activities at Mammoth Cave National Park.


Transcript

PROLOGUE: HOUCHINS AND THE BEAR

According to legend, at the turn of the 19th Century, a Kentucky hunter named John Houchins found a black bear, and shot. He failed to kill the bear, and it ran, wounded, while Houchins gave chase until it led him to the entrance of a cave. Some say the bear chased Houchins, who, either way, is credited with the modern discovery of a cave system that sprawls for nearly 400 documented miles, so large that it is yet to be fully mapped, and may go on for up to 1000 miles.

On this episode of America’s National parks, the world’s largest cave system, Mammoth Cave.

On the ceilings and walls of Mammoth, one can find thousands of names written in smoke from a time when such a thing was encouraged. One of the oldest and most prolific names — sometimes written backward — is simply “Stephen.” Stephen Bishop, Mammoth’s most famous explorer, would take his candle to the ceiling and trace his name, sometimes in reverse due to the mirror he was looking in to avoid the wax dipping in his eyes.

In 1838, the 17-year-old Bishop was brought to explore and lead expeditions into Mammoth by the cave’s new owner Franklin Gorin, a lawyer from nearby Glasgow, Kentucky, who purchased the property, seeing the cave’s potential as a public attraction. Previously, the cave had been used as a Saltpetre mine during the War of 1812, when slaves mined valuable potassium nitrate, a primary ingredient in gunpowder.

Bishop quickly got to work, guiding tourists and exploring the depths of the cave, and creating its first map. This is what Gorin had to say about Bishop: he was “handsome, good-humored, intelligent, the most complete of guides, the presiding genius of this territory. He has occupied himself so frequently in exploring the various passages of the cavern, that there is now no living being who knows it so well,” Gorin said. “The discoveries made have been the result of his courage, intelligence, and untiring zeal. He is extremely attentive and polite, particularly so to the ladies, and he runs over what he has to say with such ease and readiness, and mingles his statement of facts with such lofty language, that all classes, male and female, listen with respect, and involuntarily smile at his remark. His business as a guide brought him so often in contact with the intellectual and scientific, that he has become acquainted with every geological specimen in the cave.”

Stephen wore a chocolate-colored slouch hat, a jacket for warmth, and striped trousers. Over his shoulder on a strap swung a canister of lamp oil. In one hand he carried a basket of provisions for the longer trips – fried chicken, apples, biscuits, and often a bottle of white lightning for refreshment. In the other hand, he carried an oil lantern – a tin dish holding oil and a wick, with a small heat shield held above the flame by wires.

A visitor described Stephen bishop’s “perfectly chiseled features,” his “keen, dark eye and glossy hair, and mustache. He is the model of a guide” the visitor said, “quick, daring, enthusiastic, persevering, with a lively appreciation of the wonders he shows, and a degree of intelligence unusual in one of his class…I think no one can travel under his guidance without being interested in the man, and associating him in memory with the realm over which he is chief ruler.”

But a ruler of Mammoth, Bishop was not. Quite the opposite, Stephen Bishop, like the saltpeter miners before him, was an enslaved, black man.

Each week, on the America’s National Parks Podcast, we plan to focus on a specific story or two behind a National Park Service unit. But for this, our first episode, The epic tale of Mammoth Cave was too juicy to pass up. It’s really the story of America, warts and all. We begin, as most National Park histories do, with the first people to call America home.

ACT I: NATIVE AMERICANS

The hunter John Houchins may be credited with Mammoth Cave’s modern discovery, but Stephen Bishop quickly found that man had been deep within the cave long before him.

In the summer of his first year in the cave, Stephen began to probe the obscure passageways. In what was then known as the Main Cave, behind an enormous rock called the “Giant’s Coffin,” he squeezed into a small room and down through a crack into a maze of passages beneath. Here he found the fragments of a burned cane torch and grapevine ties left by natives who had explored Mammoth Cave long before.

Nearly one hundred years later, in 1935, Civilian Conservation Corps workers Grover Campbell and Lyman Cutliff were exploring a new passageway. They climbed a ledge and discovered the unnerving scene of an ancient tragedy. A human head and arm, the only visible parts of a body pinned beneath a six-ton boulder. A digging stick lay nearby, the cause of the boulder’s collapse – its owner had dug too deeply.

