Banneker was born in 1731, in Baltimore County, Maryland. His parents were black, and his father was a freed slave. Some biographers believe that his grandmother, on his mother’s side, may have purchased his grandfather, then a slave, set him free, and then married him. Aged 6, Banneker was named on the deed of his family’s 100-acre tobacco farm in the Patapsco River valley, where he lived for most of his life. In his teens, a Quaker, Peter Heinrichs, lent him books, and provided rudimentary teaching. Somehow he learned to read, write, to play several musical instruments, and in his early 20s he crafted a wooden clock by observing the mechanics of a pocket watch. His father died in 1759.
A decade or so later, the Ellicott family - also Quakers - moved into the area, and began building mills along the Patapsco. Banneker supplied the workers with food, studied the workings of the mills, and became friendly with several of the Ellicotts. In 1788 - in his mid-40s - he began to study astronomy with books and instruments borrowed from George Ellicott, who was also interested in the subject. In 1791, at the invitation of George’s cousin Major Andrew Ellicott, Banneker joined, for a few months, a surveying team that was setting the boundaries for the new federal capital.
By 1792, Banneker had become so knowledgeable that he felt able to write and publish an astronomical almanac based on his own painstakingly-calculated ephemeris and which included solar and lunar eclipse predictions - Benjamin Banneker’s Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris, for the Year of Our Lord, 1792. It sold well, and quickly went into a second edition. Annual almanacs followed each year until 1797.
Banneker was well aware of his unusual position as a black man contributing to the sciences, and he used his almanacs to further his political views on the abolition of slavery and racial equality. He also engaged in a correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, who himself owned many slaves, and would soon become the third President of the US. Banneker never married. In his last years, he sold much of his farmland to the Ellicotts, but continued to live in his log cabin, where he died in 1806. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, PBS, or Bio.com, and from a Memoir of Benjamin Banneker by John Latrobe.
On the day of Banneker’s funeral, a fire, of unknown origin, burned the cabin, destroying many of his belongings and papers, including most of his journals and notebooks. However, one astronomical journal, a day book and a few papers survived. These were left to George Ellicott, and by the mid-19th century had been deposited with Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) where they were bound together. Subsequently, the bound copy was returned to the Ellicotts, and remained hidden until 1987, when it was again given to the MdHS. Some extracts from this can be found in Latrobe’s memoir about Banneker - as follows:
‘Besides his aptitude for mechanics,’ Latrobe writes, ‘and his ability as a mathematician, Banneker was an acute observer, whose active mind was constantly receiving impulses from what was taking place around him. Many instances of this are to be found in the record of his calculations, which he seems to have used occasionally as a common-place book. For instance, under date of the 27th August, 1797, he writes: “Standing at my door I heard the discharge of a gun, and in four or five seconds of time, after the discharge, the small shot came rattling about me, one or two of which struck the house; which plainly demonstrates that the velocity of sound is greater than that of a cannon bullet.” It must have been a philosophic mind, which observing the fact as here stated, drew from it the correct conclusion, and then recorded it in appropriate terms as a simple and beautiful illustration of the law of nature, with which, in all probability, he first became acquainted through its means.
Again on the 23d December, 1790, he writes: “About 3 o’clock, A.M. I heard the sound and felt the shock like unto heavy thunder. I went out but could not observe any cloud above the horizon. I therefore conclude it must be a great earthquake in some part of the globe.” A similar conclusion from the same facts was drawn by a greater man than Banneker near eighteen hundred years before, and recorded to be commented on in after ages.
