Peter Malia loves history.
It’s as true now for the Cheshire resident as it was while he was in college, when, after his first year at Fordham University, he was challenged by a professor to find a unique topic to serve as a thesis project.
Little did Malia know that what he began in 1977 as almost a lark would be completed approximately four decades later — a resource to help future generations better understand the “land of steady habits.”
Malia has published the reference book “New Haven Town Records, 1769 – 1819,” tracking what was happening in New Haven from before the American Revolution, and the people who had a hand in crafting that history. The book takes what were mountains of handwritten notes and transcripts of meetings and speeches by prominent New Haven residents, and put them all into an easy-to-manage compilation for anyone interested in the early years of the New Haven colony.
The book is not intended as a front-to-cover read, Malia explains, but rather a place for history buffs and historians alike to turn to when looking for information on a particular issue or time period in Connecticut’s past.
It can also serve, Malia insists, as a reminder of the enduring influence of an important aspect of the American form of government — the town meeting.
“The resilience of the New England town meeting, it’s one of the most important things that helped New Haven in the early years (of its existence),” said Malia. “In order to do something, anything, you had to present it your fellow citizens (during the meeting). It’s a shame they don’t really have them anymore (as they did in the past).”
The records compiled by Malia are littered with names that will be familiar to most Americans. Noah Webster, Eli Whitney, Charles Goodyear, even Benedict Arnold, are all prominently featured throughout, making their case for this issue or that. However, while some names stand out more than others, Malia believes that it’s the lesser-known names that are deserving of attention.
“It was the thousands of people no one knew … they are the ones who really made New Haven,” said Malia. “Without them, New Haven wouldn’t have survived.”
For Malia, it all began with the names. In 1977, while contemplating a topic for his thesis, the soon-to-be college sophomore decided to focus on the new subject of computer science and, specifically, how it could be used to track history.
His idea was rather simple, though daunting: He would take all the old names included in the New Haven record books over a period of years and plug them into a computer program.
Doing so would not only help to ensure that all the names of old New Haven residents and leaders were compiled in one place, but also to determine whether Connecticut truly was “the land of steady habits.”
What Malia found when he began his project was that the early town records, kept in a small room in New Haven City Hall, were pages and pages of handwritten transcripts generated by two men — Samuel Bishop, Jr., and Elisha Munson — who served as the city’s Town Clerks for a combined century.
Between the two, they had recorded all of the important moments in New Haven history, though their handwriting was not easily deciphered at times.
“There were no computers, no printouts,” said Malia. “I convinced my to-be wife to help out and we hand-transcribed the entire book.”
When it was all done, Malia had 300-plus pages of town records.
There it appeared the project would end, as Malia went on to pursue a career in both academia and the corporate world. However, after Malia decided to start his own publishing house, The Connecticut Press, he picked up the hand-transcribed pages of town meetings transcripts once again, determined to do something more with them.
“When I started doing the records again, I headed down to the New Haven Museum,” said Malia. “I decided to add another 20 years (of records) and said, ‘OK, I should get this thing done (and disassembled as a book).”
Malia hopes that his final product helps transport people back to the time in which the early residents of New Haven lived, and learn directly from their own words what issues animated the populace. As Malia points out, New Haveners from the 18th and 19th centuries had to overcome many of the things we struggle with to this day, from the scourge of yellow fever pandemics that wiped out huge numbers of people, to the issue of racial intolerance and how the people of that time overcame it all.
In the end, Malia hopes it forces some to rethink how they look at that early time in Connecticut history.
“For academics, I hope they come away with a different opinion of New Haven, and a recognition that a broad democracy was already in place (before the Revolution),” said Malia. “Looking backward with 20/20 vision, what I admire most about them is that the majority of the decisions they had to make were very difficult, [but] they oftentimes made the right ones.”
To purchase a copy of “New Haven Town Records, 1769 – 1819,” visit www.connecticutpress.com.