Like the cane torches found by Stephen Bishop, the twenty-three-hundred-year-old body had been well preserved by the cave’s steadfast temperature and humidity, and by the salt in the soil.

Thousands of ancient artifacts have been found in Mammoth — gourd bowls, pottery, woven cloth, and a handful of petroglyphs. From 4,000 years ago until nearly 2,000 years ago, Native Americans explored at least six miles of the cave, until one day, for reasons unknown, they disappeared.

ACT II: THE SLAVE GUIDES

Stephen Bishop and the other slave guides such as Materson and Nick Bransford continued to escort the curious along their choice of two routes. The short route, a 6-hour journey, and the long route, a 14-hour journey, took visitors through all the curious formations, rooms, and obscurities Mammoth had to offer.

For a nickel, they’d lash a candle to a stick and write your name upon the ceiling. Theywould journey down Echo River in small boats and entertain tourists with songs in a round with the echo of the cave.

On one such tour, Bishop’s boat full of travelers capsized, and all the oil lamps were extinguished. In complete darkness, he led his party through the neck-deep water for five hours, until Materson Bransford arrived to save them.

Materson went by Mat, with one T. He was the son of affluent Tennessean Thomas Bransford and a slave woman named Hannah. He began guiding at Mammoth Cave in 1838, and ultimately became the property of his own half-brother after the death of his father. He married a slave girl named Parthena, and built a home for her and their four children. As the children grew, however, Mat was powerless to stop his wife’s owner from selling first his two daughters, and then his youngest son.

Mat Bransford

Many did not view such an act as horrendous, including opponents of slavery. In the 1860’s Mat guided abolitionist John Fowler Rusling on a tour. Rusling remarked, “I don’t suppose you missed these children much? You colored people never do they say.” Mat was quick to inform him differently.

Just months before the civil war ended and slaves were emancipated, Mat used his life savings from cave tour tips to buy back one of his daughters, who was fifteen years old and pregnant at the time. His other two children were never found.

Mat remained a Mammoth Cave guide for the remainder of his life. His Eldest son Henry became a guide, and then his grandson, too, whose name was also Matt, but with two “T”s. Matt with two Ts Bransford decided that, after the civil war, Black people shouldn’t just work Mammoth Cave, they should visit it. Blacks were still not welcome in most establishments. They were not allowed to be on the same tours with whites or stay in the same hotel. Matt traveled to larger cities to appeal to the African American community to visit the world-famous Cave. He led Special tours for them, and provided lodging and meals for black visitors with his wife Zemmie at their home called the Bransford Resort. White visitors had been touring Mammoth for a century, and now, thanks to the younger Matt Bransford, Black visitors could share the experience.

ACT III: CAVE WARS

There are more cave attractions throughout the Midwest than you can shake a stick at, but Mammoth is different.

“A grand, gloomy and peculiar place,” Bishop called it. Instead of the elaborate configurations of drip formations that you’ll find elsewhere, Mammoth is full of gigantic rooms formed by ancient underground rivers that sculpted the sandstone and limestone, capped by a shale roof. It’s more labyrinths and domes than wedding cakes.

As the industrial revolution raged on, railways brought more and more visitors to Mammoth. By the 1880s, tens of thousands of yearly visitors were arriving by a rail line built specifically to accomplish that task. The Mammoth Cave Railroad would operate successfully for 50 years, making runs from Glasgow Junction every 25 minutes in the summer.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the great National Park idea had taken hold. Half a dozen parks had been proclaimed by Congress, including one cave — South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park. Interest in protecting Mammoth in the same fashion began to spring up, but by 1920, a war of economics had broken out in the Kentucky Cave Country. The Mammoth Cave Estate and dozens of other caves that had been discovered in the area competed for the massive profit in showing tourists the wonders below the earth.

