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Full text of "A sketch of the life of Benjamin Banneker; : from notes taken in 1836."

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CONTENTS. 



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SKETCH OF THE LIFE 



O F 



BENJAMIN BANNEKER; 



FROM NOTES TAKEN IN 1836. 



READ KV .T. SAURIX NORRIS, BEFORE THE 



MARYLAND HISTORICAL SOCIETY, 



October 5th, 1854. 



SKETCH OF THE LIFE 



O F 



BENJAMIN BANNEKER; 



FROM NOTES TAKEN IN 1836. 




READ BY J. SAURIN NORRIS, BEFORE THE 

MARYLAND HISTORICAL SOCIETY, 

October 5th, 1854. 



PRINTED FOR THE MARYLAND HISTORICAL SOCIETY, 
BY JOHN D. TOY. 



At the time of reading the following paper to the Maryland Historical 
Society, Mr. Norris remarked that " it came from a lady, who, from motives 
of delicacy, had chosen to withhold her name, and, therefore, a word of 
explanation might he proper to relieve it from the appearance of an anony- 
mous communication. The Authoress was an immediate descendant of 
that branch of the Ellicott family, of Ellicott's Mill3, from whom Banneker 
received much assistance in the prosecution of his studies ; and who, at the 
time of his death, owing to the circumstances related in this paper, became the 
sole possessor of the few memorials left of his labors. She has a personal 
recollection of the subject of her memoir ; and, eighteen years ago, devoted 
much care, under the superintendence and with the assistance of Mrs. Elizabeth 
Ellicott, (recently deceased, at the advanced age of ninety-two years,) to the 
collection of the material from which the following pages have been compiled. 
Nearly every paper left by Banneker, is now in her possession ; and this sketch 
has been prepared with the single object of preserving a correct and faithful 
record of the origin, life, habits, appearance, labors and attainments of one, 
who, under the peculiar circumstances of his position, was undoubtedly a very 
remarkable character." 



SKETCH OP THE LIFE 



O F 



BENJAMIN BANNEKER. 



From the interest, which has been manifested by the mem- 
bers of the Maryland Historical Society, in all that relates to 
Benjamin Banneker, they are herewith presented with two of 
his autograph letters, accompanied by a brief account of him, 
compiled from notes taken in 1836, from the reminiscences of 
aged persons then living, who had been intimately acquainted 
with him, and from other authentic sources, which were then 
accessible. All were designed for the use of one of our citi- 
zens, a writer of acknowledged merit, who believed that the 
astronomer's example of mental application, and subsequent 
attainments, might have a useful influence on his brethren, 
both in the United States, and in our African Colonies, and 
therefore wished to draw up a narrative of his life. But, 
discouragements in the prosecution of the plan, having oc- 
curred, the work was abandoned, and its intended author 
died in 1849. 

The notes have since been returned to the writer of the 
present "Sketch," who knowing them to contain reliable 
information not heretofore published, has arranged them for 
the perusal of those who, having read the memoir prepared 
by J. H. B. Latrobe, may be willing to hear what still remains 
untold of the history of one, whose peculiar circumstances 
entitle him to our notice. 



In preparing an account of an humble individual, it is rarely- 
deemed necessary to furnish a long line of ancestry. The 
first member of the family of the subject of our notice, of 
whom we shall speak, is his maternal grand-mother, Molly 
Welsh, 1 a native of England, who came to Maryland, (at that 
time an English Colony,) with a ship load of other emigrants, 
and, to defray the expenses of her voyage, was sold to a 
master with whom she served an apprenticeship of seven years. 

After her term of service had expired, she bought a small 
farm, (land having then merely a nominal value,) and pur- 
chased as laborers, two negro slaves, from a slave ship, which 
lay in the Chesapeake Bay. They both proved to be valuable 
servants. One of them, said to have been the son of a king 
in Africa, a man of industry, integrity, fine disposition and 
dignified manners, she liberated from slavery and afterwards 
married. His name was Bannaker, which she adopted as 
her sir-name, and was afterwards called, Molly Banneker. 

