Monday, February 27, 2017

Benjamin Banneker's almanac and the Ellicotts

George Ellicott, his brother Elias Ellicott and their cousin Major Andrew Ellicott each helped to get Banneker's first almanac published in 1792. The previous post HERE on the biography of Benjamin Banneker has other details of his life and accomplishments.  George taught interested neighbors astronomy using his celestial globe and telescope, and gave some of his books and tools to his friend Benjamin.  Andrew, a famous surveyor who did at least thirteen years of almanacs, passed on Benjamin's well-written letter, and it is preserved in the Historical Society of Pa.  Elias who had moved to Baltimore was also a Quaker, joined the newly formed Md Abolition Society and wrote numerous letters about the almanac. 

Benjamin Banneker's (1731-1806) isolated life as a tobacco grower - a free African-American who owned his farm - changed when the Ellicott family started building mills and a town along the Patapsco River.  Years earlier he had built a wooden clock based upon a smaller watch and had a mathematical aptitude.

George Ellicott  (1760-1820)
George Ellicott was "one of the finest amateur astronomers of the time, and was fond of imparting instruction to every youthful enquirer after knowledge who came to his house. As early as the year 1782, during the fine clear evenings of autumn, he was in the habit of giving gratuitous lessons on astronomy to any of the inhabitants of the village who wished to hear him. To many of these, his celestial globe was an object of great interest and curiosity. He was perfectly at home on a map of the heavens, as far as the telescopes, and writers of his time had given revelations." [Tyson]

Six years later, in 1788, Banneker must have progressed to the extent that he planned to write the astronomical information for an almanac so Ellicott lent his friend several items including a telescope and books - one he had given his future wife Elizabeth Brooke before their 1790 marriage: James Ferguson's An Easy Introduction to Astronomy. George's daughter Martha Tyson wrote on the title page of the books lent by "George Ellicott to B. Banneker" and other information: Tobia Mayer Tabule Motuum solis et lunae ("Mayer's Tables"); Gibson's A Treatise of Practical Surveying; and  Leadbeater's A Compleat System of Astronomy ("Lunar Tables").  George went away on business and Banneker learned the complicated calculations on his own from the books.

To help with calculating and writing, George also gave a table from his father Andrew Ellicott's  home, and checked some of Banneker's calculations. 

Major Andrew Ellicott  (1754-1820)
Banneker finished a ephemeris to include in a yearly almanac for 1791 and sent it to the three Baltimore publishers, but none agreed to publish it.  John Hayes who published Andrew Ellicott's almanacs since 1787, did agree to send the manuscript to Andrew to verify.  After not hearing back from Hayes, Banneker wrote to the Major who had lived in Ellicott's upper mills, then taught at the Baltimore Academy and had just moved to Philadelphia.  Unfortunately he was away on a surveying job in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania.  When Major Ellicott returned home months later he gave Banneker's letter to James Pemberton who had just replaced Ben Franklin as President of the Philadelphia Abolition Society, and after a series of letters, an almanac was published the next year. 

Elias Ellicott  (1759-1827)
According to his biography by Bedini, after his submissions were rejected, Banneker "turned for assistance once more to his friends at Ellicott's Lower Mills.  Meanwhile, by one of the greatest possible coincidences of time and place, Banneker's almanac would serve a much greater purpose than he could ever have contemplated" by the start of the antislavery societies in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Elias Ellicott, member of the recently formed Philadelphia Abolition Society and the new Baltimore group wrote a series of letters encouraging the publication of Banneker's almanac.

The Life of Benjamin Banneker by Silvio A. Bedini. Baltimore Historical Society, 1999.

A Brief Account of the Settlement of Ellicott's Mills by Martha Ellicott Tyson, 1870.

Image from Library of Congress America's story website credited to "Cover, Benjamin Banneker's Almanac for 1795." Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.

©2017 Patricia Bixler Reber
Forgotten history of Ellicott City & Howard County MD

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