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CULTURAL CONTACTS

 Henry Birdsall was a farmer in Greene who appears to have struggled to keep the modern world out of his family compound. It was a compound in the truest sense due to the quantity of homes and the continuity of the modes of production. There were three homes and all apparent means of production could be accomplished on the property or in very close proximity. This continuity in the face of the ever-changing world around the Henry Birdsall family appears to have almost created a culturally impenetrable wall.

But before we move too fast we should inspect a few other areas of Henry’s life and the life of his descendants.

Cultural Contacts in a Social Setting

Let us first review Henry’s neighbors. There was Abram Storms, a man who Henry was most likely to have visited for advice or in emergencies. Abram settled in the immediate area prior to Henry and therefore would have been well settled and knowledgeable about the area. The Native Americans at times still passed through the land on hunting excursions. Abram Storms would know best how to approach them, or if they should even be approached. The weather in the Chenango Valley could be almost cataclysmic when the northwest winds swept off the western ridges, dipped down into the valley, and then swept up the eastern ridge, a rise of 400 feet in a distance of 1000 feet. Even today these winds appear to create a Bernoulli affect that rips down the most mature of trees. This same weather pattern causes a rainstorm in the valley and, simultaneously, a snowstorm on the ridge. Abram Storms could advise him about the dangers of these woods, when to work them and when to avoid them. Abram Storms was the man famous for hauling a set of grinding stones from Coxackie to Greene. He surely must know how to handle a team of oxen and would be a source of assistance in the event that Henry’s teams could not handle a specific job alone. And then there was that subject that may or may not have been discussed; Abram took part in a war, the Revolutionary War, and Henry had not. Abram may have killed; and Henry, most likely, could not.

ABRAM STORMS GRAVESTONE

Abram is buried in Henry’s family cemetery. What better way to honor a good friend and neighbor than to be buried near each other. This alone substantiates the premise that Henry and Abram must have spent a lot of time working together and conversing together, learning from each other, depending on each other and exchanging ideas and thoughts, some that may have been personal, political, or spiritual in nature.

And then there was that French fellow named Jean Guilliame deBesse; or called John Bessac by most. What a delight he must have been!  He was a gentleman first and foremost. Henry must have been drawn to him for that reason alone. They both had their own worlds but would make room for each others. John Bessac would honor Henry’s, just because that was John’s gentle nature. Henry would honor John’s because that was Henry’s creed; “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Jean Guilliaume De Bessac's History in Library of Congress

John loved the land and the river as much as Henry did. And so did Abram Storms. But again, Henry did not engage in a war. Abram did and so did John, serving under Count Rochambeau. One can almost see these three gentlemen, each from a different world, each with their own creeds and backgrounds, each with their own thoughts on peace and war, exchanging viewpoints. The evening hours, after chores were completed, would have been a joyful time for Henry to walk up to John’s home, pick him up and then go visit Abram for an evening discussion.

How could anyone know about that other neighbor, David D. Davis?  Could he take time from his busy schedule? A highly productive fellow but quite an intense one also. Davis would probably join in from time to time but it appears that he may have been temperamental when least expected. Who could have imagined that he would pick up stakes and join the gold rush?

Who would have imagined that upon his return from California to Greene, he would commit murder upon his wife and brother-in-law, and then, put the gun to himself and end his own life? Surely some of this intense nature was obvious to others, even if not understood.

(For the above four paragraphs please see Appendices B and F, Historic Books and Greene History respectively)

I hope that the above narrative brings to light that multiple cultures were present in these one-on-one (or three-on-three) conversations and work sessions when these men helped each other. Each of these men may have gone back to their own homes 99.99% as pure, culturally, as before the day started. But over time, each of them must have gained new insights and at times engaged in new cultural ideas, even if ever so slightly. Henry and Abram may have sampled some pork or vegetables that John had cooked, French style. Henry and Abram may have listened to John as he read from his French books and translated to English for them. And John must have been learning the ways of the land from Abram. John and Abram exchanging war stories as Henry listened and wondered what would make men do such horrible things to each other. And Henry, at times, telling John and Abram what others had taught him from the bible; that prized possession that they saw displayed so proudly on that rough-sawn table near the entrance to his home.

Cultural Contacts and Conflicts

The Chenango Canal opened up new opportunities for Henry and his descendants to earn a living. It also brought new ideas and concepts from far-away places. Some of these ideas were very welcome and other cultural trappings may have been frowned upon within the Birdsall compound. However, with the canal lock right in the middle of their property, these cultural contacts, both acceptable and unacceptable, were present.

