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SW-9 DC Boundary marker, sited by Benjamin Banneker, 1791 [photo by J. Davis]

Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, City Planner, Astronomer

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Some of the founding fathers– Jefferson, Madison, Hamiltonmet at a dinner party on June 20, 1790, to discuss options for the siting of the capital of the new Federal government. On July 16, 1790, the founders formally selected a spot on the Potomac River as the permanent capital (Washington, D.C.), after 10 years of siting the capital in Philadelphia.

In the following year, Washington appointed Pierre L’Enfant to design the capital. While L’Enfant drew plans, Washington asked Major Andrew Ellicott to survey the Federal Territory and lay down boundary markers. Ellicott asked Benjamin Banneker to do the surveying with him. Benjamin Banneker was an African American surveyor, astronomer, and farmer from Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland, and he wrote and published almanacs. His neighbor and friend, Ellicott, was well acquainted with Banneker’s skill as a surveyor and mathematician. Jefferson knew Banneker from their correspondence about Banneker’s work, and he recommended Banneker for the work as well.

Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia: ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them established as the seat of their government, after the year MDCCC. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. [Ellicott is mentioned in the lower right corner; Banneker is not]

In February 1791, Banneker left his home farm near Baltimore, Maryland, and traveled to Virginia to serve as an official assistant surveyor to Ellicott. He was “paid $2 a day for his work—less than Ellicott’s $5 but commensurate with salary for assistant surveyors at that time.” He spent three months at Jones Point in Alexandria, Virginia, where he stared at the stars and made his astronomical observations, which must have been hard work for a man in poor health, staying outdoors at night in the Virginia winter. He used his astronomical notes to begin placing boundary marker stones around the ten-mile square border of the federal city. They placed 40 markers; a few can still be seen around the city’s perimeter. Banneker was one of the original civil servants, and one of the first African American federal civil servants.

SW-9 Boundary Stone, sited by Benjamin Banneker, 1791 [photo by J. Davis]

Pierre L’Enfant, hired to be the city’s designer, created administrative problems in his approach to planning. He tore down the house that was being constructed in the middle of a street he had planned; unfortunately, it was the house of the nephew of one of the three city commissioners. L’Enfant was unable to reconcile his vision with the requirements of the city commissioners and was ultimately removed from his position as city designer, or he quit from frustration; sources vary. After he departed from the project, Ellicott and, it has been theorized, Banneker, worked to reconstruct the rest of the city plans from smaller copies of L’Enfant’s larger city plan. (Reps, 258.)

After completing his surveying work, Banneker returned to his farm and wrote his almanacs, continued his astronomy studies, and lived out his retirement there until his death on October 9, 1806. His home, inventions, and many of his papers burned in a fire on the day of his burial. Despite these losses, we still have evidence of his excellence and professional skill in the streets and the public spaces of the federal city he surveyed and planned.


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Comments (2)

  1. Jennifer,
    Thanks so much for the well desired honor you gave to Benjamin Banneker, in your latest post in the Library of Congress Blog, entitled: Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, City Planner, Astronomer.
    It was thoroughly researched, very well presented, and it gave an enlightened historical review of Benjamin Banneker’s unique contribution as the surveyor establishing the boundaries of the nation’s capital, Washington, DC.

  2. I especially enjoyed the personal photo that was taken by yourself when visiting one of the Boundary Stones, sited by Benjamin Banneker, in 1791, now enclosed with a DC Boundary marker as a National Historic Landmark.

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