They had four children of whom we will mention alone, 
Mary, their oldest child. She also married a native of Africa ; 
but, of his history, tradition gives no disclosure, except, that 
he embraced the Christian religion and was baptized by the 
name of Robert. On his marriage he took his wife's sir-name. 
Benjamin Banneker, was their only son. The date of his 
birth is preserved in an old Bible, in which the event is chroni- 
cled with other details in the following order. 

"I bought this book of Anora Buckanan, the 4th day of 
January, 1763." 

"Benjamin Banneker was born, November the 9th day, 
in the year of the Lord God, 1731." 

"Robert Banneker departed this life, July y 10th 1759." 

According to the testimony of John Henden, a son of the 
oldest sister of Banneker, (who in 1836, though far advanced 
in years was still of sound mind,) Benjamin was a great 
favorite with his grand-mother, who taught him to read and 

1 According to the testimony of one of her grand-children, she was not only 
a white woman, but had a remarkably fair complexion. 



took great delight in his learning. She much desired to see 
him grow up to be a religious man, and encouraged him to 
read the Holy Scriptures. For the advancement of this object, 
whilst he was yet a boy, she wrote to her native country, for 
a large Bible, from which he used to read to her on each 
sabbath day. She also sent him to a school which was taught 
near her residence where a few white and two or three colored 
children received together the instructions of the same master. 
Here his devotion to books first discovered itself, and Jacob 
Hall, 1 an old servant of the Hall family of Baltimore county, 
who had known Banneker from his childhood, used to re- 
late, that whilst all the rest of the boys loved play and were 
seeking amusement, Benjamin's only delight was to "dive 
into his books." 

After passing his minority, he continued to reside with his 
mother on the farm purchased by his father Robert Banneker, 
(recorded as Banneky,) of Richard Gist, and occupied it dur- 
ing the remainder of his life. 

Banneker, whilst in the vigor of manhood was an indus- 
trious and thriving farmer ; he kept his grounds in good 
order, had horses, cows, and many hives of bees ; cultivated 
a good garden, and lived comfortably. During the winter 
months, and at other seasons of leisure, his active mind was 
employed in improving the knowledge he had gained at 
school. He thus became acquainted with the most difficult 
portions of arithmetic ; he also read all the books on general 
literature which he could borrow and occasionally diverted 
his mind with an ingenious effort in mechanics. His wooden 
clock, afterwards his only time piece, was his greatest me- 
chanical achievement, and was completed long previous to 
1772 ; for, on the emigration of some families from Pennsyl- 
vania to his neighborhood during that year, it was considered 
from the regularity of its movements, and also from being the 
unassisted production of a black man, one of the curiosities 
of that wild region, until recently a wilderness, where, amid 

1 Jacob Hall was favorably known to many and died in 1S43. He had for 
thirty years, the charge of the Burial Ground of the Friends of Ellicott's Mills. 



6 

the thick forests which shaded the banks of the Patapsco 
River, the howl of the wo]f, and the cry of the panther and of 
the wild cat, nightly disturbed the repose of the settler in his 
cabin on the adjacent hills. The valley where Ellicott & Co. 
built their manufactories for flour in 1773, was, until the 
sound of their axes, and hammers were heard, a favorite 
resort of deer, wild turkeys and other game. A laboring 
man, familiarly known as " Bill Johnson," w T ho, in 1789, 
planted the sycamores, which are still growing near some of 
the old family residences, was fond of speaking of his ex- 
ploits as a hunter, and boasted of the great number of fine 
deer he had seen killed on the site where the Patapsco Mill 
now stands. From a long acquaintance with the haunts of 
deer and other wild beasts, he had, from his youth, been em- 
ployed by his father, and sometimes by amateur sportsmen 
from remote districts, to rouse up the game for their rifles. 

Banneker was often a spectator of the building of the mills, 
and became acquainted with their proprietors. With many 
others who witnessed their operations, he considered their 
project must eventually end in utter discomfiture. Tobacco 
was the principal product of the surrounding country; very 
little wheat was grown, and there were no roads in the vicin- 
ity, for a distance of several miles for the accommodation of 
wagons. 