“During the construction of the canal, Irish, Scots and Welsh entered the region bringing new skills and ethnic diversity, and many of them stayed after the canal was built.”

PADDY’s REBELLION – – [after a work slow- down/stoppage on the canal at Deansboro, the militia was called out]

“with drums beating, flags flying, and plumes nodding.  [the workers wives won the first skirmish by pummeling the militia with rock-filled socks. The ringleaders were jailed that evening.]”

“Benjamin Parsons, of Chenango Forks, was a packet boat captain. He was fiery-tempered man, short and stocky, with black curly hair.”

“There were many quarrels between the Erie and Chenango boatmen. Simeon Walker and Sidney Delamarter (both – – famed for their fighting ability) won a victory over a gang of boatmen.”

“People working the boats – – to break the slow moving monotony in the southern part of the canal – – chatted with the local[s and] the lock tender – – -“

Ausburn Birdsall [from Otsego, built] a sawmill to run on wastewater from lock           

#32, just below Chenango Forks. [Eight boatmen claimed that the water utilized by this mill encumbered their rafts and petitioned the Canal Board to have the mill removed].”

(CITATIONS:  See Appendices F and J, Greene History and Miscellaneous Book Extracts respectively)

The variety of people and their cultures were all around Henry and his descendants from the time the canal construction started until the canal closed. What the Birdsalls may have thought about these cultures and the events that surrounded them can only be surmised. One thing is obvious. With this beehive of activity surrounding them other cultures could not be avoided. The Birdsalls may or may not have struggled to maintain their own lifestyle and culture, however, the children in their formative years must have remembered and been affected by what they had seen.

What internal conflicts did they feel when balancing their Christian background against the violent manner in which the canal-men acted?  How could they possibly understand the conflicts between the State Militia and the Canal Workers? Did they understand that these conflicts, between the canal-men themselves, between the state and the workers, and at times between the canal-men and local businessmen,  were the results of each group attempting to maintain their own livelihoods? 

Cultural and Social Migration

The Henry Birdsalls tended to socially migrate towards North Fenton and Chenango Forks. Several of Henry’s descendants are not buried in the family cemetery but rather in the North Fenton Cemetery. The children and grandchildren carry surnames of families that also settled in the area, both north and south, but with the preponderance of movement being southward. Some census records show movement into Lisle, NY also.

The gravestones in the family cemetery speak volumes about their simple roots AND the cultural changes that impinged upon their lives. There are gravestones with Willows and others with the Fig design and lastly a cast bronze obelisk of quite modern design.

The Lt. Col. Benjamin Birdsall gravestone is rather simple, however his descendants cemetery plots are decorated with modern stones depicting the latest styles and displaying significant size.

A visual comparison of gravestones and grave sites can be seen in Appendix H, Cemetery Records and Photographs

An attempt to answer questions of cultural change will be offered in the section on Ethnicity, Class and Cultural Transformations.

COMPARISON

Henry Birdsall and his immediate descendants were pushed and pulled by the cultural tides that swept through their world during the construction and operation of the Chenango Canal. Conflict would tend to be an abhorrent concept to the Birdsalls. Yet here it was, observed and talked about, almost every day. This situation surely would have caused the Birdsalls to struggle to maintain their peaceful ways from being invaded by this conflict and vulgarity. They were not the agents of change but more likely the unknowing intended targets of change. And yet there was the obvious opportunity of enhancing their own lives by taking advantage of the monetary opportunities that arose from the construction and operation of the canal. Internal conflicts must have existed. We may identify families such as the Henry Birdsalls as unwilling agents of a new capital economy that replaced a rural farm economy; and the cultural modifications that accompany significant changes such as this. Cultural changes are reflected in the cemetery stone designs and the family center-of-gravity moving towards the villages (North Fenton and Chenango Forks among others).

Lt. Col. Benjamin Birdsall and his descendants also observed the cultural tides that swept through the village. However, quite unlike Henry’s family the Benjamin Birdsalls were very active agents of change. Their various enterprises were built around these changes. They actively pursued new opportunities and technological innovations that enhanced these opportunities (Stores, product depots, first elevator, first telephone). Cultural/Social changes are reflected in their upward mobility, both locally and in their westward movement from NY to TX (see section on modes of production), and in gravestone design and gravestone magnitude in the Canal Street Cemetery.

(See appendix H, Cemeteries, Photos)

© Copyright – Waldo Tomosky