Last updated: August 30, 2021
Nicholas (Nick) Bransford was brought to Mammoth Cave in the same manner and time as Mat Bransford: as an enslaved man leased to the owner of the cave in 1838. Although they share the same last name, Nick and Mat have no blood relation. It was common during slavery for enslaved people to be given the last name of their enslaver.
Descriptions of Nick as a guide do not exist until after Stephen Bishop's death. Perhaps he was not a regular guide until this time, or he had been assigned to other duties such as maintaining the grounds of the Mammoth Cave Estate. Nonetheless, Nick quickly became an adept Mammoth Cave tour guide.
On the wall of the Snowball Room within Mammoth Cave is an inscription that reads, “To Nick The Guide” from August 17, 1857. This inscription is the only known dedication to an enslaved guide written by a visitor to the cave.
A visitor named F.J. Stevenson visited Mammoth Cave in 1863 and wrote the following regarding Nick:
"[He] proved to be an interesting black man, considerably past middle age...a short, broad strong man...quiet but steady eyes, grave in his demeanor, and concise in his conversation."
Despite being a man of few words, Nick nonetheless embodied the connection guides have to the cave as well as to the visitors as Stevenson writes,
"...seemed thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the place in which he had spent the greater portion of his time for 17 years. He was as grave and taciturn as some cave-keeping anchorite. During our inward progress, he had carefully pointed out every place and object of interest...If I paused or made a misstep, he instantly looked around."
Unlike Stephen Bishop, Nick did not have any indications that he would receive help in gaining his freedom. After Mat Bransford’s children were sold away by his wife’s enslaver, Nick instigated a plan to buy his freedom. The guides routinely received tips from visitors, but Nick also began to sell eyeless cave fish to curious visitors to supplement his meager income. In 1863 he raised enough money and successfully bought his freedom. He decided to stay at Mammoth Cave, however, as a paid employee for a total of 50 years.
Beyond his role as a guide, Nick was also a father to two daughters, Hannah and Annie. Hannah later married Will Garvin, another black cave guide. Records show that Nick married Stephen Bishop's widow, Charlotte, sometime after Stephen died in 1857.
Nick was an upstanding community man who in the 1870’s donated land for the Mammoth Cave School where many Bransford children and other black community members learned to read and write. This quiet soul was a spiritual man and was one of the first deacons of the Pleasant Union Baptist Church that stood on Flint Ridge, near Mammoth Cave Baptist Church and Cemetery until the formation of the national park in the 1930s.
Nick continued to work at Mammoth Cave until he died in 1895 – giving over a half-century of his life to the cave guide profession. His exact gravesite is unknown, but is likely located near the Pleasant Union Baptist Church.