After the completion of the mills, Banneker took great 
pleasure in watching the operations of the machinery, which 
furnished good examples of mechanical ingenuity and power. 
He continued to make them frequent visits, after their opera- 
tions had ceased to be a novelty, and became known to many 
strangers. A great change had been effected in a few years ; 
the district had become famous for its abundant crops of grain, 
roads had been made, bridges built, and intercourse with dis- 
tant neighborhoods established. The store erected by Ellicott 
& Co., was, after a post office was opened in one of its 
chambers, a place of resort by the planters and other gentry 
of Elkridge, who assembled for the sale of their grain, to pur- 



chase merchandize, to receive their letters and newspapers, 
and discuss the news of the day. 

Here, in conversation with those who valued attainments 
so unusual in a man of color, accompanied, also, by general 
good conduct, Banneker was sometimes induced to overcome 
the modest reserve for which he has always been represented, 
as having been conspicuous, and speak, from the volumes of 
his traditionary lore, of the occupation of Maryland by our 
first colonists, their disappointments and difficulties. Occa- 
sionally, he would be led to mention his own labors in the 
pursuit of knowledge, without the aid of those auxiliaries 
which had since been presented to him. By this time he had 
become very expert in the solution of difficult mathematical 
problems, which were then, more than in this century, the 
amusement of persons of leisure ; and they were frequently 
sent to him from scholars residing in different parts of our 
country who wished to test his capacity. He is reported to 
have been successful in every case, and sometimes, he re- 
turned with his answers, questions of his own composition 
conveyed in rhyme. 

A gentleman who had frequently seen Banneker at Ellicott's 
Mills at this period describes him, as " of black complexion, 
medium stature, of uncommonly soft and gentlemanly man- 
ners and of pleasing colloquial powers." 

When we look back upon the individuals who thus 

cherished his talents, and encouraged all his efforts for ira- 

v .... 

provement, with judicious kindness, we are at a loss to con- 
jecture how it could occur, that no one amongst them became 
the biographer of this sable genius. He appears to have 
been the pioneer in the movement in this part of the world, 
toward the improvement of his race ; at a period of our his- 
tory when the negro occupied almost the lowest possible 
grade in the scale of human beings, Banneker had struck out 
for himself a course, hitherto untravelled by men of his class, 
and had already earned a respectable position amongst men 
of science. But from those who were the witnesses of his 
success, we cannot now ask information concerning him. All 



8 

the men of that generation have, like him of whom we write,, 
long since departed to the land of spirits. 

The late George Ellicott, whose habits of enquiry made him 
familiar with almost every department of English literature 
and science, had a just estimate of the powers of Banneker's 
mind ; he frequently visited him, and wishing to make his 
attainments more generally known, urged him to commence 
the calculation of Almanacs. Some time afterwards, and 
during the spring of 1789, Banneker submitted to this friend, 
his first projection of an eclipse ; it contained a trifling error 
which he frankly pointed out, and received the following 
letter in reply : 

Letter of Benjamin Banneker to George Ellicott. 

" Sir, — -I received your letter at the hand of Bell but found 
nothing strange to me In the Letter Concerning the number 
of Eclipses, tho according to authors the Edge of the pen- 
umber only touches the Suns Limb in that Eclips, that I left 
out of the Number — which happens April 14th day, at 37 
minutes past 7 o'clock in the morning, and is the first we 
shall have ; but since you wrote to me, I drew in the Equa- 
tions of the Node which will cause a small Solar Defet, but 
as I did not intend to publish, I w T as not so very peticular as 
I should have been, but was more intent upon the true method 
of projecting a Solar Eclips — It is an easy matter for us when 
a Diagram is laid down before us, to draw one in resem- 
blance of it, but it is a hard matter for young Tyroes in As- 
tronomy, when only the Elements for the projection is laid 
down before him to draw his Diagram with any degree of 
Certainty. 

" Says the Learned Leadbetter, the projection, I shall 
here describe, is that mentioned by Mr. Flamsted. When the 
sun is in Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio or, Sagitary, the 
Axes of the Globe must lie to the right hand of the Axes of 
the Ecliptic, but when the sun is in Capricorn, Aquarius, 
Pisces, Aries, Taurus, or Gemini, then to the left. 



" Says the wise author Ferguson, when the sun is in Ca- 
percorn, Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Taurus, and Gemeni, the 
Northern half of the Earths Axes lies to the right hand of the 
Axes of the Ecliptic and to the left hand, whilstthe Sun is 
on the other six signs. 

