What’s in a Name?
Then-governor James L. McConaughy signed an act officially changing the name from Saybrook to Deep River on June 2, 1942. The town sent a delegation of local ministers, students, and the school superintendent to witness the signing. (Photo courtesy of the Deep River Historical Society)
When was Deep River not Deep River? When it was Saybrook.
Despite the fact that the town was called Deep River, officially it was Saybrook until 1947. On June 2 of that year, Connecticut’s then governor James L. McConaughy signed an act officially changing the name from Saybrook to Deep River as of July 1, 1947.
“Not a lot of people know about this,” said Rhonda Forristall, vice president of the Deep River Historical Society. “People are surprised about the name.” A sign and marker in front of the historical society on Deep River Main Street tells the story, if passers-by chance to read it.
One of the people for whom the story is familiar is Deep River First Selectman Angus McDonald Jr. As a surveyor before he took office, he had to consult old land records. “I’m a history buff and I’d seen old deeds in the records,” he said.
This year Deep River, a town with beginnings that date back to the 17th century, is officially having its 75th birthday. Although the actual date of the name change is in the beginning of July, McDonald said a birthday celebration is planned for the fall, perhaps to be a part of Deep River’s annual family day.
The story of Deep River’s name starts with the settlement of the Saybrook Colony at the mouth of the Connecticut River in 1635 by John Winthrop, Jr., whose father, John Winthrop Sr. was the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony encompassed the area that now includes the towns of Old Saybrook, Essex, Deep River, Chester, Lyme, Old Lyme, and Westbrook.
Richard Kalapos, the town historian of Deep River, has traced the division of the original colony into quarters establishing borders for each. Three quarters were delineated in the old documents. Kalapos believes that the area across the Connecticut River would have been the fourth quarter. “The plan for dividing up the colony must have originally involved Lyme as being the quarter not mentioned,” he noted.
According to Kalapos’ research, there is reference to “Deep River plaine” in a document, in 1678 and the name Deep River first appears in the Saybrook Land Record in 1682.
As settlers occupied different parts of the colony farther away from the original settlement, they formed their own congregations so they would not have to travel so far to church in the original settlement on Sundays. In time, this led to a complete break from the Saybrook Colony.
Lyme was the first to leave, in 1665 petitioning the Connecticut General Court to recognize the settlement as separate from the Saybrook Colony.
“In Lyme’s case it was probably isolation caused by the Connecticut River, not easy to attend church when it’s on other side of river. This caused them to have less reliance on Saybrook. As for the other partitions, I feel that there were economic factors, local industry creating interests that were more local in nature,” Kalapos noted.
Even the original settlement at the mouth of the Connecticut River became not Saybrook, but Old Saybrook, incorporated in 1854.
But Deep River never severed ties with the Saybrook Colony. When residents from the town enlisted or were drafted in World War II, their community was still recorded as Saybrook, not Deep River.
Deep River representatives Ossian Ray and Joseph Waz introduced the bill to change the town’s name to Deep River in 1947. On the day Governor McConaughy’s signature made that change official, Deep River sent a large delegation comprised of local ministers, students from both elementary and high school, and the school superintendent to witness the signing.
The Deep River Historical Society now has one of the pens that the governor used for his signature. The pen, with an old-fashioned point that had to be dipped in ink, was given to Representative Ray who donated it to the historical society.
So 75th Happy Birthday Deep River. The town, over 300 years old, has achieved something that everybody else can only dream about: how to legally take decades off one’s age.