Benjamin Banneker: African-American Almanac Author, Astronomer, and Surveyor

Benjamin Banneker was born on 9 November 1731, in Baltimore County, Maryland a few months before George Austen, the father of future novelist Jane Austen. Unlike George whose family connections are clear, there are two differing accounts of Banneker’s family history. One account is that he was the son of Mary Banneky, a free black, and Robert, a freed slave from Guinea, which is supported by Banneker and his earliest biographers. However, later biographers claim his mother was not black but half white as she was the child of Molly Welsh, a white indentured servant, who married an African slave named Banneka.*

Benjamin Banneker depicted on a 1943 mural

Benjamin Banneker depicted on a 1943 mural by Maxime Seelbinder in the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The claim is that Molly purchased Banneka to help establish a farm near Ellicott’s Mills in Maryland. She then supposedly freed and married him. The Tablet in 1902 states:

“His [Banneker’s] family history is curious. His maternal grandmother was a white woman, a native of England, of the name of Molly Welsh, transported to the oversea plantations for the trifling theft of a bucket of milk, which she declared the cow had kicked over. On her disembarkation in Maryland, she was sold into slavery for seven years to pay the expenses of transportation … On the expiry of her term, she bought a tract of land in the colony for a trifling sum, and obtained two negroes from a newly-arrived slave ship. One of these, who claimed to be the son of a chief called Banneker, she emancipated and married, won by his noble bearing, despite a somewhat lazy disposition. Their daughter, Mary, also married a manumitted native of Africa, who took her surname, and the astronomer, Banneker, was the only child of this marriage. Although one quarter white, his parents having been a mulatto and a full caste negro, he himself declares his colour to have been ‘of the deepest dye.’”[1]

Perhaps Molly helped her son-in-law financially because newspapers of the mid-1800s report that Robert Bannaky (as his name was then supposedly spelled) gave Richard Gist on 10 March 1737 seven thousand pounds of tobacco for a 100-acre farm located in Patapsco Valley in Baltimore County. The farm was located near Molly’s farm and 6-year-old Banneker is shown on the land deed with his father. Unfortunately, the remainder of Banneker’s early years are not well documented.

Conjecture is that Banneker may have received some education from the Quaker Peter Heinrichs, who established a school near the Banneker farm. It is believed that this may have occurred because Quakers were leaders in the anti-slavery movement. However, any education Banneker may have been privileged to enjoy was short lived and supposedly ended when he was old enough to help on the family farm, which he did from an early age.

Of Banneker’s life around this time, the Appleton Post of Wisconsin republished the following on 5 February 1863 having taken it from the Atlantic Monthly:

“After leaving school he had to labor constantly for his own support; but he lost nothing of what he had acquired. … Banneker had no books at all, but in the midst of his labor he so improved upon and evolved what he had gained in arithmetic that his intelligence became a matter of general observation. He was such an acute observer of the natural world, and had so diligently observed the signs of the times in society, that it is very doubtful whether at forty years of age this African had his superior in Maryland.”[2]  

In 1772, the Ellicott brothers – Andrew, John, and Joseph – moved from Bucks County, Pennsylvania and bought land along the Patapsco Falls near Banneker’s farm. There they constructed gristmills, which then developed into the village of Ellicott Mills, now called Ellicott City. Like Heinrichs, the Ellicott brothers were Quakers and open to racial equality. In addition, the Ellicott brothers were looking to employ someone well-educated with mechanical knowledge.

Years earlier, around 1752, 21-year-old Benjamin Banneker created a working clock even though he had never seen a timepiece other than a watch. His neighbors were amazed, admired his mechanical skills, and told everyone about his talent. When the Ellicotts heard that Banneker had created a clock, they immediately sought him out and before long he found himself free to study their mills.

Banneker’s clock. Author’s collection.

Banneker’s father died in 1759 and the 28-year-old then took over his tobacco farm and worked as a planter until about 1788 when chronic ailments made it difficult for him to continue working the land. He then began to sell off some sections of the farm, first to his nephew and then to others, including the Ellicotts.

Over the years, Benjamin Banneker and George Ellicott, Andrew’s son, had become close friends. They found they had a common interest in mathematics and the natural sciences. In addition, around the time that Banneker was selling off plots from his farm George loaned him several books and equipment and Banneker began a formal study of astronomy:

“This was turning point in the life of this semi-retired farmer, who was now fifty-eight years of age. Without any guidance from others, Banneker absorbed the texts and learned to use the instruments to make simple observations and eventually to calculate ephemerides for almanacs.”[3]

The following year Banneker sent his work to George showing his calculations related to a solar eclipse. In 1790, he then prepared an ephemeris for 1791, hoping that it would be placed in an almanac, but he was unable to find a printer willing to publish or distribute it. Having no luck with his ephemeris, Banneker was hired in February 1791 by Major Andrew Ellicott (son of Joseph and cousin to George) to assist in the initial survey of the boundaries of the new federal district that would become Washington D.C.

Benjamin Banneker was hired by Andrew Ellicott, shown here.