"Now Mr. Ellicott, two such learned gentlemen as the 
above mentioned, one in direct opposition to the other, stag- 
nates young beginners, but I hope the stagnation will not be 
of long duration, for this I observe that Leadbetter counts the 
time on the path of Vertex 1. 2. 3 &c. from the right to the 
left hand or from the consequent to the antecedent, — But 
Ferguson on the path of Vertex counts the time 1. 2. 3 &c. 
from the left to the right hand, according to the order of 
numbers, so that that is regular, shall compensate for irregu- 
larity. Now sir if I can overcome this difficulty I doubt not 
being able to calculate a Common Almanac. — Sir no more 
"But remain your faithful friend, 

"B. Banneker. 1 

" Mr. George Ellicott, Oct. 13th, 1789." 

Banneker who was now fifty-eight years of age had, from 
Jris uncommon circumstances, become quite celebrated, and 
no strangers who visited his neighborhood, were willing to de- 
part without conversing with him, or visiting his cottage. It 
was in this retired abode that the writer's mother, accompanied 
by several of her friends, paid him a visit in 1790. So closely 
was his mind occupied, that they entered his door, which 
stood wide open, without being perceived. Immediately on 
observing them he arose, and received them with great cour- 
tesy. He alluded to his love of astronomy and his deep in- 
terest in mathematical pursuits, and regretted his slow pro- 
gress therein, from the laborious nature of his agricultural 
engagements, which obliged him to spend a great part of his 
time in the fields. Whilst they were conversing his clock 
struck the hour, and at their request he gave an interesting 
account of its construction. With his imperfect tools, and 

1 The orthography of the original is strictly preserved. 



10 

with no other model than a borrowed watch, it had cost him 
long and patient labor to perfect it, to make the variation 
necessary to cause it to strike the hours, and produce a con- 
cert of correct action between the hour, the minute, and the 
second machinery. He confessed that its regularity in pointing 
out the progress of time had amply rewarded all his pains in 
its construction. As his mother had died some years before, 
Banneker was, at this period, the sole occupant of his dwell- 
ing. He regarded her memory with great affection. She 
was a very active woman, of bright mulatto complexion and 
slender person, and had an abundant suit of strait black hair, 
which led persons unacquainted with her origin to suppose 
she was an Indian. Being much attached to her son, she had 
watched over his best interests with prudent care ; a care, 
which we regret to record, became necessary, from one great 
weakness that occasionally appeared in this, in other respects 
fair character. Inebriety was the ruling vice of the day, and 
he had sometimes been the victim of its influence. 

At nearly sixty years of age, men are generally inclined to 
desire a relaxation from the positive necessities of daily labor. 
Banneker was habitually industrious, and deriving his sup- 
port from his farm, was much interested in agriculture ; — but 
he sighed for leisure to perfect his knowledge in studies, to 
which his other engagements made him unequal. He hesi- 
tated a long time ere he decided in favor of a plan, which was 
best adapted to his condition. This determination being 
made, he conveyed his ground to Ellicott & Co., reserving to 
himself a life estate in it, and a payment therefrom of £12 per 
year. With the love of computation, observable in many of 
his transactions, he had estimated this yearly payment, by the 
probable duration of his own life ; and, in conference with 
the assignees, remarked ; — "I believe I shall live fifteen years, 
and consider my land 1 worth .£180 Maryland Currency; by 
receiving £12 a year, for fifteen years I shall in the contem- 
plated time, receive its full value; if on the contrary I die 
before that day, you will be at liberty to take possession." 

1 Being his portion of his father's estate, situated ten miles from Baltimore, 
and one mile from Ellicott's Mills. 



11 

His computation was not correct ; — He lived several years 
beyond the calculated period, and the annuity continued to be 
paid with regularity ; any delicacy which he felt on the sub- 
ject, being softened away by the favorable representations of 
his friends, of the increasing value of the property around him. 

On making this change in his affairs, he deemed an apology 
necessary for its apparent selfishness. He spoke of his desire 
to increase his knowledge on subjects, to which his attention 
had been directed from his youth ; and of his inability from 
personal infirmities to bear much laborious exercise ; his 
land would necessarily be poorly cultivated, and poverty would 
increase upon him — an evil he greatly dreaded. If he had 
attempted to divide his small property by will, in equal be- 
quests amongst his near relatives, the parcels would have 
been too small to be of service to any one of them ; — on the 
contrary, if he gave all to two or three, the legatees would 
become the objects of envy to the discarded. Under the 
pressure of these conflicting views, he felt himself excusable 
for making an appropriation exclusively with a view to his 
own benefit. 

