Mary Campbell Cave isn't really a cave.
In terms of geology, the natural formation at Gorge Metro Park in Cuyahoga Falls would best be described as a cliff overhang or rock shelter.
That might not be the only thing wrong with its name.
For the better part of a century, students have learned the legend of Mary Campbell, a Pennsylvania girl who was kidnapped by Delaware Indians, dragged across the wilderness and held captive in a cave on the north bank of the Cuyahoga River.
Affixed to a boulder in the cave, a bronze tablet explains that ''Mary Campbell was the first white child on the Western Reserve and this tablet marks the cave where she and the Indian women temporarily lived.''
Akron historian Michael Cohill, 50, who began researching the legend more than a decade ago, doesn't believe the girl ever set foot in the cave.
''It's nothing but a fairy tale,'' he said.
Although the dates might be off by a year or two, there is no doubt that Mary was a real person. The red-haired, freckle-faced girl was about 10 years old when she was abducted around 1758 from her home in Cumberland County, Pa., during the French and Indian War.
She lived with Indians for at least six years until she and 200 other captives were returned in 1764 to Col. Henry Bouquet, a British Army officer, near present-day Coshocton.
That much is documented. There are several gaps in the narrative, however.
''The exact place from where she was captured is not known, and the time that she spent in captivity is not known,'' Cohill said. ''Her route of travel from Pennsylvania to this area is not known.''
Consequently, there is no evidence that she lived in any cave, let alone the one with her name.
Until the 1930s, Mary Campbell Cave was known as Old Maid's Kitchen, a popular destination for sightseers who dared to climb the rocky crags between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls.
During the 19th century, visitors gave colorful nicknames to the Gorge's formations, including Observation Rock, Lover's Retreat, Grand Promenade, Fern Cave and Standing Rock. The inspiration for Old Maid's Kitchen, a shale-and-sandstone shelter, has been lost over time.
Cohill remembers hearing the legend of Mary Campbell during a third-grade field trip to the cave in the 1960s. Over the decades, countless students have looked at the 130-foot-wide shelter and tried to imagine what it must have been like to live there.
Gen. Lucius V. Bierce of Akron published the first local account of Mary Campbell's story in the Summit Beacon in 1851.
''Mary Campbell was adopted by Netawatwees, head chief of the Turtle band of the Delawares, who, in 1718, signed the Treaty of Conestoga,'' he wrote. ''From the time of her adoption by Netawatwees, Mary was treated with great kindness and shared equally in the affections of her adopted parents with the other children.''
Bierce wrote that the Delaware Indians lived on the north side of the river while the Iroquois lived on the south side.
He didn't mention the cave.
Thirty years later, Akron historian William Henry Perrin took Bierce's article, channeled the spirit of James Fenimore Cooper and crafted an epic tale.
In his 1881 book History of Summit County, Perrin described the attack on Mary's hometown: ''Here the dusky savages, decked in the gaudy ornaments of border war, invoked the favor of their god before descending like death upon the defenseless settlements. Here could be heard their wild chants Ne-gau nis-sau Ne-gau nissau. Kitchi-mau-li-sau negau nissau. (I will kill I will kill the white man I will kill).''
He didn't mention the cave.
Thirty years later, Akron historian P.P. Cherry combined the work of Bierce and Perrin and added new details in his 1911 book The Portage Path: ''Mary Campbell's first home in the Ohio country was in the Old Maid's Kitchen, where the squaws and papooses were temporarily domiciled, until the village could be built.''
With each retelling, the girl's tale grew wilder, Cohill said.
''They took Bierce's story and then elaborated on it,'' Cohill said. ''First, he did a story that there was this person, and she was captured. Then it became 'In the light of the campfire, the screaming natives thirsted for blood.' And then later, P.P. Cherry: 'And she lived in this cave.' ''
Cohill has many reasons to doubt the cave as a residence. It didn't provide adequate shelter for rain or snow. It was too difficult to reach. It was too far from water. Perhaps the biggest reason is this: Delaware Indians built their homes.
''There was an Indian trader who came into the Ohio area before the war broke out, and he gives a beautiful description of walking into a Delaware village a street with log homes on both sides and it was Christmastime and he was invited to stay in one of these homes,'' he said. ''They ate dinner at a table with plates and knives and forks. He slept in a bed.''
What's more, Chief Netawatwees lived in a permanent settlement near the Cuyahoga River in the present-day Merriman Valley, Cohill said. The Moravians called it ''Cayahaga Town,'' and its residents included Indians, whites and runaway slaves. Another Pennsylvania captive, John McLaughlin, later wrote how he enjoyed living there.
''This was like heaven,'' Cohill said. ''They came into a matriarchal society where a child was everything. Children represented their future.''
Cohill concedes that it's possible that Mary Campbell lived at the settlement since Netawatwees held a large number of captives. There is no documented evidence, however.
The only proof that the two were in the same vicinity came after the Delaware Indians abandoned the village and eventually moved south near the Muskingum and Tuscarawas rivers. Netawatwees, known in English as ''Newcomer,'' would give Newcomerstown its name.
When Ohio's Indians agreed to return their captives to Col. Bouquet, Mary's name was on the official repatriation list.
She returned to her family. In 1770, she married Joseph Wilford, and the couple had five sons and two daughters.
''She talked about her experience to her children,'' Cohill said. ''She told stories about how she grew corn and how they used the shoulder blade of a deer as a hoe. And she knew Indian remedies like what to do with a snakebite.''
According to family tradition, she lived near Muskingum for most of her captivity. There was no mention of a cave.
Mary Campbell died in 1801 and was buried in Greene County, Pa. Some of her descendants settled in Stark County. Mary's grandson Joseph Wilford served as a state senator from Wayne County in the mid-19th century.
In the 1930s, the Cuyahoga Falls chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution campaigned to change the name of Old Maid's Kitchen to Mary Campbell Cave. It took its inspiration from P.P. Cherry's book.
''It is indeed unfortunate that Mr. Cherry cannot remember where he obtained his detail, and examination of his manuscripts throws no light on the source of his information,'' Mrs. J.B. McPherson, a chapter member, wrote in a 1935 report.
The group sent letters to the Smithsonian Institution, Ohio Historical Society, Harvard University and several local colleges, but could not confirm the tale.
''The only two possible points of dispute now remaining are Mary Campbell's exact age, and her actual occupation of the cave,'' McPherson wrote.
Still, the group agreed to go ahead with the change. A grand ceremony was held in 1935 to unveil a bronze plaque at the cave. A band played music and politicians gave speeches about heritage. A woman read excerpts from Cherry's book.
''You will note that the cave is now, and probably will henceforth, be known as Mary Campbell's Cave, rather than the Old Maid's Kitchen,'' McPherson wrote.
She was right about that.
Apparently, you can't believe everything you read even if it's written in bronze. The plaque has been misleading visitors for nearly 75 years, Cohill laments.
''It's a myth,'' he said.
Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.