Building Blocks of the Past

Building Blocks of the Past*

- the community biography approach to local history -
Stefan Bielinski

This essay focuses on community life in the past and considers issues related to the identification and understanding of historic communities. Let's begin by offering the half-borrowed observation that a community exists in the eye of its beholder. The term "community" means different things to different people. It is defined by each person on the basis of one's individual experiences, inclinations, and needs. As such, communities have been described in political or economic terms. Sometimes, they are identified by building architecture, street plans, or even natural features. But most often, people envision communities in humanistic terms. This essay focuses on communities that are defined by the lives and life stories of their members - the people who live in them.

For the humanist, the term community begins with the coming together of people with something in common. We understand it as larger and more diverse than a family or other kinship group; probably more complex than a neighborhood or enclave; yet smaller than a county or country; and certainly less inclusive than the family of mankind. After a population of people with something in common, a community may be further articulated by political or legal constraints or by economic common denominators.

Historic communities can be represented by the coming together of people in a relational situation over a period of time. Some communities undergo a series of evolutionary changes with individuals and groups of people coming and going during their sometimes very long life spans. Others do not persist and break up for numbers of reasons. Their people sometimes start over together in another place; as a group, are absorbed by another community; or are scattered to fit in new places as individuals or with kin.


For American communities, we might think of a community's life course as beginning with its founding and pioneer phase. Like its human counterpart, a community's birth and infancy is relatively brief in duration and ends when the original settlers are able to survive without substantial external assistance. Most New York communities experienced a one to four decade-long pioneer stage well before the start of the Civil War - with the largest number being founded between 1790 and 1810.

After the founders have carved out a community foothold, the original settlers and some newcomers establish a viable community economy and begin to evolve a community dynamic. This initial development phase is characterized by small-scale growth as the settler population increases naturally and the community realizes its simple economic potential (exploits its most obvious natural resources) with the extra offspring and newcomers overflowing into a hinterland or leaving for more distant adventures.

The community's childhood ends when historical phenomena (usually externally motivated) trigger a dramatic growth burst or boom time that is roughly analogous to a person's adolescence. New market and/or political opportunities attract sometimes large numbers of newcomers who displace those of native stock who are unable to cope with new realities. Those who stay are influenced - often profoundly, by the new people and by new ways. The community grows and changes physically and becomes more socially diverse and economically complex. During this development phase, a community comes of age and reaches its natural limits. In America, the rise of manufacturing, industrialization, and the emergence of an urban lifestyle area the hallmarks of community development - a century-long major part of history that historians have labeled as the Industrial Revolution.

In the United States, the closing of immigration and the Great Depression of 1929 killed off America's development stage like an October frost. The period from then to the present can be viewed as a time of adjustment. Striving to overcome the excesses of and fallout from the Industrial Revolution, we have sought to establish a more responsible economy and society that will enable us to survive to enjoy tomorrow's world.

Most communities have a similarly perceivable life span or life cycle. The community historian must first decide what part or all of the community experience to study. After defining the community life span as consisting of a pioneer phase and period of initial settlement, a boom time, a long age of maturation, a period of adjustment, and finally a rebirth or revitalization, let us now consider some strategies for understanding community life in historical perspective.

Again, we will use the experience of people as a prism for viewing the past. However, approaches to understanding community society are as numerous and varied as definitions of the community itself. Traditionally, historians have described communities based on the experience and material legacies of their most important personages or through the impressions recorded by visitors - most obviously in literary resources and in art. On the surface, these resources for explaining community life are appealing because they are often engaging, interesting, and satisfying. Prime examples and impressions enable the historian to represent parts or all of the community story in ways that appear to be complete and seem to tell the story. In reality, they fall far short of representing the complete and comprehensive experience. The perceptions of the rich and famous are but solitary visions for viewing the past through small windows.

The opposite extreme among social history approaches - that of considering every experience of each of the people, while currently popular, is much more difficult to achieve. However, the comprehensiveness and richness of the "people of . . ." approach are strong recommendations for community historians to seek out all of the people by opting for compiling a community biography. The remainder of this essay will focus on the most salient features of the community biography approach to local, community history and will take its example from the research strategy we devised for understanding the story of the people of colonial Albany.

Before beginning, the community biographer must establish the boundaries or parameters of their community historically and demographically. First, what defines the community? What are its defining experiences, boundaries, and criteria? Whose experiences must be considered to enable an understanding of a particular community group? What will be the scope of concern in terms of gender, age, race, ethnicity, and economics? What issues must be comprehended in order to explain the progression of stages in the community building process? Will we study the entire community life span (which in America could be approaching 400 years)? The pioneer phase? Or only the post-World War II period? Definition issues are almost endless. But they definitely merit substantial consideration and critique as you begin to focus on a particular community group as the evidence or database for explaining all of the community life cycle.


Because we set out to understand why the ordinary people of a close community of colonists became revolutionaries and what happened to them, the Colonial Albany Social History Project eventually focused it's study on all of the people who lived in the city of Albany during its preindustrial age - which we defined as including all city residences born before the end of the year 1800. We limited our study to documented city residents and considered their nonresident offspring only statistically because we understood that the city people and their families were buyers and sellers, makers and fixers, and servers while the people of the countryside instead focused their lives on farming and husbandry.