Being now relieved from the constant toils of his former 
life, Banneker wrapped up in his cloak, and lying prostrate on 
the ground, generally passed the night in the contemplation 
of the heavenly bodies. After sun-rise he retired to rest, 
and spent a part of the day in repose ; but he does not appear 
to have required as much sleep as ordinary persons. He still 
cultivated sufficient ground to occupy him with outdoor labor; 
was often seen hoeing in his cornfield, trimming his fruit trees, 
or engaged in watching the flight and habits of his bees ; and 
again, he would be found, seated in his dwelling beside a 
large oval table, covered with books, papers and mathematical 
instruments, occupied with reading or calculation. 

Banneker was but once absent, at any distance, from his 
domicil. An appointment having been made after the adop- 
tion of the Constitution, in 1789, of commissioners, to 
run the lines of the District of Columbia — then called 
the "Federal Territory," they wished to avail themselves 
of his talents, induced him to accompany them in the 



12 

work, and retained him with them until the service was 
completed. Banneker's deportment throughout the whole 
of this engagement, secured their respect, and there is good 
authority for believing, that his endowments led the commis- 
sioners to overlook the color of his skin, to converse with 
him freely, and enjoy the clearness and originality of his re- 
marks on various subjects. It is a fact, that they honored him 
with an invitation to a daily seat at their table ; but this, with 
his usual modesty, he declined. They then ordered a side 
table laid for him, in the same apartment with themselves. On 
his return, he called to give an account of his engagements, at 
the house of one of his friends. He arrived on horseback, 
dressed in his usual costume ;-a full suit of drab cloth, sur- 
mounted by a broad brimmed beaver hat. He seemed to 
have been re-animated by the presence of the eminent men 
with whom he had mingled in the District, and gave a full 
account of their proceedings. With his usual humility, he 
estimated his own services at a low rate, but remarked that 
he had not during his absence from home, tasted wine or 
spirituous liquors, adding "I feared to trust myself even 
with wine, lest it should steal away the little sense I have." 
His moral rectitude and improvement in self-discipline, led 
him to be fearful of himself in this respect ; for, as we have 
previously hinted, he had not always refrained with prudence 
from intoxicating liquors. No one appeared to be more sen- 
sible of their debasing effect, than the subject of our notice ; 
and, as to "know ourselves diseased is half a cure," he 
lamented his weakness, and gradually relieved himself of its 
fetters, not however, until excess had impaired his strength, 
given him the appearance of premature old age, and produced 
the diseases which shortened his days. 

Having surmounted the difficulties alluded to in the letter we 
have presented dated Oct. 13th, 1789, Banneker completed and 
published his first Almanac in 1792. He sent a copy in his 
own hand-writing to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, 
accompanied by a letter in which he feelingly alludes to the de- 
gradation of his own people. The reply of the Secretary was 
well calculated to arouse ennobling feelings in the breast of his 



13 

humble correspondent, for he assures him, " I have taken the 
liberty of sending your Almanac to M. de Condorcet, Secre- 
tary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and member of the 
Philanthropic Society ; because I considered it a document 
to which your whole color had a right for their justification 
against the doubts which have been entertained of them." — 
Jefferson, at the same time, expressed sentiments involving a 
problem, that may well demand the serious consideration of 
the thoughtful legislator, the metaphysician and the philan- 
thropist ; — which still remains to be wrought out, and demon- 
strated by the test of experiment, viz. "Whether there has 
been given to our black brethren," as he says, " talents equal 
to the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a 
want of them, is owing only to the degraded condition of 
their existence, both in Africa and in America?" 

The decision respecting the capacity of the African mind, 
is still left with succeeding generations. — From a future so 
far removed from us, we cannot overhear the verdict. 

