Materson Bransford: Images

Materson Bransford:  Images


Materson Bransford was a mulatto slave born around 1822.  He was the son of Thomas Bransford, a wealthy white farmer and businessman from Nashville and a slave woman.  This relationship was apparently openly acknowledged when Mat was later working at Mammoth Cave.


Thomas Bransford – Materson’s father.

In 1837 Franklin Gorin, a lawyer from Glasgow, Kentucky purchased Mammoth Cave.  About this time he also acquired the ownership of Stephen Bishop.  He leased the slaves Materson Bransford, and Nick Bransford (unrelated) from Thomas Bransford and took them along with Stephen Bishop to work at Mammoth Cave as guides and general laborers at the estate.

In 1859 Charles Wright in “The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky” writes:


The says Mat had been guiding for nineteen years placing the year he began to work as a guide in the cave as 1840, a couple years after Stephen Bishop started, but it is likely he was working with the older guides and participating in the exploration of the cave soon after he was brought there.  Wright (1859) even goes so far as to mention the recently deceased Stephen Bishop and compares the once famous Stephen to the current Black guides Wright states, “Stephen [Bishop], who had been a guide for two years longer than Mat [Bransford], died in July 1857. Although a great deal has been written about him, from the fact that he was a favorite of the original proprietor, he was in no respect superior to either Mat or Nicholas, nor was his acquaintance with the Cave more thorough or extensive.”

H.C. Hovey who wrote in 1891 that: “Each guide has his own mark to leaw on the wails in order to be certain of the way ff ever in doubt. Many a time they have congratulated themselves on a new discover” only to be chagrined by finding Stephen’s or Mat’s sign on the wall, showing a previous visit.”  (1891.  Hovey, Horace C. 1891.  Guide Book to the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, Historical, Scientific, and Descriptive, Thirteenth Edition, Revised and Enlarged. Published: (Cincinnati) Robert Clarke & Company, 100 pp.

I have been working through the contemporaneous documents in chronological order looking for references to the guides.  This is the first mention of Mat in in the published accounts from 1842 in:

Zabriskie, James C. 1842.  A Visit to the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky (pp. 148-152)  in Rutgers Literary Miscellany, October 1842, edited by B. F. Romaine.  Publisher: Rutgers College.

The particular phrase is on page 150:


There are few really early images of guides at Mammoth Cave.  The earliest are those drawn by Ferdinand Richardt, a Danish artist dating from around 1857.  This is a sketch of Mat Bransford done by Richardt that is in the possession of Frank and Justina Keller:

Ferdinand Richardt also made several drawings of Nick Bransford that are in the collections of the National Park Service:


Ferdinand Richardt was primarily a landscape painter, but likely felt some kinship with Mat and Nick as they were all about the same age at the time of the drawings.  He produced several oil paintings of scenes from the cave at this same time.  This is an account of his paintings from the Mammoth Cave from an 1859 catalogue: . (National Academy of Design (U.S.) 1859.  Catalogue of Ferdinand Richardt’s Gallery of Paintings: Of American Scenery, and Collection of Danish Paintings, pp. 5,6, 7.  Printed at the Office of the N. Y. Staats-Zeitung, 1859 – Landscape painting – 16 pages.


In an auction in 2007 one of his paintings depicting Echo River sold for $69,000.


The auction site includes several images and a description of the painting:

“Many of Richardt’s preliminary sketches for the subject are still in existence today. One in particular is a revealing portrait study of Nicholas Bransford, now housed in the Mammoth Cave archives. Bransford was a famous slave guide, and along with fellow slave Mat Bransford would have undoubtedly guided Richardt during his exploration. These two men, whose same last name derived from their owner Thomas Bransford, were the principal guides of Mammoth Cave after the famous guide, Stephen Bishop, passed away in 1857 just before Richardt arrived. In this painting, the guide in the first boat is nearly identical to Richardt’s sketch of Nicholas Bransford, and the gentleman in the second boat matches early photographs of Mat Bransford.”