Nor was Banneker’s observation confined to matters of a philosophical character. There is evidence in the memoranda of his record book that natural history was equally interesting to him. The following, independent of its connection with the subject of our memoir, possesses general interest as an authentic statement by an eye-witness of a curious fact in entomology. In April, 1800, he writes: “The first great locust year that T can remember was 1749. I was then about seventeen years of age, when thousands of them came and were creeping up the trees and bushes. I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the earth, and would occasion a famine in the land. I therefore began to kill and destroy them, but soon saw that my labour was in vain, and therefore gave over my pretension. Again in the year 1766, which is seventeen years after their first appearance, they made a second, and appeared to me to be full as numerous as the first. I then, being about thirty-four years of age, had more sense than to endeavour to destroy them, knowing they were not so pernicious to the fruit of the earth as I imagined they would be. Again in the year 1783, which was seventeen years since their second appearance to me, they made their third; and they may be expected again in the year 1800, which is seventeen years since their third appearance to me. So that if I may venture to express it, their periodical return is seventeen years: but they, like the comets, make but a short stay with us. The female has a sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the branches of the trees, and in the holes lays eggs. The branch soon dies and falls. Then the egg, by some occult cause immerges a great depth into the earth, and there continues for the space of seventeen years as aforesaid.” [. . .]
The last extract we shall make from the record book is one which indicates a relish for the beautiful in nature, as well by his undertaking to record a description of what he saw, as by the language which he uses. The extract is from the last pages of the book, when he was in his seventy-first year. His writing is still distinct, but the letters have lost their firmness, and shew that his hand trembled as it held the pen.
“1803, Feb. 2d. In the morning part of the day, there arose a very dark cloud, followed by snow and hail, a flash of lightning 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 of too dense a nature to exhibit the representation of the bow in the cloud.” ’
The MdHS blog, Underbelly, gives a brief description of Banneker’s journal: ‘
5 December 1791
‘On the night of the fifth of December 1791, Being a deep Sleep, I dreamed that I was in a public Company, one of them demanded of me the limits of Rassanah Crandolph’s Soul had to display itself in, after it departed from her Body and taken its flight. In answer I desired that he show me the place of Beginning “thinking it like making a Survey of the Land.” He replied I cannot inform you but there is a man about three days journey from Hence that is able to satisfy your demand, I forthwith went to the man and requested of him to inform me place of beginning of the limits that Rasannah Crandolph’s soul had to display itself in, after the Seperation from her Body; who gave me answer, the Vernal Equinox, When I returned I found the Company together and I was able to Solve their Doubts by giving them the following answer Quincunx.’
13 December 1797
‘I Dreamed I saw some thing passing by my door to and fro, and when I attempted to go to the door, it would vanish and reapted [?] it twice or thrice, at length I let in the infernal Spirit and he told me that he had been concerned with a woman by the name of Beckey Freeman (I never heard the name as I remember) by some means we fell into a Skirmish, and I threw him behind the fire and endeavored to burn him up but all in vain- I know not what became of him but he was an ill formed being- Some part of him in Shape of a man, but hairy as a beast, his feet was circular or rather globular and did not exceed an inch and a half in diameter, but while I held him in the fire he said something respecting he was able to stand it, but I forget his words. B. Banneker’
24 April 1802
‘I dreamed I had a fawn or young deer; whose hair was white and like unto lamb’s wool , and all parts about it beautiful to behold. Then I said to myself I will set this little captive at liberty, but I will first clip the tips of his ear that I may know him if I should see him again. Then taking a pair of shears and cutting off the tip of one ear, and he cried like unto a child hath the pain which grieved him very much altho then I did not attempt to cut the other but was very sorry for that I had done I got him at liberty and he ran a considerable distance then he stopped and he looked back at me I advanced toward him, and he came and met me and I took a lock of wool from my garment and wiped the blood of wound which I had made on him (which sorely affected me) I took him in my arms and brought him home and hold him on my knees, he asked the Woman if she had any trust and she answered him in the affirmative and gave him Some, which he began to eat and then asked for milk in a cup She said the dog had got the cup with milk in it under the house but there is milk in the cupboard.
My dream left me. B. Banneker.’
24 April 1802
‘Being weary holing for corn, I laid down on my bed and fell into a deep sleep and dreamed I had a child in my arms and was viewing the back part of its head where it had been sore, and I found it was healed with a hole through the skin and Skull bone and came out at forehead, that I could see very distinctly through the child’s head the hole being large enough to receive an ordinary finger – I called some woman to see the strange sight, and she put her spectacles on and Saw it, and she asked me if I had previously lanced that place in the Child’s head, I answered in the affirmative.
N.B. the Child is well as any other.’