Benjamin Banneker
November 9, 1731 – October 9, 1806

Benjamin Banneker was a Free African American Asronomer, mathematician, surveyor, almanac author and farmer.

Although it is difficult to verify details of Benjamin Banneker's family history, it appears that he was a grandson of a European American named Molly Welsh. The story goes that Molly met a slave named Banneka when she purchased him to help establish a farm located near the future site of Ellicott's Mills, west of Baltimore, Maryland. This part of Maryland was out of the mainstream of the colonial South, and as result had a more tolerant attitude toward African Americans than did colonial areas in which slavery was more prevalent. Perhaps a member of the Dogon tribe (reputed to have a historical knowledge of astronomy), Banneka may have cleared Molly's land, solved irrigation problems, and implemented a crop rotation for her. Soon thereafter, Molly freed and married Banneka, who may have shared his knowledge of astronomy with her.

Benjamin's mother, Mary, was the daughter of Molly and Banneka. Although born after Banneka's death, Benjamin may have acquired some of his grandfather's knowledge via Molly, who appears to have taught him how to read, farm, and interpret the sky as Banneka had taught her. Little is known about Benjamin's father Robert, a first-generation slave who had fled his owner.

As a young teenager, Banneker met and befriended Peter Heinrichs, a Quaker farmer who established a school near Banneker's family's farm. Heinrichs shared his personal library with Banneker and provided Banneker's only classroom instruction. (During Banneker's lifetime, Quakers were leaders in the antislavery movement and advocates of racial equality in accordance with their Testimony of Equality belief.)

Once he was old enough to help on his parents' farm, Benjamin's formal education ended. He spent most of the rest of his life at the farm.


Apparently using as a model a pocket watch that he had borrowed from a merchant or traveler, Banneker carved wooden replicas of each piece and used the parts to make a clock that struck hourly. He completed the clock in 1753, at the age of 21. The clock continued to work until his death.

Neighbors, Work, and Study

After his father died in 1759, Banneker lived with his mother and sisters. Then in 1771, a white Quaker family, the Ellicotts, moved into the area and built mills along the Patapsco River. Banneker supplied their workers with food, and studied the mills. In 1788 he began his more formal study of astronomy as an adult, using books and equipment that George Ellicott lent to him. The following year, he sent George Ellicott his work on the solar eclipse. In February 1791, Major Andrew Ellicott, a member of the same family, hired Banneker to assist in a survey of the boundaries of the 100-square-mile (260 km2) federal district (initially, the Territory of Columbia; later, the District of Columbia) that Maryland and Virginia would cede to the federal government of the United States for the nation's capital in accordance with the federal Residence Act of 1790 and later legislation.

Banneker's activities on the survey team resembled those used in celestial navigation during his lifetime. His duties consisted primarily of making astronomical observations at Jones Point in Alexandria, Virginia, to ascertain the location of the starting point for the survey and of maintaining a clock that he used when relating points on the surface of the Earth to the positions of stars at specific times. Because of illness and the difficulties in helping to survey the area at the age of 59, Banneker left the boundary survey in April 1791 and returned to his home at Ellicott's Mills to work on an ephemeris. Andrew Ellicott continued the survey with his brothers Benjamin and Joseph Ellicott and other assistants through 1791 and 1792.

Banneker's Almanacs and Journals

At Ellicott's Mills, Banneker made astronomical calculations that predicted solar and lunar eclipses for inclusion in his ephemeris. He placed the ephemeris and its subsequent revisions in a six-year series of almanacs, which were published for the years 1792 through 1797 in Baltimore and Philadelphia. He also kept a series of journals that contained his notebooks for astronomical observations, his diary, and his mathematical calculations.

The title page 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".

The 1792 almanac included the times for the rising and setting of the sun and moon. Weather forecasts and dates for yearly feasts were also included. Readers also saw a tide table for the Chesapeake Bay and home treatments for illnesses. In his 1793 almanac, Banneker included letters sent between Thomas Jefferson and himself. The cover of his 1795 almanac had a woodcut portrait of him as he may have appeared as a young man.

The almanacs' editors prefaced the publications with adulatory references to Banneker and his race, such as this excerpt from a 1796 edition:

"Not 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."

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. After these editions were published, William Wilberforce and other prominent abolitionists praised Banneker and his works in Great Britain's House of Commons.

Views on Peace, Education, and the Relationship of Government and Religion

Banneker's 1793 almanac contained a copy of "A Plan of Peace-office for the United States" that Benjamin Rush had authored. The Plan proposed the appointment of a "Secretary of Peace" and described the Secretary's powers. The Plan stated:

"I. Let a Secretary of Peace be appointed to preside in this office; ....; let him be a genuine republican and a sincere Christian ...."

"II. 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. ...."

"III. Let every family be furnished at public expense, by the Secretary of this office, with an American edition of the Bible. ...." "IV. 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.”

This edition of Bannker's almanac was published two years after the ratification in 1791 of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, ...."

Views on Slavery and Racial Equality

Banneker expressed his views on slavery and racial equality in a letter to Thomas Jefferson and in other documents that he placed within his 1793 almanac. The almanac contained copies of his correspondence with Jefferson, poetry by the African American poet Phillis Wheatley and by the English anti-slavery poet William Cowper, and anti-slavery speeches and essays from England and America.

Letter to Thomas Jefferson on Racism

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 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.

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 although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath 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 yourselves.”

Banneker's letter did not offer any evidence to support this allegation. His message ended with the statement:

"And now, Sir, I shall conclude, and subscribe myself, with the most profound respect, Your most obedient humble servant, BENJAMIN BANNEKER."

An English abolitionist, Thomas Day, had earlier written in a 1776 letter:

"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.”

While Banneker's letter expressed similar sentiments, his missive went further when charging Jefferson with criminality and fraud when dealing with slaves.

Thomas Jefferson's Reply to Banneker

Without directly responding to Banneker's accusation, Jefferson replied to Banneker's letter on August 30, 1791, in a series of nuanced statements that expressed his interest in the advancement of the equality of America's black population. Jefferson's reply stated in part:

"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 colors of men; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. … I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, 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 color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them."

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, to whom Jefferson sent Banneker's almanac, was a noted French mathematician and abolitionist. It appears that the Academy of Sciences itself did not receive the almanac.

Thomas Jefferson's Opinion of Banneker and His Letter In 1809, three years after Banneker's death, Jefferson wrote:

"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."

Later Life, Death and Burial

Banneker never married. Because of declining sales, his last almanac was published in 1797. After selling much of his farm to the Ellicotts and others, he died in his log cabin nine years later on October 9, 1806, exactly one month before his 75th birthday. His chronic alcoholism, which worsened as he aged, may have contributed to his death. A commemorative obelisk that the Maryland Bicentennial Commission and the State Commission on Afro American History and Culture erected in 1977 stands near his unmarked grave in an Oella, Maryland, churchyard.

[Top of Page] [Back to Flag]