The Enslaved Man Who Mapped Mammoth Cave By Memory

illustration of stephen bishop
Briona Lamback
July 27, 2022

Stephen Bishop was 17  when his enslaver brought him to a cavern in Kentucky that he wanted to turn into a tourist attraction. The teenager descended into the unknown with little equipment and only a flickering lantern.

Exploring Mammoth Cave was no easy feat. Bishop navigated through sinkholes, cracks, boulders, and underwater springs, often surrounded by pitch blackness and the loudest silence. 

Exploring the caves might've been the closest he'd ever gotten to feeling free, so he kept pushing.

Bishop led all-day tours, sometimes for up to eighteen hours. He once crossed a 105-foot bottomless pit using a ladder and carried his lantern by his teeth! 

He was SO genius that he created a map of the cave by memory. Bishop knew so much about geology that visiting scientists came just to learn from him.

Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system in the world, and the must-see underworld is a top destination with about 500,000 visitors each year. Without Bishop, they wouldn't know nearly as much about the cave as it is known today.

Often, white supremacy leads us into situations that can make life hard to navigate. When it feels like the darkness is beginning to cave in around us, we must remember that, like Stephen Bishop, our resilience is crucial to our liberation.

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