It was several years before another image of Mat appeared.  In 1863 Mat was allowed to travel to Louisville for a formal portrait, even though he was still a slave.  There was an account of this trip published in the Louisville Daily Journal, August 20, 1863.  Part of the text read:

“No one who has visited Mammoth Cave during the last quarter of the century has forgotten Mat, the colored guide, to whose attentions they have been indebted for most of their pleasurable remebrances of a visit to that great subterranean wonder…He is familiar with the geographical and chemical formations peculiar to the Cave, and discourses of all its wonders with an apparent knowledge of his subjects that would do credit to Professor Silliman.  Mat arrived at the city yesterday and is the guest of our friends at the Louisville Hotel.  He will sit for a portrait today at Brown’s daguerrean saloon, after which he will take a shy at whatever is worth looking at above ground hereabouts, returning to the cave tomorrow.”

The image from that session:


There is an interesting article on why people don’t smile in old photographs published recently, written by Michael Zhang that may shed some light on Mat’s dour expression.  His basic conclusion was:

“Want to be seen as upper class and as a person of good character? Don’t smile.”

In the Public Domain Review, Nicholas Jeeves has written up an in-depth piece on this subject  that comes to some conclusions.  “By the 17th century in Europe it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment.”

St. Jean-Baptiste De La Salle, in The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility of 1703, wrote:

“There are some people who raise their upper lip so high… that their teeth are almost entirely visible. This is entirely contradictory to decorum, which forbids you to allow your teeth to be uncovered, since nature gave us lips to conceal them.”

Mark Twain, a contemporary of Lincoln’s, was firm on the matter in a letter to the Sacramento Daily Union:

“A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.”

So Mat Bransford was not smiling as was the fashion of the day to demonstrate his good and proper character.

Bob Thompson wrote in 2000 (Thompson, Bob.  2000.  The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky:  A Catalogue of Selected Photographers and Their Images.  Journal of Spelean History, Vol. 34, No. 1, January -June 2000, pp. 3-23. wrote:

“The first photographs made in the cave were stereo photographs (3-D images) by Charles Waldack of Cincinnati OH.  he took 42 different views with the help of magnesium light,  These were the first high quality photographs produced underground in any cave.”  The image below is one taken at the entrance to the cave. Materson Bransford is shown on the right:



This one of the 42 photos in the series entitled “Magnesium light views in Mammoth Cave, 1866.” Photographed by Charles Waldack, Cincinnati, Ohio.  Published: New-York : Published by E. & H.T. Anthony & Co., c1866.   This image was downloaded from the Library of Cngress and it can be seen that this is just one side of the stereo print. Printed on front of stereo cards: Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1866 by Proctor & O’Shaughnessy in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the U.S. for the So. Dist. of Ohio.

Here is the stereo version of the image:


A second image by Waldack shows a group of people with Mat Bransford in the background.  I do not know if this image was ever published.  G. Magee indicates: “View at the Entrance of Mammoth Cave – Waldack Mammoth Cave Photograph Not Published by E. & H. T. Anthony & Co”


A tighter crop of the above image:


Bob Thompson in 2002 (Thompson, Bob.  2002. Mammoth Cave Hotel Destroyed By Early Morning Fire in 1916. Twelve Original Hotel Registers From 1853 To 1897 Were Mysteriously Saved From The 1916 Fire. examined two of the remaining hotel registers from this time period and found the signatures of several of the early photographers of Mammoth Cave.  He writes:

“Mammoth Cave National Park has 10 original hotel registers that date from 1883 to 1897. They were donated to the park by Ellis Jones of Cave City, Kentucky, in 1982…Some of the more prominent guests in the two Mammoth Cave Registers are signatures of photographers Adin F. Styles (written in the register as A. F. Styles) of Burlington, Vermont; Charles Waldack of Cincinnati, Ohio; and his assistants John R. Procter of Maysville, Kentucky; and John H. O’Shaughnessy of Newport, Kentucky; and Mandeville Thum (and family) of Louisville, Kentucky.

Photographer Adin F. Styles registered at the hotel on September 25, 1865. He stayed in room 23 of the Mammoth Cave Hotel and took the long route trip in the cave. During his visit, Styles photographed cave guides Mat and Nick Bransford together in front of the entrance to Mammoth Cave.

