Survey work led Banneker to publish

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Survey work led Banneker to publish

August 15, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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The plat of the Robert and Benjamin Banneky ’s 100 acres, once a part of Stout plantation, purchased in 1737 for "seven thousand pounds of tobacco in hand." The land is on high ground near the Patapsco River in Baltimore County, Maryland. Drawn by J .McGrain, courtesy, Maryland Historical Trust.

Have you noticed that some times the most important turning points in peoples’ lives come from what appear to be "chance" opportunities, rather than carefully planned decisions? In my own case, I was thrown into archaeology due to a move from Los Angeles to Iowa City which disassociated me from my beloved study of ancient civilizations. Looking back as I turn 50 this month, I have a better perspective on this move. It offered me the chance to learn archaeology, which lead ultimately to the great opportunity of discovering Alexandria’s buried heritage. Alexandria has opened doors to knowledge, community service and personal satisfaction for me.

So too did Alexandria open vast opportunities for Benjamin Banneker in 1792. Brought to Alexandria seemingly by chance to conduct the precise boundary survey for the new federal district with Andrew Ellicott, Banneker used his time on Jones Point well. Silvio Bedini in his 1972 biography characterizes Banneker as a "farmer sixty years old, with no education other than what he had painfully gleaned from borrowed books." Ellicott asked Banneker to be his survey assistant when neither his brothers nor cousin, George, were available at short notice. Apparently George suggested Banneker, as a neighbor long known to the Quaker Ellicott family with knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.

Benjamin was born in 1731 in Baltimore County, Maryland. A free African American, he was descended from both English and African immigrants. Both grandparents arrived in Maryland through chance occurrences, not their own design. His grandmother Molly Welsh (or Walsh) was convicted of stealing a pail of milk in Essex County, England, and sent by convict ship about 1683. Although Molly claimed innocence (the cow she had been milking kicked over the pail), she was sold upon arrival to a tobacco planter and worked seven years as an indentured servant. When she became free, Molly received the allotted 50 acres, ox, two hoes, a gun and clothes to start a new life.

Although Molly survived as an independent woman, she purchased two male slaves for more help. Philosophically opposed to slavery, she later freed both men and married the one named Bannaka (changed by popular usage to Banneky) around 1696. The son of an African chieftain,

Banneky kept his African name and religion. The couple had four daughters before Banneky’s death. The oldest daughter Mary has been described with " uncommon intelligence", knowledge of herbs, and a pale copper complexion with long black hair "which never became gray...." In 1730, she married a newly freed slave from Guinea, who had been baptized in the Church of England and received the name Robert. He took the surname Banneky, and moved into Molly’s farm. Benjamin was Mary and Robert’s first child, and became with his father owner of 100 acres when he was seven years old. Thus, the Bannekys assured that Benjamin’s claim to the land could not be questioned. Grandmother Molly taught him to read and write, opening the vistas for his insatiable curiosity.

Although brought to Maryland by unfortunate events, Benjamin Banneker’s ancestors provided for his future through hard work, education and legal diligence. These legacies were stable foundations which permitted him to experiment with his greatest interest--time. They also positioned him near the Ellicotts and a strong Quaker community, which valued freedom and recognized Benjamin’s intellect. So he took the opportunity and accompanied Andrew Ellicott to Jones Point, thereby opening a door to the publication of his almanacs and wider respect.