Benjamin Banneker was hired for the survey party by Andrew Ellicott, shown here. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The land had been formed along the Potomac River and involved the designs of a Frenchman named Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Banneker’s duties were to keep the astronomical clock accurate. Ellicott was a “hard taskmaster” and he encountered many problems. He became ill, there was constant bad weather, difficult terrain, and the loss of several men with some accidentally killed by falling trees and others suffering illness.

During Banneker’s time with the survey team, his fellow employees held him in high regard. Everyone who encountered him also admired him. Moreover, it was noted that “his striking superiority over all men of his race whom they had met, led them to disregard all prejudice of caste, and converse freely with him, and enjoy the clearness and originality of his remarks.”[4]

During this time, Banneker continued to think about slavery and eventually challenged Thomas Jefferson, who had helped draft the United States Declaration of Independence and who in 1791 was serving as the United States Secretary of State. In a letter to Jefferson dated 19 August 1791, Banneker quoted language from the Declaration, expressed a plea for justice, and mentioned the unfair nature of slavery:

“I am fully sensible of the greatness of the freedom, I take with you on the present occasion; a liberty which seemed to me scarcely allowable, when I reflected on that distinguished and dignified station in which you stand, and the almost general prejudice which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion.

It is a truth too well attested to you, to need a proof here, that we are a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world; that we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt; and considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments.

I hope I may safely admit, in consequence of that report which hath reached me, that you are a man far less inflexible in sentiments of this nature, than many others; that you are measurably friendly, and well disposed towards us; and that you are willing and ready to lend your aid and assistance to our relief, from those many distresses, and numerous calamities, to which we are reduced.

If this founded in truth, I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions … and that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that one universal Father hath given being to us all … If these sentiments of which you are fully persuaded, you cannot but acknowledge, that it is indispensable duty of those, who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature, and who profess the obligations of Christianity, to extend their power and influence to the relief of every part of the human race, from whatever burden or oppression they may unjustly labour under.”[5]

Thomas Jefferson by John Turnbull in 1788. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Benjamin Banneker did not remain long with Ellicott’s survey team. He left after only three months and returned to Ellicott’s Mills. There he made astronomical calculations that predicted eclipses and planetary conjunctions for inclusion in an almanac and ephemeris for the year of 1792. This time Major Andrew Ellicott aided him by forwarding the ephemeris to James Pemberton, president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.

Pemberton then asked William Waring, a Philadelphia mathematician and ephemeris calculator, and David Rittenhouse, a prominent American astronomer, surveyor, and scientific instrument maker, to confirm the accuracy of Banneker’s work. Both men obliged Pemberton and both men endorsed Banneker. Rittenhouse noted that his work was “very extraordinary” and Waring stated:

“I have examined Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac for 1792, and am of the Opinion that it well deserves the Acceptance and Encouragement of the Public.”[6]

Although Banneker was happy to have the endorsements, Rittenhouse had also noted that Banneker was a “Negro.” This annoyed Banneker who believed Rittenhouse had stressed the fact that he was black, and Banneker thought that his race should not be mentioned as his work stood for itself and was either correct or incorrect. In addition, Jefferson also acknowledged Banneker’s excellent performance in a letter that he sent to him on 30 August 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, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and 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 and mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstances 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.”[7]

That same day (30 August 1791) Jefferson also sent a letter to the Marquis de Condorcet:

“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, and 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 handwriting, and 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 and 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.”[8]

Marie Jean Antoine Caritat, marquis de Condorcet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

With the good wishes of Rittenhouse, Waring, and Jefferson, a copy of Benjamin Banneker’s almanac was delivered to William Goddard. He was a Baltimore printer and had earlier published The Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris for 1784, 1785, 1787, 1789, and 1790. Now he was willing to publish and distribute Banneker’s work, and when it came out the editors of Banneker’s Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris for 1792 noted:

“That they flatter themselves that a philanthropic public, in this enlightened era, will be induced to give their patronage and support to this work, not only an account of its intrinsic merits, (it having met the approbation of several of the most distinguished astronomers in America, particularly the celebrated Mr. Rittenhouse) but from similar motives to those which induced the editors to give this calculation the preference, — the ardent desire of drawing modest merit from obscurity, and controverting the long-established illiberal prejudice against the blacks.”[9]

Benjamin Banneker had his almanac published by William Goddard, shown here.

Benjamin Banneker had his almanac published by William Goddard, shown here. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Benjamin Banneker’s almanac and ephemeris were the first in a series of six (1792 to 1797) that were printed and sold. Some of these almanacs appeared in several editions during the same year and they were also printed in at least seven cities: Baltimore, Maryland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Wilmington, Delaware; Alexandria, Virginia; Petersburg, Virginia; Richmond, Virginia; and Trenton, New Jersey. In addition, Banneker continued to think about slavery and in his first published almanac included an extract from the essay titled, “On Negro Slavery, and the Slave Trade.”

Benjamin Banneker published several Almanacs.

Benjamin Banneker published several Almanacs. This is the title page from 1795. Public domain.