Banneker never married, was a great lover of retirement, 
and possessed a remarkably mild and philosophic disposition. • 
His equilibrium was seldom disturbed by the petty jealousies 
and inequalities of temper of the ignorant people, with whom 
his situation obliged him frequently to come in contact. 2 — 

1 Hi9 cotemporaries loved to dwell on his kindness to those, who, were 
in the habit of robbing his orchard. His cherries and pears were of pe- 
culiar excellence, sweet, juicy, and in high favor with the hoys, who, in his 
later years, were quite numerous in his neighborhood. They would call re- 
spectfully at his door, ask and obtain permission to partake of some of the fruit, 
and afterwards retire ; then when the astronomer was shut up in his house, im- 
mersed in calculations, they would return and strip his trees ; thus he was often 
deprived of his fruit, before it reached maturity. For this he has been heard to 
remonstrate with his youthful visitors, and oifer them one-half, if they would 
leave him in quiet possession of the other half, but all without effect. To a 
friend who once visited him in summer, he expressed his regret, that he had no 
fruit to present him, worthy of his acceptance, adding, "I have no influence with 
the rising generation. All my arguments have failed to induce them to set 
bounds to their wants. " 

2 On a leaf of one of Banneker's Almanacs, we find the following in his own 
writing : 

" Evil communications corrupt good manners, I hope to live to hear, that 
good communication corrects ' bad manners. ' " 



14 

His genius, and the nature of his contemplations, rendered 
him in a great measure, superior to such perplexities ; and th^ 
pacific principles which he admired, taught him forbearance, 
and the forgiveness of injuries. Although he made no pro- 
fession of religion, he loved the doctrines and mode of wor- 
ship of the Society of Friends, and was frequently at their 
meetings. We have seen Banneker in Elkridge Meeting 
house, where he always sat on the form nearest the door, his 
head uncovered. His ample forehead, white hair, and rever- 
ent deportment, gave him a very venerable appearance, as he 
leaned on the long staff (which he always carried with him) 
in quiet contemplation. 

The situation of Banneker's dwelling was one which would 
be admired by every lover of nature, and furnished a fine field 
for the observation of Celestial Phenomena. It was about 
half a mile from the Patapsco River, and commanded a pros- 
pect of the near and distant hills upon its banks, which have 
been so justly celebrated for their picturesque beauty. A 
never failing spring issued from beneath a large golden wil- 
low tree, in the midst of his orchard. Of the large number 
of strangers, whom curiosity or feelings of benevolent interest 
led to visit his humble abode, only one author has preserved 
an account of an interview with its remarkable occupant. — 
We cannot resist the inclination to make a short extract from 
the work to which we allude : — 

" We found the venerable star-gazer under a wide spread- 
ing pear tree, laden with delicious fruit ; he came forward to 
meet us, and bade us welcome to his lowly dwelling. It was 
built of logs,one story in height, and was surrounded by an or- 
chard. In one corner of the room, was suspended aclockofhis 
own construction, which was a true herald of departing hours. 

" He took down from a shelf a little book, wherein he re- 
gistered the names of those, by whose visits he felt particu- 
larly honored, and recorded my mother's name upon the list ; 
he then, diffidently, but very respectfully, requested her accep- 
tance of one of his Almanacs in manuscript. "* 

1 " Memoir of Susanna Mason, " by her daughter. 



15 

In the course of a few days, S. Mason sent him a poetical 
letter, which subsequently appeared in the newspapers of the 
day. We will extract from it a sufficient portion, to evince 
her interest in his welfare : — 

"An Address to Benjamin Banneker, an African Astronomer, who 
presented the Author with a Manuscript Almanac, in 1796." 

" 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, 
In swift 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. " 

After continuing for some time in the same strain, the au- 
thoress proceeds to give an admonition to the Astronomer : — 

" Some men whom private walks pursue, 
Whom fame ne'er ushered into view, 
May run their race, and few observe 
To right or left, if they should swerve, 
Their blemishes would not appear, 
Beyond their lives a single year. — 
But thou, a man exalted high, 
Conspicuous in the world's keen eye, 
On record now, thy name's enrolled, 
And future ages will be told, — 
There lived a man named Banneker, 
An African Astronomer ! — 
Thou need'st to have a special care, 
Thy conduct with thy talent square, 
That no contaminating vice, 
Obscure thy lustre in our eyes. " 



16 

* 

In about a year after Banneker had received this communi- 
cation, he sent her the folllowing letter, which is copied ver- 
batim : — 

* « August 26th, 1797. 

