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March 20, 2019  |  

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Some historians spend all their time poring over texts; others take a more hands-on approach. Rich Kalapos, Deep River’s town historian, does a bit of both in his research on local history (he’s displaying a model wigwam he crafted almost completely after original methods). Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier

Some historians spend all their time poring over texts; others take a more hands-on approach. Rich Kalapos, Deep River’s town historian, does a bit of both in his research on local history (he’s displaying a model wigwam he crafted almost completely after original methods). (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

Richard Kalapos: Making the Past into the Present

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What do the skills of modern pharmacist and the pre-Colonial history of Connecticut have in common? Rich Kalapos, that’s what. Rich, who is the town historian of Deep River, is a retired pharmacist who has pursued the study of Connecticut’s Native American inhabitants as a hobby for many years.

Now, there is a chance for everybody else to learn about the Native Americans who lived in this area at the time of the first contact with Europeans. The land trusts and historical societies of Essex and Deep River are sponsoring two lectures on the indigenous people of the Connecticut River Valley.

On Wednesday, Oct. 4, anthropologist and archaeologist Lucianne Lavin, director of research and collections at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, Connecticut, will highlight the Wangunks, a powerful tribe that lived on both sides of the Connecticut River.

On Thursday, Nov. 2, Connecticut State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellatoni will discuss 11,000 years of Native American sites and cultures in Connecticut. The first lecture will take place at Essex Town Hall; the second at the Carriage House at the Deep River Historical Society. An archaeology hike at The Preserve will follow the lectures on Saturday, Dec. 2. The hike will begin at 9 a.m. at The Preserve parking lot on Ingham Hill Road in Essex.

“I am certainly planning to be at the programs,” Rich says.

He recently put together a Native American exhibit at the Deep River Historical Society in conjunction with Deep River Family Day. The display included tools and artifacts like arrowheads, found in local communities, as well as exhibits of plants used by Native Americans for medicine.

“As a pharmacist, that interests me,” Rich says.

The exhibit includes small model of a round wigwam, 7 ½ inches high by one-foot wide, that Rich made using the methods that pre-contact Native Americans would have used to construct the dwelling. He lashed together overlapping pieces of birch bark on a wood frame to create the outer structure. Inside, he built a small bench of twigs, admitting that it was so small he had to use some glue to keep the tiny sticks together—but he added that he lashed the twigs together over the glue.

“The main reason I did it,” Rich says, “is I wanted to see for myself what the construction techniques would have been.”

Rich said many of the things people think they know about Native Americans are not what they seem. Yes, he said, the Native Americans used wampum, strings of colored beads, for money, but he noted in the early days of settlement, what is generally unknown is that the Colonists used wampum, too. As European tools were increasingly employed to shape the small beads, they became easier to make and, consequently, there were more of them. Thus a very modern problem emerged: inflation, as the more numerous wampum beads became less valuable.

Contrary to the belief that Native Americans owned land collectively rather than individually, Rich said that land passed matrilineally, through women, in Native American families in this area.

“You could not inherit through your father. You had to marry well to get land,” he points out.

According to Rich, the Pequot War that took place from 1636 to 1638, and effectively wiped out much of the Pequot tribe, started because the Native American tribe mistook their attackers. The attackers were the Dutch, who at one time had a fort in the Hartford area. The Pequots, who lived in the Thames River Valley around Mystic, mistakenly retaliated against English settlers. The English, in turn, attacked with such ferocity that the struggle decimated the Pequots as a nation.

“The remnant were farmed out to other tribes,” he explains.

In addition to his Native American research, Rich is interested in further research on the Warwick Patent, a document prepared by Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick in 1631, conveying a huge swath of New England to “Lords and Gentlemen,” among them Lord Saye and Sele and Lord Brooke, from whom Saybrook is named. Whether Warwick actually had title to the land is unclear, but the document has sometimes come to be known as Connecticut’s First Charter.

Rich, who grew up in Bridgeport and Trumbull, says he has always been interested in history. He started out in college as a history major, but decided he needed to focus on a subject that led to more certain employment so he switched his major to biology and pharmacy. He sees a connection between history and the sciences.

“It’s all about natural curiosity,” he says.

Rich met his wife Katherine when he was a pharmacy intern at Middlesex Hospital and she was a nurse. Her family, the Champions, were among the earliest settlers in this area and her family’s story further encouraged Rich’s interest in local history.

He says he had an early inkling that he would live in this part of the state. When he was seven or eight, his father took him fishing in Rhode Island. As they passed through this area, Rich recalls saying, “Someday I am going to live here.”

Two years ago, the late Richard Smith, longtime first selectman of Deep River, appointed Rich as town historian. He has answered people’s questions about genealogy and held library talks on Deep River history. He has also helped people with information for school and college research projects. But his own research does not stop and it has led him to a deeper appreciation of Connecticut’s pre-Colonial Native American inhabitants.

“Their culture didn’t create a want for material goods. It was an extremely rich civilization with its own value system,” he says. “They were self-sufficient; they respected themselves and they respected nature.”

Connecticut River Valley Indigenous People: A talk by Dr. Lucianne Lavin at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct 4, at Essex Town Hall, 29 West Avenue, Essex.

Native Americans of the Connecticut River Valley: A talk by Nicholas Bellantoni at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 2, at The Carriage House at the Deep River Historical Society, 245 Main Street, Deep River.

Anthropology Hike at the Preserve: West Preserve Parking Lot, Ingham Hill Road, Essex, 9 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 2 (bad weather cancels).

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