Banneker did not publish any more almanacs after 1797 because of declining sales. However, that did not affect his lifestyle as the remainder of his life he had enough money to live contentedly. In addition, during his lifetime Banneker kept a series of journals that contained notebooks related to his diary, astronomical observations, and accounts of his dreams. The journals also contained mathematical calculations, puzzles, and his observations about nature, written in his later years. For instance, he wrote in January of 1797:

“On a pleasant day for the season, I observed my honey bees to be out of their hives, and they seemed very busy, all but one hive. Upon examination I found all the bees had evacuated this hive, and left not a drop of honey behind them. On the 9th of February ensuing, I killed the neighboring hives of bees on a special occasion, and found a great quantity of honey, considering the season, which I imagine the strong and violently taken the weaker, and the weaker had pursued them to their home, resolved to be benefitted by their labour or die in the contest.”[10]

In 1803, he made this comment on the weather:

“February 2, 1803: In the morning part of the day, there arose a very dark cloud, followed by snow and hail. A flash of lightening and loud thunder crack; and then the storm abated until afternoon, when another cloud arose at the same point, viz: the north-west, with a beautiful shower of snow. But what beautified the snow was the brightness of the sun, which was near setting at the time. I looked for the rainbow, or rather snowbow; but I think the snow was too dense a nature to exhibit the representation of the bow in the cloud … The above was followed by very cold weather for a few days.”[11]

In Banneker’s later years, one of Ellicott’s associates described him in the following way:

“[His] manners were those of a perfect gentleman; kind, generous, hospitable, humane, dignified and pleasing, abounding in information on all the various subjects and incidents of the day; very modest and unassuming, and delighting in society at his own house. I have seen him frequently. His head was covered with a thick suit of white hair, which gave him a very venerable and dignified appearance. His dress was uniformly of superfine drab broad cloth, made in the old style of a plain coat, with straight collar and long waistcoat, and a broad brimmed hat. His colour was not jet black, but decidedly negro. In size and personal appearance, the statue of Franklin at the Library in Philadelphia, as seen from the street, is a perfect likeness of him. Whenever I have seen it, it has always reminded me of Banneker. Go to his house when you would, either by day or night, there was constantly standing the middle of the floor a large table covered with books and papers. As he was an eminent mathematician, he was constantly in correspondence with other mathematicians in this country, with whom there was an interchange of questions of difficult solution.”[12]

Benjamin Banneker passed away peacefully at the age 74. It happened on Monday, 9 October 1806, five days before Napoleon Bonaparte decisively defeated the Prussians at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. A couple of weeks later The Maryland Gazette published Banneker’s obituary stating:

“Departed this life at his residence in Baltimore county, … Mr. Benjamin Banneker, a blackman, and immediate descendant of an African father. He was well known in his neighbourhood for his quiet and peaceable demeanor, and among scientific men as an astronomer and mathematician. In early life he was instructed in the most common rules of arithmetic, and thereafter, with the assistance of different authors, he was enabled to acquire a perfect knowledge of all the higher branches of learning. Mr. B. was the calculator of several almanacks which were published in this, as well as some of the neighbouring states, and although of late years none of his almanacks were published, yet he never failed to calculate one every year, and left them among his papers, preferring solitude to mixing with society, and devoted the greatest part of his time in reading and contemplation, and to no books was he more attached than the Scriptures. At his decease he bequeathed all his astronomical and philosophical books and papers to a friend.

Mr. Banneker is a prominent instance to provide 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.”[13]

Benjamin Banneker was buried two days after his death. On the day of his funeral, a mysterious fire started in his log cabin. It unfortunately burned to the ground and most of his belongings, including the clock he had made, most of his documents, and all but one journal were destroyed.

Replica of Banneker’s log cabin. Author’s collection.

Many of the important details surrounding Banneker’s life went up in flames, and for a time he was not remembered. However, while he was alive and before his death, a white woman named Mrs. Suzanna Mason visited Banneker with a member of the Ellicott family in 1797. After her visit she wrote a letter to Banneker as was customary at the time. The letter was written in rhyme and the portion that follows shows the high regard she and other people held for Banneker:

  • “Transmitted on the wings of Fame,
  • Thine Eclat sounding with thy name,
  • Well, pleased, I heard ere ’twas my lot
  • To see thee in thy humble cot.
  • That genius smiled upon thy birth
  • And application called it forth;
  • That times and tides thou could’st presage,
  • And traverse the Celestial stage,
  • Where shining globes their circles run,
  • Inswift rotation round the sun;
  • Could’st tell how planets in their way,
  • From order ne’er were known to stray;
  • Sun, moon, and stars, when they will rise,
  • When sink below the upper skies;
  • When an eclipse shall veil their light,
  • And hide their splendor from our sight.”[14]


*Wikipedia notes that first published description of Molly Welsh was based on interviews with her descendants in 1836, long after she and Banneker had died. In addition, Paul Heinegg, a current genealogist, maintains that the name Bannaker may have had the same origin as the town of Banaka that exists today in Liberia, but which at the time was part of the slave trade.

**Jefferson would later express a different opinion of Banneker and his skills. He stated in 1809, “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 & friend, & never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker which shews him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.”[15]

References:

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