" Dear Female Friend : — 

" I have thought of you every 
day since I saw you last, and of my promise in respect of 
composing some verses for your amusement, but I am very 
much indisposed, and have been ever since that time. I have 
a constant pain in my head, a palpitation in my flesh, and 1 
may say I am attended with a complication of disorders, at 
this present writing, so that I cannot with any pleasure or 
delight, gratify your curiosity in that particular, at this pre- 
sent time, yet I say my will is good to oblige you, if I had it 
in my power, because you gave me good advice, and edifying 
language, in that piece of poetry which you was pleased to 
present unto me, and I can but love and thank you for the 
same ; and if ever it should be in my power to be serviceable 
to you, in any measure, your reasonable requests, shall be 
armed with the obedience of, 

Your sincere friend and well-wisher, 

Benjamin Banneker." 
" Mrs. Susanna Mason." 

" N. B. The above is mean writing, done with trembling 
hands. B. B. " 

This letter was directed to the care of " Cassandra Ellicott, " 
afterwards married to Joseph Thornburg, of the house of 
Thornburg, Miller & Webster, of Baltimore. 

The common place book of Banneker, now in our posses- 
sion, gives every assurance, that his love for scientific calcu- 
lations, had not diminished his prudence, in regard to the 
common affairs of life, as a few extracts from its contents will 
show : — 

" Sold on the 2nd of April, 1795, to Buttler, Edwards & 
Kiddy, the right of an Almanac, for the year 1796, for the 
sum of 80 dollars, equal to j£30. 



17 

" On the 30th of April, 1795, lent John Ford five dollars. 
£1 17s. 6d. 

" 12th of December, 1797, bought a pound of candles at 
Is. 8d. 

" Sold to John Collins 2 qts. of dried peaches 6d. 
" 1 qt. mead 4d. 

" On the 26th of March, came Joshua Sanks with 3 or 4 
bushels of turnips to feed the cows. 

" 13th of April, 1803, planted beans and sowed cabbage 
seed." 

These domestic mementos occupy a strange proximity with 
entries of more dignified character. His last recorded astro- 
nomical observations, for the entire month of January, 1804, 
appear on the same page, with an account of money loaned 
to individuals. 

Being without any data for the purpose, we cannot speak 
with certainty of the year when Banneker's death took place, 
but believe it was in 1804. It was during the season of au- 
tumn that, on a very bright day, he had walked out on the 
neighboring hills to enjoy the air. There he met an acquain- 
tance, to whom he complained of feeling unwell. After con- 
versing a short time, they returned together to his cottage, 
where on lying down on his couch, he immediately became 
speechless, and died soon afterwards. 

He had been extremely ill a few years before, and, in an- 
ticipation of his death, had given particular directions to his 
sisters respecting his personal property. He ordered that all 
the articles which had been presented to him on their first 
acquaintance, by George Ellicott, to assist him in his studies, 
comprising books and mathematical instruments, and the 
table on which he made his calculations, were to be returned 
to him, as soon as he should be no more. At the same time, 
he requested his acceptance, as an acknowledgment of a debt 
of gratitude for his long continued kindness, of a volume of 
his manuscripts containing all his Almanacs, his observations 
on various subjects, his letter to Th. Jefferson, and the reply 



18 

of that statesman. All the interesting matter contained 
within its pages was published in 1845, in the memoir of 
Banneker, by J. H. B. Latrobe. 1 

Banneker left to his sisters, Minta Black, and Molly Morten, 
every thing else that he died possessed of. Faithful in the 
fulfilment of his instructions, on the day he died, all the things 
we have enumerated were sent in a cart, attended by one of 
his nephews, to their place of destination, where their arrival 
gave the first intelligence of his death to the inhabitants of 
Ellicott's Mills. To the promptness observed in obeying his 
orders, we are indebted for the preservation of the manu- 
scripts we have spoken of. He was buried two days after- 
wards; and, whilst the last duties were performing at the 
grave, his house took fire, and burnt so rapidly nothing could 
be saved ! His clock, and every other specimen of his inge- 
nuity or scholarship, were consumed in the flames ! 