Studying all of the people who lived in the city during its first 200 years instead of just the rich, famous, and historically obvious has shown us that many more people were involved in the Albany experience than appeared even on the most comprehensive community survey documents (for example, censuses of households taken in 1679, 1697, 1756, 1790 and each decade following).

Unlike the rich and famous whose lives are documented by sometimes substantial caches of personal papers and surviving possessions, most of the people of colonial Albany left us neither literary nor material resources with which to understand their lives. Most never wrote more than their names. Almost half of them did not live long enough to marry and became fully vested community members. But the lives of the so-called historically inarticulate were well-documented in what we were surprised to find were the voluminous and diverse records of their home community and in the records created and preserved by outsiders ranging from the military to the church.

Perhaps a third of the total community population was quickly identifiable from information appearing on comprehensive and selective survey documents (censuses, assessment, membership, participation rolls) and from other internally generated or community-based records. Those lists named most adult men. The names of their spouses and children had to be extrapolated from church, judicial, and family records.

Family profiles and heritage patterns were then established as they descended from the first community member or original settler. The information from records resources filled out the branches of family trees which made up the community forest thus accounting for another half of the total study population.

By mining all community-based records resources we were able to identify by name between 80 and 90 percent of the total city population. These resources included the records of several levels of local government, real estate transactions, membership organizations and business papers, and accounts. Typically, with name identification we found variable quantities of additional demographic or qualitative data.

Slaves, other disadvantaged minorities, the indigent, transients, the dependent poor, and the infirm account for most of the remaining portion of the total community population. Since almost all of these people were excluded from participation in some important community activities, their lives are less well-documented than those of the mainstream men, women, and children - unless they had legal, business, or behavior problems. A number of these so-called marginal people have been identified from the sources mentioned above and from an ongoing sweep of newspapers and literary sources.

The strategy outlined above for identifying all members of a community is not perfect as some community people were not mentioned even once in any of the several hundred internally generated historical resources so far encountered. The identities of some of them have come to our attention as they were identified by external correspondents, diarists, or other observers, and were brought to our attention by other scholars as historical characters cast in another context. Although resident in our community, their contributions had not been chronicled in any of internal or community-based resources. Once identified and verified, their lives must take their places as parts of the story. Even more so than the marginal members, special attention must be focused on understanding their life stories.

A final (and hopefully tiny) group of marginal people are those still unknown - those at the opposite end of the social spectrum from the prominent. Let's call them the historically invisible. These are the people who may have been defined out of the community by narrow-minded historian. The possibility of their existence must be kept in mind lest we truly believe that we really have identified everyone.


Having defined the community and having identified all community members, the community biographer then is ready to focus on the community building blocks - to develop a comprehensive biography for each community member. Here again, consideration and critique are crucial. A useful structure for each biography comprehends each phase of an individual's life course - birth, growth, maturity, decline, and demise, while articulating an individual's characteristic socioeconomic elements. Those considerations raise questions regarding the kinds of historical information that will best illustrate the flow of the life course. Three general categories of information that can be developed from record resources will provide a large number of answers.

First, consider demographics, the data marking an individual's birth, death and marriage - an essential rite of passage that in pre-industrial society was a defining characteristic of most active participants. Communitywide demographics represent an extremely potent historical resource and are well worth the substantial research effort required. Individual demographics also are necessary to separate the historical information relating to individuals with the same name. Demographic information alone can answer a surprising number of basic questions about the community and its members. However, a second grouping of research information on community members can be used to understand what community people did and the reasons for their actions and activities. Because most community members did not articulate their motives and/or beliefs, the community historian finds meaning for their lives by studying what they did and what they accomplished. Action, oppositions, and ambivalence can be deduced from a comprehensive understanding of a person's actions.

To gain those perspectives, research is focused on activities - a general rubric that we use for the energy devoted to subsistence (survival); wealth and standard of living (where and how well a person lived); career(s) or work history (often involving several concurrent activities); public service (political, government, legal, military); and social (the quantity and quality of a community member's interactions). These activities account for much of a person's overall time and can be monitored throughout an individual's life span. A third general category is not so neatly organized and is more open-ended to accommodate types of essential biographical information not so obviously assignable as are demographics or activities. At the Colonial Albany Project, we use this category to chart an individual's travel experiences, material possessions, prevailing folklore, and literary information.

After assembling the cast of characters - all of the people of the defined community, and after providing consistent demographic and activity information for each person throughout their lives, the community historian has the data needed to study the community and thus to understand its story. We than can ask bigger questions regarding the community's composition and character. Our data will tell us exactly who was involved and the extent of each person's participation. We can focus on group dynamics and individual living patterns with some precision. And we can then ask sweeping questions about how all of these things changed over time. Instead of characterizing the most obvious individuals as exemplary (when they were instead extraordinary), we can identify more representative community members and utilize their stories to humanize history.

In conclusion, this essay has described and advocates an approach to history based on learning about community life. This approach is less success-biased than individual life-and-times biographies of the rich and famous and less impressionistic than relying on the observations of outsiders. It offers the strength of comprehensive data. And it is inherently interesting to people today because it is about "real people." It is not, however, the only way to look at local history. If community history is to be truly comprehensive, it must be informed and tempered by the concerns of the architectural historian, the psycho-historian, the economic historian, the ethnographer, the . . .!

*Adapted from an article originally published in a special local history issue of The Bookmark (Spring 1991).

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