Seeking Ordinary Lives of Yore
Albany -- Historian focuses on the sounds and smells of
BRUCE A. SCRUTON
Although he has made a 20-year-plus
career of studying and
researching Albany's early population, and has come to know most
of them on a first-name basis, Steve Bielinski doesn't know them
as he'd like.
"I wouldn't want to live back
then,'' he said recently. "But to
go back for a day. The smells. The sounds. To hear an
18th-century Albanian talk. The character of courtship. How does
a garrison soldier sweet-talk a local girl?''
Bielinski's expertise puts him
in the public eye several times
each year with a slide show featuring the faces and places of
Colonial Albany, set to the music he writes and performs.
But don't expect much about the
"rich and famous,'' as Bielinski
calls those whose names appear in history books and on old Albany
mansions. That class of people has been studied the most, because
they were the ones who left "stuff,'' like letters, clothes,
homes and furnishings. Because they were rich, and later famous,
they could afford to get new stuff.
For the middle and lower classes,
however, it was "re-sew, recut,
reuse until it's all used up,'' said Bielinski, leaving little
tangible stuff for modern historians to view. Even the act of
writing their name on a document maybe only happened once or
twice in a lifetime.
So for the first 10 years of
his career, Bielinski, 52, spent his
time studying the rich and famous. In 1975, he published a book
on Abraham Yates Jr. -- born into the lower class but, through
work and taking on causes, he climbed the social ladder to become
a famous Albany resident in the late 18th century.
A couple of years after his book,
Bielinski was giving a lecture
on Yates and his interaction with the common man of the time when
someone asked him "But who were those people?''
"I didn't know, and it dawned
on me, neither did anyone else. So
I set out to find out,'' he said.
While little was known about
the middle and lower classes, there
were some names. One was a 1766 document, "The Constitution of
the Albany Sons of Liberty,'' with 94 signatures. Another source
was the official census of New York Colony, taken in 1697. That
census included the 174 names of heads of families in Albany, and
further broke down the family names into numbers of men, women
and children. Ironically, not included in the list, that he can
account for, were the mayor at the time and the sheriff who took
Nor was there a precise count
of slaves, who made up about 10
percent of the population. By going into marriage, birth and
other records, Bielinski and his associates accounted for 714
people living in Albany that year.
Over the last 20 years Bielinski
says he has compiled biographies
for thousands of people, tracing their roots from the 1697 census
through the first U.S. census in 1790, which listed 3,300
residents of Albany.
With his memory and names in
hand, Bielinski set out to find the
community's economy and how the three social layers -- rich and
famous, makers and fixers, and unskilled laborers interacted.
"Today we earn our living in
a quarter to a third of the day.
These (Colonial) people worked all the time. It took much energy
to survive,'' he said.
What has evolved is the Colonial
Albany Project, a look at the
city from the bottom up and inside out -- who stayed and who came
later, the people who made the basic necessities of life and the
merchants who sold them.
Bielinski still is doing research
and is trying to fill in blanks
in the history of some families, such as the Schuylers -- not the
rich and famous Schuylers who lived on the hill, but the family
of Samuel Schuyler, a black ship captain who bought property
along South Pearl Street.
Old city directories, property
transactions and even mentions in
letters often cross-reference to other information to give a
historian an insight to another aspect of life.
Yet, for Bielinski, the academics
can fill in only so much. It's
the day-to-day things like smells, and sounds and the human
condition that interest him. "Something simple,'' he said, "Like,
just how did they cope with the mosquitoes and black flies?''
First published on Tuesday, August 11, 1998
Copyright 1998, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.
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