Several months previous to his death, he had given to one 
of his sisters the feather bed on which he generally slept, 
which, after his death, she carefully preserved as her only 
memorial of him. ■ Some years afterwards she was induced to 
open it, from feeling something hard amongst the feathers, 
and found a purse of money ; a circumstance which would 
perhaps be unworthy of notice, except as a hint respecting 
his pecuniary affairs. In the absence of other evidence, we 
are thus tacitly assured, that his careful manner of living left 
him something to spare, and that the evening of the life of 
the " African Astronomer" was not overshadowed by ex- 
treme poverty. 



Since the preceding sketch was written, we have obtained 
the following communication, from one of the first agriculturists 
in our state. He received a mercantile education at Ellicott's 
Mills, enjoyed many opportunities of seeing Banneker, and 

1 See J. H. B. Latrobe's Memoir of Banneker, published then by the Mary- 
land Historical Society, and in the Maryland Colonization Journal. 



19 

has, therefore been able to furnish information of great value 
to the interest of our narrative. 

"In the year 1800, I commenced my engagements in the 
store of Ellicott's Mills, where my first acquaintance with 
Benjamin Banneker began. He often came to the store to 
purchase articles for his own use ; and, after hearing him con- 
verse, I was always anxious to wait upon him. After making 
his purchases, he usually went to the part of the store where 
George Ellicott was in the habit of sitting, to converse with 
him about the affairs of our Government and other matters. 
He was very precise in conversation and exhibited deep re- 
flection. His deportment whenever I saw him, appeared to 
be perfectly upright and correct, and he seemed to be ac- 
quainted with everything of importance that was passing in 
the country. 

"I recollect to have seen his Almanacs in my father's house, 
and believe they were the only ones used in the neighborhood 
at the time. 1 He was a large man inclined to be fleshy, and 
was far advanced in years, when I first saw him. I remember 
being once at his house, but do not recollect anything about 
the comforts of his establishment, nor of the old clock, about 
which you enquired. He was fond of, and well qualified, to 
work out abstruse questions in arithmetic. I remember, he 
brought to the store, one which he had composed himself, and 
presented to George Ellicott for solution. I had a copy 
which I have since lost ; but the character and deportment of 
the man being so wholly different from anything I had ever 
seen from one of his color, his question made so deep an im- 
pression on my mind I have ever since retained a perfect 
recollection of it, except two lines, which do not alter the 
sense. I remember that George Ellicott, was engaged in 
making out the answer, and cannot now say that he succeeded, 
but have no doubt he did. I have thus, briefly given you my 

1 Several copies of these Almanacs are preserved in the Library of the 
Maryland Historical Society. 



20 

recollections of Benjamin Banneker. I was young when he 
died, and doubtless many incidents respecting him, have, 
from the time which has since elapsed, passed from my re- 
collection : " 

Charles W. Dorsey, of Elkridge. 

The following is the question :— 

A Cooper and Vintner sat down for a talk, 
Both being so groggy, that neither could walk, 
Says Cooper to Vintner, " I'm the first of iny trade, 
There's no kind of vessel, but what I have made, 
And of any shape, Sir, — just what you will, — 
And of any size, Sir, — from a ton to a gill ! " 
" Then," says the Vintner, " you're the man forme, — 
Make me a vessel, if we can agree. 
The top and the bottom diameter define, 
To bear that proportion as fifteen to nine ; 
Thirty-five inches are just what I crave, 
No more and no less, in the depth, will I have ; 
Just thirty-nine gallons this vessel must hold, — 
Then I will reward you with silver or gold, — 
Give me your promise, my honest old friend ? " . 
" I'll make it to-morrow, that you may depend ! " 
So the next day the Cooper his work to discharge, 
Soon made the new vessel, but made it too large; — 
He took out some staves, which made it too small, 
And then cursed the vessel, the Vintner and all. 
He beat on his breast, " By the Powers ! " — he swore, 
He never would work at his trade any more ? 
Now my worthy friend, find out, if you can, 
The vessel's dimensions and comfort the man ! 

Benjamin Banneker. 

We are indebted to Benjamin Hallowell,, of Alexandria, for 
the mode of solving this question, and its answer. The 
greater diameter of Banneker's tub must be : 24.746 inches. 
The less diameter : 14.8476 inches. 



JUM 2 1933