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Benjamin Banneker

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Benjamin Banneker
Born November 9, 1731
Baltimore County, Province of Maryland, British America
Died October 9, 1806 (1806-10-10) (aged 74)
Baltimore County, Maryland, U.S.
Nationality American
Other names Benjamin Bannaker
Occupation almanac author, surveyor, farmer
  • Robert (father)
  • Mary Banneky (mother)

Benjamin Banneker (November 9, 1731 – October 9, 1806) was a free African American almanac author, surveyor, naturalist, and farmer. Born in Baltimore County, Maryland, to a free African American woman and a former slave, Banneker had little formal education and was largely self-taught. He is known for being part of a group led by Major Andrew Ellicott that surveyed the borders of the original District of Columbia, the federal capital district of the United States.

Banneker's knowledge of astronomy helped him author a commercially successful series of almanacs. He corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the United States Declaration of Independence, on the topics of slavery and racial equality. Abolitionists and advocates of racial equality promoted and praised his works.

Although a fire on the day of Banneker's funeral destroyed many of his papers and belongings, one of his journals and several of his remaining artifacts are presently available for public viewing. Parks, schools, streets and other tributes have commemorated Banneker throughout the years since he lived. However, many accounts of his life exaggerate or falsely attribute his works.

Early life

Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731, in Baltimore County, Maryland to Mary Banneky, a free black, and Robert, a freed slave from Guinea. [1] [2] [3] There are two conflicting accounts of Banneker's family history. Banneker himself and his earliest biographers described him as having only African ancestry. [4] [5] [6] None of Banneker's surviving papers describe a white ancestor or identify the name of his grandmother. [5] However, later biographers have contended that Banneker's mother was the child of Molly Welsh, a white indentured servant, and an African slave named Banneka. [5] [7] The first published description of Molly Welsh was based on interviews with her descendants that took place in 1836, long after the deaths of both Molly and Benjamin. [5] [8]

Molly may have purchased Banneka to help establish a farm located near what eventually became Ellicott's Mills, Maryland, west of Baltimore. [9] One biographer has suggested that Banneka may have been a member of the Dogon tribe that were reported to have knowledge of astronomy. [10] Molly supposedly freed and married Banneka, who may have shared his knowledge of astronomy with her. [11] Although born after Banneka's death, Benjamin may have acquired some knowledge of astronomy from Molly. [10]

In 1737, Banneker was named at the age of 6 on the deed of his family's 100-acre (0.40 km2) farm in the Patapsco Valley in rural Baltimore County. [12] [13] [14] The remainder of his early life is not well documented. As a young teenager, he may have met and befriended Peter Heinrichs, a Quaker who established a school near the Banneker farm. [15] Quakers were leaders in the anti-slavery movement and advocates of racial equality (see Quakers in the abolition movement and Testimony of equality). [16] Heinrichs may have shared his personal library and provided Banneker with his only classroom instruction. [15] Banneker's formal education apparently ended when he was old enough to help on his family's farm. [17]

Notable works

In 1753 at the age of 22, Banneker completed a wooden clock that struck on the hour. He appears to have modeled his clock from a borrowed pocket watch by carving each piece to scale. The clock continued to work until Banneker's death. [3] [17] [18] [19]

After his father died in 1759, Banneker lived with his mother and sisters. [3] [20] In 1772, brothers Andrew Ellicott, John Ellicott and Joseph Ellicott moved from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and bought land along the Patapsco Falls near Banneker's farm on which to construct a gristmill, around which the village of Ellicott's Mills (now Ellicott City) subsequently developed. [13] [21] [22] [23] The Ellicotts were Quakers and shared the same views on racial equality as did many of their faith. [22] [24] Banneker supplied their workers with food and studied the mills. [21]

In 1788, George Ellicott, the son of Andrew Ellicott, loaned Banneker books and equipment to begin a more formal study of astronomy. [25] [26] [27] During the following year, Banneker sent George his work calculating a solar eclipse. [25] [26] [28]

In 1790, Banneker prepared an ephemeris for 1791, which he hoped would be placed within a published almanac. However, he was unable to find a printer that was willing to publish and distribute the almanac. [25] [29]