Colossal Cave, Long Cave, Short’s Cave, Great Onyx Cave, Indian Cave, Salts Cave and Crystal Cave all tried to snag motorists bound for the world-famous Mammoth, often by stopping them on the road using ringers dressed as authorities saying that Mammoth was the other direction, or that Mammoth was flooded.

An oilman named George Morrison believed that the Cave’s length extended beyond the surface boundaries of the Mammoth Cave Estate. He searched for clues in the cave and above ground until he got word of a sinkhole where kids played in the summer because cool air came up from below.

Morrison bought the property and drilled until he found a cave that was revealed to have a direct connection to the rest of Mammoth. He dubbed his site “the New Entrance to Mammoth Cave” and began selling tickets to motorists on their way to the Old Entrance.

The Kentucky cave wars were not without casualty. When cave owner Floyd Collins was exploring for a more profitable cave and became lodged underground in 1925, a circus atmosphere developed around his entrapment, as the story drew national attention. Thousands of sightseers descended on Cave City, hawkers sold food and souvenirs. Reporters drafted hourly updates for the nation, including aviator Charles Lindbergh, who delivered news reports by air as federal troops were dispatched to keep order.

Rescue attempts failed, and Collins died on his eighteenth day below the surface.

Rampant commercialism aside, Kentuckians held a deep pride for the caves at Mammoth, and many initiatives were floated to transition the area into a National Park. For 30 years, surveys were taken up, bills were introduced and passed, land was purchased, and finally, in 1941, Mammoth Cave National Park was dedicated.

ACT III: JERRY BRANSFORD

On Memorial Day and 4th of July weekends, a young Jerry Bransford — the great-great-grandson of a Mat Bransford — would ride the half-hour drive from his home in Glasgow to visit Mammoth with his family in the back seat of their ’49 Chevy.

On those holiday family Picnics, Jerry’s father, David Bransford Sr, would tell him the history of his family at Mammoth — how the cave is a part of their heritage, even though they still weren’t allowed to go inside the hotel for refreshments. The staff, who still knew Jerry’s father, would give them ice creams and Cokes at the back door.

Post-slavery, the Bransfords, and other black men were still the preeminent tour guides at Mammoth, famous even, but when the cave became a National Park, those guides had to look for new jobs. Many of their homes were forced to be sold to the government. The great act of protecting the underground wonderland turned away the people who knew it best.

When Jerry retired — nearly 200 years after the slaves mined the saltpeter for the War of 1812 — he began discussions with the National Park Service to return the Bransford family to the park. Jerry Bransford is now a 5th generation cave guide, and a National Park Service Ranger. His mission? To tell the stories of the great Black cave guides who were so instrumental in the discovery and interpretation of Mammoth Cave, so that they should never be forgotten again.

EPILOGUE: VISITING MAMMOTH

Today, when Jerry Bransford gives tours, he always notices the names scratched into the walls that were made by his ancestors. He’s found 14, including, the one that says simply, “Mat 1850.”

“Whenever I see a signature from my kin, I feel awed by what they did,” he told the New York Times. “But when I see Mat’s, it just knocks me down. I don’t know how anyone can have their kids taken away and never get them back.”

Mammoth Cave is one of the most conveniently located national parks, along I-65 just 30 miles outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Several different daily cave tours provide visitors with a wide range of sights to see, including the Gothic Avenue Tour, where you can see Stephen Bishop’s candle-written signature, and hundreds more. The more adventurous visitors can climb, crawl, and squeeze through the 6-hour Wild Cave Tour, seeing places only a small number of humans have visited. Along with the half-dozen or so paid cave tours, visitors can experience a wide array of above-ground activities, including, hiking, biking, kayaking and horseback riding. There’s still a small hotel on-site, as well as several primitive campgrounds. Several private campgrounds are just a stones’ throw from the park as well.

Jerry Bransford still gives cave tours on a seasonal schedule — he swore our three sons in as Mammoth Cave Junior Rangers. He’s raising money for a memorial to better honor the many Bransfords and other Black cave guides buried at the simple cemetery in the park. You can donate at bransfordmemorial.com.


Music

Music clips from this episode ar provided from artists via a Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0). You can check out their full works below:

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