Benjamin Banneker Stories

March 7, 1791

In February 1791 United States president George Washington commissioned surveyor Andrew Ellicott and French engineer Pierre L'Enfant to help plan the construction of the nation's capital on an area of land 10 square miles in Virginia and Maryland.

The first thing that Washington wanted L'Enfant to do, according to a letter that Jefferson sent to him on March 7, 1791, was to make "drawings of the particular grounds most likely to be approved for the site of the Federal town and buildings". Ellicott, who was to perform the surveys of the area, invited Benjamin Banneker to be one of his assistants.

* THAT IS- there were no drawings as of March 1791.

April 1791

From "Through a Fiery Trial" by Bob Arenbeck, page 39:

Banneker, then 60 years old, did not do much of the field work, but helped with astronomical calculations and left the job some time in late April 1791.

* Banneker, 60 years old in 1791, left in April 1791.


After his retirement from farming at the age of 59, Banneker began to study astronomy, becoming a man of science and mathematics through unassisted experimentation and close observation of natural phenomena. He became interested in astronomy through a local surveyor named George Ellicott, who loaned him astronomy books. When Ellicott invited Benjamin Banneker to be his assistant, Banneker employed his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics to help plan the city of Washington, D.C.

* At 59 Banneker begins to prepare for when he is 60 so he can help plan Washington DC. Note Ellicott's name was Andrew not George.

A dispute between some Americans and Frenchmen on the project led L'Enfant to abandon it and take the drafted plans with him. Over the course of two days, Banneker reproduced the intricate plans from memory, preventing a major delay. For this reason, some historians refer to Banneker as "the man who saved Washington, D.C."

* I'm not sure what this Americans and French is about, but L'Enfant did not leave before Banneker did in April of 91. If you will read Arnebeck's book you will see that one could not even speak of major delays in April 91 after 7 weeks. The target date was 1800.

August 19, 1791

On August 19, 1791, Banneker sent a copy of his first almanac to Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State under President George Washington, in an effort to dispute Jefferson's belief that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites and in order to protest slavery in the United States. Jefferson congratulated Banneker on his publication and expressed his wish for more proof "that nature has given to our [black] brethren talents equal to that of other colors of men." Furthermore, Jefferson forwarded a copy of Banneker's almanac to the Academy of Sciences in Paris, France, one of the leading scientific societies in the world during the 18th century.

* Note that the so called dotted-line map that L'Enfant drew was mailed to Washington along with a letter on August 19, 1791. Ie, he was still on the job in August 1791, after Banneker has left.

From: The African American Almanac

"In two days [Banneker reproduced] a complete layout of the streets, parks and major buildings," according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Web site that highlights an inventor each week. "Thus Washington, D.C., itself can be considered a monument to the genius of this great man."


While Benjamin Banneker helped Ellicott survey the district line in 1791, the story about Banneker recalling L'Enfant's plan from memory, so that the plan could be engraved after L'Enfant quit, is not true. Andrew Ellicott's letter to the commissioners showing that it was his brother Benjamin Ellicott, not Benjamin Banneker, who helped him prepare a map of the city for engravers after L'Enfant refused his use of the original plan.

* Meaning it was Benjamin Ellicott and not Banneker who helped prepare that map. A different Benjamin.