Banneker solves his puzzle

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Banneker solves his puzzle

September 26, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

GAZ9636 image
Encased today in the seawall near the Jones Point lighthouse, the first District of Columbia boundary marker was erected April 15, 1791 to designate the southern point of the 10 mile square. Courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology.

Did you solve the Benjamin Banneker mathematical puzzle from last week? Story problems like this drove me to tears as a child, so I can’t imagine that I will ever spend time inventing them for pleasure as Banneker did. As a farmer, he thought in agricultural terms and this puzzle relates to buying 100 cattle for a total price of 100 pounds. He provided a price for each: a bullock-5 pounds; a cow-20 shillings; a sheep-1 shilling. [Note: if anyone knows why a sheep is considered a type of cattle, please let me know.] The self-taught scholar provided the solution for this problem, unlike many others in his journal, which is transcribed in Silvio Bedini’s biography, The Life of Benjamin Banneker. 

Answer: 19 bullocks at 5 pounds 95 pounds
  1 cow at 20 shillings 1
  80 sheep at 1 shilling 4
    100 proof

Although we do not have the solutions to all Banneker’s puzzles, his dreams and poems fill the pages of his journal. Also left to posterity are his words in a letter to Thomas Jefferson regarding slavery. How did an African American farmer come to correspond with the Secretary of State, future President of the United States and slave owner? While they may not have met, Jefferson was involved (or at least aware) of Andrew Ellicott’s plan to hire Banneker for the District of Columbia survey team due to his high degree of self-taught knowledge in math and astronomy.

Apparently, Banneker worked on the astronomical calculations for his first almanac at Jones Point in the Spring of 1791. He and the Ellicotts then circulated the manuscript to seek positive reviews and the best publisher. Bendini relates that Banneker found through this process that it was the "subject of his race that generated the greatest response." On August 19, 1791, he wrote to Jefferson and sent a copy of his manuscript, cautioning that the material should not be shared with others until after publication.

Banneker wrote: "Sir I freely and Chearfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race, and, in that colour which is natural to them of the deepest dye* (*My Father was brought here a Slave from Africa.); and it is under a Sense of the most profound gratitude to the Supreme Ruler of the universe, that I now confess to you, that I am not under that State of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren are doomed...." Although Banneker stated that "it was not originally my design," he recalled Jefferson’s own words "that all men are created equal" and recommended "to you, all others, to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices" which detained "by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression."

Jefferson replied quickly that he considered the almanac "a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them" and was sending it to the Secretary of the Academy of Sciences in Paris. It is fascinating to note that Banneker’s calculations made at Jones Point led not only to the establishment of the new nation’s capital dedicated to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for all men, but also to the almanac which was used by many to justify the inclusion of Africans into this principle.