Before the noise of the recent cicada uprising dies away completely, we should take note of one person who, notable as he was, has been thoroughly ignored by American history.
His name is Benjamin Banneker, and in 1749, he was the first American to note the 17-year cycle of the noisy insect.
Had that been Banneker’s only claim to fame, his absence from the history books might indeed be understandable. But Banneker’s life and work — and his practical contributions to American science and agriculture — easily place him in the top echelons of 18th century American naturalists.
One characteristic of Banneker’s life has assured his obscurity. He was African-American.
He was born a freedman in 1731 in Baltimore County, Maryland. His mother was also a freedman, and his father was a former slave. Much remains unknown about Banneker’s ancestry, his early life, and his work. Consequently, many myths and legends have attached themselves to his biography, and it is sometimes difficult to separate the facts from the fictions about him.
Still, from what we can confidently know, Banneker’s life was a remarkable one. The family-owned a 100-acre farm in rural Baltimore County, and it is unlikely that Banneker had much formal education as he grew up.
Banneker had a curiosity about how things worked, and one of the stories about him is that he carved a wooden clock, modeled on a pocket watch, that would strike on the hour. During his adult life, Banneker was what was then called a “naturalist.” (The word “scientist” had not yet been invented.)
The young Banneker was well-placed to satisfy many of his curiosities. He inherited the farm from his father when he died, and the main crop he raised was apparently tobacco. As a good farmer, Banneker was keenly aware of the natural world on which he depended for his living. He kept journals in which he recorded the appearance of cicadas in 1749, 1766, and 1783, and he predicted another appearance in 1800. His journals also reflect close observation honeybee hives and activities.
His neighbors were members of the Ellicott family. All were Quakers who had a strong belief in racial equality. They were well acquainted with Banneker, and they loaned him many of their scientific books, which he studied intensely. When Andrew Ellicott was asked by then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1791 to survey the land on which the new capital city would be located, Banneker was asked to be part of the survey team because of his extensive knowledge of astronomy, which was a vital part of surveying technology at the time.
Much has been made of Banneker’s being part of that team, but he stayed with team for a relatively short period of time, and it is not clear exactly what role he played.
Banneker’s chief claim to fame are the almanacs that he produced that contain a great deal of his observations of the stars and the tides. The almanacs were published through his Quaker contacts in Philadelphia, and they were widely distributed throughout the mid-Atlantic states. The almanacs were published for six years between 1792 and 1797.
In 1791, just before the first edition of his almanac appeared, Banneker sent a handwritten copy of the almanac to Thomas Jefferson, whose interest in the scientific realm was well-known. The package included a letter to Jefferson urging him to take any opportunity he had to end the slave trade in the United States.
Banneker identified himself as an African-American and urged Jefferson to “eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us.” Jefferson acknowledged the letter and said that he was sending the almanac on to the French Academy of Sciences. He added that ” . . . no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our Black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, and; that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America.”
Banneker printed both his letter and Jefferson’s response in the next edition of his almanac.
Banneker never married, but he continue to live and work on his farm until his death in 1806. On the day of his funeral, an unexplained fire at his house destroyed many of the manuscripts and papers that he had kept throughout his life.
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