Photographer Charles Waldack registered at the hotel on June 14, 1866, and July 26, 1866. During his visit, Waldack took the first interior photographs of the cave. They were the first successful photographs taken underground in any cave and were a vital key in showing Mammoth Cave to the world. Waldack’s assistant, John R. Procter, also registered on June 14, 1866 (his name came just before Waldack’s). Waldack’s other assistant, John O’Shaughnessy registered at the hotel on June 16, 1866, and July 13, 1866. John R. Procter was the nephew of Mammoth Cave Hotel manager, Larkin J. Procter, and was later, a geologist for the state of Kentucky.

Photographer Mandeville Thum and Family registered at the hotel on July 26, 1860. It is not clear if he took photographs of the cave during his visit. All of Thum’s photographs of the cave were copyrighted on November 22, 1876. Thum may have visited the cave with his family for the first time in 1860 and then returned later in 1876 to take photographs.”

Adin F. Styles was a noted landscape photographer from Burlington, VT.  On a trip south to Virginia and Florida in 1869-1870 Styles visited Mammoth Cave.  What is notable about this excursion is that he took the only known photograph of Mat and Nick Bransford together. (Thompson 2000).



The final photographer known to have taken an image of Materson Bransford was Mandeville Thum.  Mandevillle Thum was a medical doctor from Louisville.  There is little information about him as a photographer.  Thompson (2000) writes:

“Mandeville Thum took 26 photographs of Mammoth Cave that were copyrighted on November 22, 1876. Published as stereo cards, each had a small label on the reverse side, listing the description of the view and the statement,  “Mammoth Cave Views … Address orders to M. Thum, Louisville, Ky., Copyright Secured” In February 1877, the same 26 views were published again but without the Mandeville Thurn name on the stereo cards. This time, instead of a description of the view on the reverse side, there was a complete listing of all 26 views.”



I have not found any other images that show Materson Bransford.  He passed away on August 13, 1885 after working as a guide for 47 years.


The Glasgow Weekly Times – Aug 19, 1885

A final drawing of Mat Bransford was published as part of a four guide panel in Thompson (1909).


The drawing is not attributed, but is in the same style as one of Stephen Bishop in the volume signed by John Thompson.  It was apparently drawn based upon some of the old photographs of Mat.

(Thompson, John.  1909.  Mammoth Cave, Kentucky; an historical sketch containing a brief description of some of the principal places of interest in the cave.  Also a short description of Colossal Cavern.  Publisher: Louisville, Courier-journal job print.  62 pp.  Accessed September 1, 2013.)

Edward Forrest Frank

About Edward Forrest Frank

My name is Edward Frank. By training I am a geologist with published research on caves found in the United States, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. I am the webmaster, BBS administrator, and run the Facebook Page for the Native Tree Society and am involved with tree research with the group. I am the author, or coauthor, of a number of tree related articles and publications available for download from the NTS website and NTS BBS. I edit the monthly magazine for the group - eNTS Magazine. I write science fiction and fantasy stories reflecting a lifelong love of the genres. Most recently I published a fantasy role playing game Knarf 4, available through Amazon Kindle. I have an extensive science fiction and fantasy library and have long enjoyed table top role-playing games. Not satisfied with commercially available games, I started creating my own game variations in the mid 1980's. Knarf 4 is latest version best version of those games. I also write non-fiction. I currently am working on a book on "The Old-Growth Forests of Cook Forest State Park, PA" targeting older children and teens. I am suave, sophisticated, funny, kind, considerate, thoughtful, brilliant, devilishly handsome, and above all modest.
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4 Responses to Materson Bransford: Images

  1. Fred Stewart says:

    Great Read Thank you for sharing this story about Mr. Bransford.


  2. Kimberly Allen Geter says:

    Thanks for this article. I came here interested in caves as this past weekend I visited Ruby Falls and Rock City. Both of these attractions are in TN. Also, it was interesting to read about Mr. Bransford. He was really dedicated to his job!!!


  3. Kenneth Adams says:

    Materson Bransford was my great grandfather (3X). I remember hearing stories about Mammoth Cave when I was a child and am still fascinated with anything having to do with my ancestry. I am also in the beginning stages of filming a documentary on the cave as well as Materson and Henry Bransford.


  4. Kenneth Adams says:

    Sorry, I am in the beginning stages of researching and preparing to film a documentary. There is much work to be done!


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