Benjamin Banneker was born November 9th, 1731 in Baltimore County, Maryland and was a free scientist, surveyor, almanac author, and farmer. He was born to a free Black woman named Mary and a formerly enslaved man from Guinea named Robert. He also very little formal education and was primarily self-taught. He is well-known for being a part of a group led by Major Andrew Ellicott that surveyed the borders of the original borders of the District of Columbia.
His vast knowledge of astronomy helped him author a commercially successful series of almanacs. He corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the US Declaration of Independence, on topics such as slavery and racial equality. Abolitionists and advocates of racial equality both promoted and praised his works.
While Banneker solely identified himself as Black, there are different accounts of his family history. None of Banneker’s remaining documents describe a white ancestor or identify the name of his grandmother. However, some biographers insist that his mother was a child of Molly Welsh, a white indentured servant, and an African slave named Banneka. The first published description of Molly Welsh was based on interviews with her descendants that took place after 1836, long after the deaths of both Molly and Benjamin. Molly may have purchased Banneka to help establish a farm located near what would eventually become Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland, which is west of Baltimore. One biographer believes that Banneka was a member of the Dogon tribe that were reported to have vast knowledge of astronomy. Molly supposedly freed and married Banneka, who might have shared his knowledge of astronomy with her. Although he was born after Banneka’s death, Benjamin might have acquired some of his knowledge from Molly.
In February 1791, Major Andrew Ellicott hired Benjamin to assist in the initial survey of the boundaries of the new federal district, which the 1790 federal Residence Act legislation authorized. Formed from the land along the Potomac River from both Maryland and Virginia, the territory that became the original District of Columbia was a square measuring 10 miles on each side, totaling 100 square miles. Ellicott’s team placed boundary stones at every mile point of the city.
Benjamin’s duties consisted primarily of making astronomical observations at Jones Points in Alexandria, Virginia, to ascertain the location of the starting point for the survey. He also maintained a clock that he used to relate points on the ground to the positions of starts at specific times. However, at age 59, he left the boundary survey in April 1791 due to illness and difficulties completing the survey. He 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 associates through 1791 and 1792.
Benjamin never married and because of his declining sales, his last almanac was published in 1797. After selling most of his farm to the Ellicotts and others, he died in his log cabin nine years later on October 9th, 1806, exactly one month before his 75th birthday. A commemorative obelisk the Maryland Bicentennial Commission and the State Commission on Afro American History and Culture erected in 1977 near his unmarked grave in the yards of the Mt. Gilboa AME Church in Oella, Maryland.