Materson (Mat) Bransford was born in 1815 to an enslaved woman and her enslaver, Thomas Bransford. As a result, Mat was biracial, but that did not change his birth status as a slave.
In 1838 Thomas Bransford leased Mat to his business partner, Franklin Gorin, who owned and managed Mammoth Cave. Mat soon began leading tours to white tourists alongside other enslaved guides such as Stephen Bishop, Nick Bransford, and Alfred Croghan. After Thomas Bransford died in 1849, Mat was kept enslaved by his half-brother, Thomas Bransford Jr., who continued to lease him to the Mammoth Cave Estate.
While at Mammoth Cave, Mat married an enslaved woman named Parthena, who lived on a farm located two miles from the cave. Mat built a home for himself, Parthena, and their children, and gained a positive reputation in the community. Mat’s reputation and value as a cave guide could not entirely protect him or his family, though. Under slavery, children were considered property of the enslaver, not of the mother or father. Parthena’s enslaver sold three of their four children away from them. They knew they were likely never going to see their children again.
During Mat’s time, visitors to Mammoth Cave included people from all over the world with differing views on the institution of slavery. In the early 1860's Mat guided abolitionist, John Fowler Rusling, through the cave. Upon hearing that Mat’s children had been sold away, Rusling remarked,
"I don't suppose you missed these children much? You colored people never do they say."
Upon hearing such oblivious and hurtful words, the heartbroken Mat was quick to inform him differently.
After his emancipation, Mat remained at Mammoth Cave for the rest of his life, guiding tours into his 70s as he could not seem to part with the job. He remarked about the cave,
“...it seems most like a child now, you know, we’ve been together so long.”
Mat would be the first of 5 generations that have played a part in the legacy of Bransfords as Mammoth Cave guides.