What happened at Mary Campbell Cave?

Separating fact from myth at the Gorge

words and photos by Pat Worden

It’s not an easy hike to reach the rock shelter (it’s not really a cave) named after an 18th-century girl from Western Pennsylvania. Summit Metro Parks rates the trail a 3, their most difficult designation. There are some steep climbs, plenty of ankle-turning rocks, maybe even some downed trees you’ll need to go over or under.

The cavity in question is on a relatively flat part of the trail. It’s about 120 feet wide and extends about 50 feet into the sandstone and shale of the surrounding bluff. It sits hundreds of feet above the Cuyahoga River Gorge for which the Metro Park is named.

If you’re familiar with the Mary Campbell story, chances are you’ve made that trek or have spoken with someone who has. Just outside the rock shelter sits a bronze plaque that tells the tale of a young girl’s abduction.

For nearly 85 years, that has been the accepted version of events. But is it the truth? The answer to that is more complicated than you might expect — but uncomplicated enough to warrant corrective action by Metro Parks administrators.

First, a recap of the Mary Campbell story as it is commonly understood: In 1759, Mary Campbell was babysitting for the Stuart family near her home in what is now Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. Mary was 12 years old, according to the park plaque, though other sources say she was as young as seven. The Stuart homestead was raided by members of the Turtle Clan of the Delaware, or Lenni-Lenape people, and Mary and several Stuarts were kidnapped.

The fate of the rest of the Stuarts is unclear. Akron’s General Lucius V. Bierce wrote nearly a century later that the Stuarts’ baby boy was violently killed shortly after the raid — but a recent internal Metro Parks review of documentary evidence in this case cast doubt on the Bierce account, calling it “embellished,” and full of “prejudice, misinformation, and tall tales.”

Mary is said to have stayed with the migrating Delaware as they made their way westward and eventually settled in the Cuyahoga River valley. In the winter following the kidnapping, Mary lived with some Delaware women in the rock shelter while men fished and hunted along the river and built a more permanent campsite on the ridge above. She stayed with them for several years before being returned to her family in 1764.

All of this would have occurred against the backdrop of European colonial expansion along the East Coast. Native Americans who had lived in the Atlantic region for millennia were forced westward, bumping up against — and often coming into conflict with — other tribes and settlers. The Delaware were part of this mass migration, and like many native groups they were suffering dwindling numbers due to warfare and disease. Kidnapping and forced adoption was “an effort (for the tribe) to survive,” according to the Fort Pitt Museum in Pittsburgh, which curated a 2016 exhibit on the practice.

As part of the peace treaty that ended the French and Indian War in 1763, tribes within the British sphere of influence were obliged to return captives. This resulted in one of the few pieces of documentary evidence we have in this case: A list of repatriated Pennsylvanians compiled in 1764 by Colonel Henry Bouquet includes the name Mary Campbell.

Earlier that year, the Pennsylvania Gazette had published a particularly heart-wrenching piece of evidence. Mary’s father, unaware of her impending release, appealed to “all good people” to help his “red haired, and much freckled” little girl find her way back home. His ad said that he, “and her aged Mother, are very desirous of seeing her.”

According to Peg Bobel, Cultural Resource Specialist for Summit Metro Parks, the Mary Campbell story existed solely as an oral tradition for almost a century before any written accounts appeared. Several of those first accounts varied in important details, but when the Children of the American Revolution formed a Cuyahoga Falls chapter in the early 1930s, they settled on the version we’re most familiar with today. One of the chapter’s first acts was to petition Metropolitan Park administrators to rename the rock shelter known as Old Maid’s Kitchen to honor Mary Campbell. They also purchased and placed the plaque that can still be seen in the park.

The problem, Peg Bobel told me, is that there isn’t a shred of proof that Mary Campbell was ever inside that cave, or even in the immediate vicinity. There are strong indications that some members of the Lenni-Lenape nation did live for a time in the Cuyahoga Valley. It’s even possible Mary Campbell was with them. But as a practical matter, the cave or rock shelter would have been a poor choice for a dwelling, especially in the winter, situated as it is so precariously and high above the river.  

After reexamining the evidence, Summit  Metro Parks has moved to rename the rock shelter Old Maid’s Kitchen. “Primary sources are too scarce,” Peg explains. “There are no archival or historical documents to support the story.”

In taking a critical look at a story that’s become central to Metro Parks lore, historians and administrators are coming to grips with the ethnocentrism that was common in 1934 but is becoming more and more archaic. While the Children of the American Revolution felt it relevant to highlight Mary’s status as “the first white child on the Western Reserve,” modern historians find it just as illuminating to study the Delaware. And they require firm evidence for any claims they might make.

What we knew as the Mary Campbell Cave is now Old Maid’s Kitchen. Summit Metro Parks is in the process of updating their website, trail maps and signage to reflect the change.

The origin of that old, reinstated name is obscure, Peg tells me. “The name actually exists elsewhere,” applied to similar rock formations, she said. The aforementioned internal Metro Parks document states that it came from early European settlers in the area. “It was common in those days to call such caves old maid’s kitchen.”

We may not know who the old maid in question is — but she isn’t Mary Campbell, or anyone else associated with her story.

Pat Worden is a lifelong Akron resident. He’s on the hunt for the city’s lost lore.