Historian tackles Albany's past from bottom up He tracks down evidence from lives of middle, lower classes

September 03, 1998|By ALBANY TIMES UNION

ALBANY, N.Y. - Although he has made a 20-year-plus career of studying and researching this city's early population, and has come to know most of the 18th-century residents 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 [Albany resident] 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. These people have been studied the most, because they were the ones who left letters, clothes, homes and furnishings.

Few artifacts

For the middle and lower classes, however, it was "resew, recut, reuse until it's all used up," said Bielinski, leaving few artifacts for modern historians to view. Even the act of writing their name on a document maybe happened only once or twice in a lifetime.

For the first 10 years of his career, Bielinski, 52, studied the rich and famous. In 1975, he published a book on Abraham Yates Jr. - born into the lower class, but who, through work and taking on causes, climbed the social ladder to become a famous Albany resident in the late 18th century.

Several years after his book was published, 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 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.

Neither 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.

Thousands of biographies

Over the last 20 years, Bielinski said, he has compiled biographies of 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.

Names in hand, Bielinski set out to map the community's economy and to determine 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 their work.

Bielinski still is doing research and is trying to fill in blanks in the history of some families.

Old city directories, property transactions and even mentions in letters often cross-reference to other information to give 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 such as smells, sounds and the human condition that interest him. "Something simple," he said, "Like, just how did they cope with the mosquitoes and black flies?"

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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