Benjamin Banneker was one of America’s first native-born scientists. He was an astronomer, mathematician and inventor.
Banneker was the grandson of Molly Welsh (sometimes reported as Walsh), a biracial English woman who arrived in Maryland in 1683 as an indentured servant. After working for seven years, Welsh acquired property near Elk Ridge and grew tobacco.
In 1692, Welsh purchased and freed two African slaves. She married one of her former slaves, Banna Ka, who was from a Senegalese tribe that reputedly had knowledge of astronomy. Changing his name to Bannaky, he is credited with irrigating the property so their tobacco crops thrived while others in the area suffered from drought, and introduced crop rotation among other agricultural innovations.
Like her mother, their oldest daughter, Mary, purchased a slave named Robert, freed him, and married him in 1730. Robert took Bannaky for his surname. Mary and Robert had Benjamin, who was born a free black in 1731.
In 1737, Robert bought 100 acres of property in Oella with 7,000 pounds of tobacco grown on the Elk Ridge farm. Although just 6 years old, Benjamin’s name was put on the property deed to ensure his permanent freedom and security. When Robert died in 1759, Benjamin became the sole owner of the property.
Molly used the Bible to teach her grandchildren how to read. Banneker learned to write and basic mathematics at a nearby Quaker school. Historians disagree on the level of formal education Banneker achieved; by most accounts he reached the 8th grade or less. The remainder of Banneker’s education was self-taught.
At the age of 21, Banneker was fascinated by a friend’s pocket watch, the likes of which he’d never seen before. He borrowed the watch, disassembled it to sketch its pieces, then put it back together and returned it to its owner. Banneker carved wooden parts and built a clock – the first striking clock made in America – which reportedly ran reliably, striking every hour, for more than 40 years.
Banneker befriended George and Joseph Ellicott, brothers who bought property nearby along the Patapsco River and built a flour mill. A surveyor, George Ellicott lent Banneker books on mathematics and astronomy, along with a telescope and other instruments. Banneker began making astronomical calculations that allowed him to accurately predict a 1789 solar eclipse that better-known mathematicians and astronomers got wrong.
In 1791, Ellicott cousin Andrew Ellicott hired Banneker to assist with surveying the boundary of the 100 square mile federal district, later known as the District of Columbia.
Banneker published the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris from 1791 to 1802. The almanac included information on medicines and home remedies, and listed tides, astronomical information, and eclipses calculated by Banneker. He also published a treatise on bees, a mathematical study on the cycle of 17-year locusts, and was an outspoken proponent of the anti-slavery movement.
Banneker died on October 9, 1806. During his memorial service two days later, his cabin burned to the ground. In the mid-1980s, archaeologists discovered the location of Banneker’s homestead. Baltimore County began efforts to establish the Bakkener Historical Park and Museum. Today, the area is an active archaeological site that has produced more than 17,000 artifacts. The park has a fully restored 1850 farmhouse, several hiking trails, and a museum with a permanent exhibit about Banneker.
Visiting Benjamin Banneker’s Grave
In 1976, an obelisk in honor of Banneker was placed at Mount Gilboa Church cemetery, an African-American church adjacent to his property. Because the location of Banneker’s grave was unknown, people assumed he was buried there. However, archaeologists subsequently discovered Banneker family graves on the park property, and further work is planned to identify the location of Benjamin Banneker’s grave.
GPS: N 39°, 16.502′, W 076° 46.716′