Mary Campbell was definitely a young girl who lived in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s.
And she was definitely captured by Native Americans and returned to her family years later.
But her presence at a rock formation named after her in Gorge Metro Park along the boundary between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls isn’t so definite.
So Summit Metro Parks is working to rename Mary Campbell Cave as Old Maid’s Kitchen to more accurately reflect the feature’s history.
"We don't really have the evidence to support the Mary Campbell narrative, so we're just trying to be as accurate as we can be,” said Summit Metro Parks cultural resource specialist Megan Shaeffer.
Summit Metro Parks staff and volunteers are at the rock formation this week, digging for clues of past human habitation of the site.
There are daily “Ask an Archaeologist” sessions at the excavation site, a half-mile from the parking lot of Gorge Metro Park, 1160 Front St., from 11 a.m. to noon the rest of this week, with the work wrapping up at the end of the week.
What is Mary Campbell Cave?
The sandstone and shale formation — about 300 million years old — isn’t so much a cave as it is a long alcove with a giant rock overhang.
Shaeffer said the feature has been known as Old Maid’s Kitchen, a common name for rock shelters like the one in the park, since the mid-1800s.
"It's supposed to be kind of like an old maid doesn't have anyone to cook for, so her kitchen is empty,” Shaeffer said.
The park district acquired the area in the late 1920s, and fill dirt was added in the early 1930s to make the site — flat toward the back but quickly sloping down and away from the formation — more accessible.
That’s part of the reason why the feature’s history is uncertain — that limited flat portion, along with drainage issues that were repaired in more modern times, would have made the site difficult to use.
"The topography was very different before the fill was put in, so it wasn't as nice and flat as it is now,” Shaeffer said.
In the 1930s, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution campaigned to change the name from Old Maid’s Kitchen to Mary Campbell Cave. A bronze plaque was unveiled there in 1935 in a grand dedication ceremony.
The site’s namesake, Mary Campbell, was about 12 years old when she was reportedly taken by the Lenape, or Delaware, in the mid-1700s. Mary was reportedly treated well and she was eventually returned to her family, with her name on the list of captives relinquished at the 1763 Treaty of Muskingum.
Although the Lenape did have a settlement nearby, there’s no evidence Mary or the tribe stayed at the rock formation. And Shaeffer said it’s believed Mary didn’t write about her life, so there’s no way to know where she stayed during her captivity.
“We just don't have the evidence that she lived back here," Shaeffer said. "But it was chosen because the Daughters of the American Revolution believed that she [did]."
Decades later, that name and story are the ones that stuck, despite the lack of evidence to support their truth.
Digging for clues
As the park district prepared to work at the site, the fill dirt — ranging from about 1½ feet to up to 3 feet deep — was removed.
The work is being done this week ahead of a project to restore native plants in the area. The park district wanted to dig at the site first to see if there was anything culturally significant there.
The crew of about a dozen, with three to six people working each day, works in squares, or units, marked off by pink string, using trowels to dig in the soil until they reach impenetrable shale about 10 centimeters down.
The soil is placed in blue buckets, which are carried over to a screen for the soil to be sifted over a blue tarp.
Staff and volunteers search through the rock, dirt and soil on the screen for anything significant.
The crew is looking for evidence of human habitation, both historic — within the last few hundred years — and prehistoric — thousands of years ago.
So far, the crew has found bits of glass, chunks of what used to be nails and charcoal. Most of it is from the 1920s and 1930s, when the rock formation grew in popularity as people visited the Gorge.
The nails and other “UFOs” — unidentified ferrous objects — are likely remnants of walkways and stairways put in as popularity increased at the site.
"Everything that we've found so far has been pretty modern,” said Shaeffer, who said what’s been found “is pretty much what I would have expected to find.”
Historically, the formation likely wouldn’t have been a long-term site — most likely short stays for protection from the elements.
If people did inhabit the area long ago, the crew would likely find lithic, or stone, evidence, likely made of chert, a type of sedimentary rock commonly found in Ohio.
That evidence could include projectile points or stone tools. The crew will also search for evidence of hearths, including fire-cracked rocks.
Volunteer Roe York, 67, of Cuyahoga Falls, was digging at the site Monday. York, who’s volunteered with the park district for about 15 years, said she’s always known the feature by one name.
"I think it's gonna be difficult for people like me ... We've always known it as Mary Campbell's Cave,” said York, who’d so far found pieces of glass and a nail. “But I think it's OK. I don't see a problem with it.”
Nearby, volunteers Dave Everhard and Sharon White, both of Akron, sifted soil, dirt and rocks using a screen. So far, they’d found five or six pieces of glass.
Both said they’ve always known the feature as Mary Campbell Cave.
“Historically, it makes sense,” second-year volunteer Stone, 67, said of the proposed name change.
The park district knows it’ll be hard to rebrand a feature that’s so ingrained in local lore, so much so that it’s even taught in local schools.
For now, the park district is continuing to use both names on signage, maps and its website.
Eventually, the bronze plaque installed in 1935 christening the feature Mary Campbell Cave might be removed. But that would be a long way down the road.
In the meantime, the park district will continue its work to find out who, if anyone, did spend time in the cave and how they used it.
"We're trying to learn more about the history of the feature from the feature itself,” Shaeffer said. “I feel like it's really the first time that the feature's been able to have its say in what happened here and who was here and how it was used.”
Contact reporter Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, email@example.com and @EmilyMills818.