In February 1791, surveyor Major Andrew Ellicott (the son of Joseph Ellicott and cousin of George Ellicott), having left at the request of U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson a surveying team in western New York that he had been leading, hired Banneker as a replacement to assist in the initial survey of the boundaries of a new federal district. [25] [30] [31] [32] Formed from land along the Potomac River that the states of Maryland and Virginia ceded to the federal government of the United States in accordance with the 1790 federal Residence Act and later legislation, the territory that became the original District of Columbia was a square measuring 10 miles (16 km) on each side, totaling 100 square miles (260 km2) (see: Founding of Washington, D.C.). [25] [30] [31] [33] Ellicott's team placed boundary stones at or near every mile point along the borders of the new capital territory (see: Boundary Markers of the Original District of Columbia). [25] [30] [31]

Biographers have stated that Banneker's duties on the survey consisted primarily of making astronomical observations at Jones Point in Alexandria, Virginia, to ascertain the location of the starting point for the survey. [25] [31] [34] They have also stated that Banneker maintained a clock that he used to relate points on the ground to the positions of stars at specific times. [25] [34] However, some have noted that Banneker's actual role in the survey is uncertain, as his involvement in the effort "rests on extremely meager documentation". [35] An April 21, 1791, news report of the dedication ceremony for the first boundary stone (the south cornerstone) stated that it was Andrew Ellicott who ″ascertained the precise point from which the first line of the district was to proceed". The news report did not mention Banneker's name. [36]

Banneker left the boundary survey in April 1791 within three months of its initiation due to illness and difficulties completing the survey at age 59. [25] [31] [37] In addition, Andrew Ellicott's younger brothers, Benjamin and Joseph Ellicott, who usually assisted Andrew, were able to join the survey at that time. [25] [31] [37] Banneker therefore returned to his home at Ellicott's Mills. [25] Andrew Ellicott then completed the boundary survey with the aid of his brothers and other team members during the remainder of 1791 and in 1792. [25] [30] [38]

After returning to Ellicott's Mills, Banneker made astronomical calculations that predicted eclipses and planetary conjunctions for inclusion in an ephemeris for the year of 1792. [3] [25] [29] He placed the ephemeris and its subsequent revisions in a six-year series of almanacs that printers agreed to publish and sell. [25] [29] The almanacs, some of which appeared in several editions during the same year, were printed in at least six cities in four states: Baltimore; Philadelphia; Wilmington, Delaware; Alexandria, Virginia; Petersburg, Virginia; and Richmond, Virginia. [25] [29] [39] [40] [41] [42]

Title page of a Baltimore edition of Banneker's 1792 almanac. [39]

The title page of a Baltimore edition of Banneker's 1792 Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris stated that the publication contained:

the Motions of the Sun and Moon, the True Places and Aspects of the Planets, the Rising and Setting of the Sun, Place and Age of the Moon, &c. – The Lunations, Conjunctions, Eclipses, Judgment of the Weather, Festivals, and other remarkable Days; Days for holding the Supreme and Circuit Courts of the United States, as also the useful Courts in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Also – several useful Tables, and valuable Receipts. – Various Selections from the Commonplace–Book of the Kentucky Philosopher, an American Sage; with interesting and entertaining Essays, in Prose and Verse –the whole comprising a greater, more pleasing, and useful Variety than any Work of the Kind and Price in North America. [39] [43]

Woodcut portrait of Benjamin Bannaker (Banneker) in title page of a Baltimore edition of his 1795 Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac [44]

In addition to the information that its title page described, the almanac contained a tide table for the Chesapeake Bay region. That edition and others listed times for high water or high tide at Cape Charles and Point Lookout, Virginia, Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland and other locations. [3] [45] The title page of a Baltimore edition of his 1795 almanac had a woodcut portrait of him as he may have appeared, but which a writer later concluded was more likely a portrayal of an idealized African American youth. [44] [46]

The almanacs' editors prefaced the publications with adulatory references to Banneker and his race. [29] [47] The 1792 and 1793 almanacs contained lengthy commendations that James McHenry, [48] a signer of the United States Constitution and self-described friend of Banneker, had written in 1791. [49]

The introduction to a 1795 Philadelphia edition contained a poem entitled: "Addressed to Benjamin Banneker". The verse began and ended:

Fain would the muse exalt her tuneful lays,
And chant in strains sublime Banneker's praise;
Fain would the soar on Fame's majestic wing,
Thy genius, great Banneker, to sing;
Thy talents and thy greatness would I shew,
Not in applausive strains to thee undue;
Long may thou live an evidence to shew,
That Afric's sable race have talents too.
And may thy genius bright its strength retain;
Tho' nature to decline may still remain;
And may favour us to thy latest years
With thy Ephemeris call'd Banneker's.
A work which ages yet unborn shall name
And be the monument of lasting fame;
A work which after ages shall adore,
When Banneker, alas! shall be no more. [41]

The preface to a 1796 Baltimore edition stated:

Nor you ye proud, impute to these the blame
If Afric's sons to genius are unknown,
For Banneker has prov'd they may acquire a name,
As bright, as lasting, as your own. [50]

Supported by Andrew, George and Elias Ellicott and heavily promoted by the Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery of Maryland and of Pennsylvania, the early editions of the almanacs achieved commercial success. [24] [25] After these editions were published, William Wilberforce, William Pitt, Charles James Fox and other prominent abolitionists praised Banneker and his works in the British House of Commons. [24] [25] [29]

Banneker kept a series of journals that contained his notebooks for astronomical observations, his diary and accounts of his dreams. [25] [51] The journals, only one of which escaped a fire on the day of his funeral, additionally contained a number of mathematical calculations and puzzles. [25] [51] [52] The surviving journal documents the 1749, 1766 and 1783 emergences of Brood X of the seventeen-year periodical cicada, Magicicada septendecim, and predicts an emergence in 1800. [53] The journal also records Banneker's observations on the hives and behavior of honey bees. [54]

Political views

A Philadelphia edition of Banneker's 1793 almanac contained copies of pleas for peace that the English anti-slavery poet William Cowper and others had authored, as well as anti-slavery speeches and essays from England and America. The latter included extracts from speeches that William Pitt and Charles James Fox had given to the British House of Commons in 1792 and an extract from Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. [40]

The 1793 almanac also contained a copy of "A Plan of a Peace-Office, for the United States" that Benjamin Rush had authored. [1] [55] [56] The Plan proposed the appointment of a " Secretary of Peace", described the Secretary's powers and advocated federal support and promotion of the Christian religion. The Plan stated:

1. Let a Secretary of Peace be appointed to preside in this office; ...; let him be a genuine republican and a sincere Christian ....
2. Let a power be given to the Secretary to establish and maintain free schools in every city, village and township in the United States; ... Let the youth of our country be instructed in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and in the doctrines of a religion of some kind; the Christian religion should be preferred to all others; for it belongs to this religion exclusively to teach us not only to cultivate peace with all men, but to forgive—nay more, to love our very enemies....
3. Let every family be furnished at public expense, by the Secretary of this office, with an American edition of the Bible....
4. Let the following sentence be inscribed in letters of gold over the door of every home in the United States: The Son of Man Came into the World, Not To Destroy Men's Lives, But To Save Them.
5. ... [55]

Correspondence with Thomas Jefferson

On August 19, 1791, after departing the federal capital area, Banneker wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1776 had drafted the United States Declaration of Independence and in 1791 was serving as the United States Secretary of State (see: List of Secretaries of State of the United States). [57] [58] [59] [60] Quoting language in the Declaration, the letter expressed a plea for justice for African Americans.

To further support this plea, Banneker included within the letter a handwritten manuscript of an almanac for 1792 containing his ephemeris with his astronomical calculations. He subsequently placed copies of the letter and Jefferson's reply in his journal and in a pamphlet printed and sold in Philadelphia in 1792 while publishers were distributing that almanac. [1] [57] [58]

In the letter, Banneker accused Jefferson of criminally using fraud and violence to oppress his slaves by stating:

... Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to your Selves. [57] [61] [62]

The letter ended:

And now Sir, I Shall conclude and Subscribe my Self with the most profound respect,
Your most Obedient humble Servant
B. Banneker [57] [63]

An English abolitionist, Thomas Day, had earlier written in a 1776 letter that had been published in Boston in 1784:

If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves. [64]

Without directly responding to Banneker's accusation, Jefferson replied to Banneker's letter in a series of nuanced statements that expressed his interest in the advancement of the equality of America's black population. [65] Jefferson's reply stated:

Philadelphia Aug. 30. 1791.
I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America. I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir,
Your most obedt. humble servt.
Th. Jefferson [66]

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, to whom Jefferson sent Banneker's almanac, was a noted French mathematician and abolitionist who was a member of the French Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks). [25] [67] It appears that the Academy of Sciences itself did not receive the almanac. [68]

When writing his letter, Banneker informed Jefferson that his 1791 work with Andrew Ellicott on the District boundary survey had affected his work on his 1792 ephemeris and almanac by stating:

.... And altho I had almost declined to make my calculation for the ensuing year, in consequence of that time which I had allotted therefor being taking up at the Federal Territory by the request of Mr. Andrew Ellicott, .... [61] [69]

On the same day that he replied to Banneker (August 30, 1791), Jefferson sent a letter to the Marquis de Condorcet that contained the following paragraph relating to Banneker's race, abilities, almanac and work with Andrew Ellicott:

I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro, the son of a black man born in Africa, and of a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable mathematician. I procured him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new federal city on the Patowmac, & in the intervals of his leisure, while on that work, he made an Almanac for the next year, which he sent me in his own hand writing, & which I inclose to you. I have seen very elegant solutions of Geometrical problems by him. Add to this that he is a very worthy & respectable member of society. He is a free man. I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talents observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends. [70]

In 1809, three years after Banneker's death, Jefferson expressed a different opinion of Banneker in a letter to Joel Barlow that criticized a "diatribe" that a French abolitionist, Henri Grégoire, had written in 1808: [71]

The whole do not amount, in point of evidence, to what we know ourselves of Banneker. We know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicot, who was his neighbor and friend, and never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed. [46] [72]


Banneker never married. [13] Because of declining sales, his last almanac was published in 1797. After selling much of his homesite to the Ellicotts and others, [13] [73] he died in his log cabin nine years later on October 9, 1806, [3] [74] exactly one month before his 75th birthday. His chronic alcoholism, which worsened as he aged, may have contributed to his death. [75]

An obituary concluded:

Mr. Banneker is a prominent instance to prove that a descendant of Africa is susceptible of as great mental improvement and deep knowledge into the mysteries of nature as that of any other nation. [3] [74]

A commemorative obelisk that the Maryland Bicentennial Commission and the State Commission on Afro American History and Culture erected in 1977 near his unmarked grave stands in the yard of the Mt. Gilboa African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oella, Maryland (see Mount Gilboa Chapel). [76]

Banneker artifacts

On the day of his funeral in 1806, a fire burned Banneker's log cabin to the ground, destroying many of his belongings and papers. [3] [77] [78] A member of the Elllicott family, which had retained Banneker's only remaining journal, donated the document and other Banneker manuscripts to the Maryland Historical Society in 1987. [79] The family also retained several items that Banneker had used after borrowing them from George Ellicott. [77] [80]

In 1996, a descendant of George Ellicott decided to sell at auction some of the items, including a table, candlesticks and molds. [81] Although supporters of the planned Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella, Maryland, had hoped to obtain these and several other items related to Banneker and the Ellicotts, a Virginia investment banker won most of the items with a series of bids that totaled $49,750. The purchaser stated that he expected to keep some of the items and to donate the rest to the planned African American Civil War Memorial museum in Washington, D.C. [82]

In 1997, it was announced that the artifacts would be loaned to the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella and to the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, Maryland. [83] After receiving the artifacts, the Oella museum placed the table and the candle molds into an exhibit. [84]

Mythology and legacy

A substantial mythology exaggerating Benjamin Banneker's accomplishments has developed during the two centuries that have elapsed since his death (see Mythology of Benjamin Banneker). [35] [85] [86] Several such urban legends describe Banneker's alleged activities in the Washington, D.C. area around the time that he assisted Andrew Ellicott in the federal district boundary survey. [35] [37] [86] [87] Others involve his clock, his almanacs and his journals. [86]

A United States postage stamp and the names of a number of recreational and cultural facilities, schools, streets and other facilities and institutions throughout the United States have commemorated Banneker's documented and mythical accomplishments throughout the years since he lived (see Commemorations of Benjamin Banneker).


Benjamin ... Banneker ...



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