originally published in the Albany Times Union

Seeking Ordinary Lives of Yore

Albany -- Historian focuses on the sounds and smells of Colonial Albany

      Staff writer

     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
     the census.

     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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