Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac of Strange Dreams

The work of mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker represents the fascinating relationship between science and religion

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Benjamin Banneker cartoon by Charles Alston U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / public domain

Almanacs were the eighteenth century’s internet. The regularly printed miscellanies offered entertainment, inspiration, practical information, and a direct line (or at least as direct as one could get at the time) to the wider world. Almanacs were among the colonies’ earliest printed matter. Relatively cheap and easy to acquire, they were found in homes more often than the Bible.

Yet to draw a distinction between the two—almanacs and Bibles— is not entirely accurate. After all, the two genres of literature informed each other. Just as the Bible is full of weights and measures along with sacred history, an almanac might include snippets of scripture alongside descriptions of the phases of the moon. Almanacs regularly offered weather forecasts, tide tables, and charts illustrating lunar and solar eclipses, all sharing pages with poems and proverbs that shaped the common culture of the day. They were a mirror of the varied interests of Americans as they left their colonial identities behind and struggled to determine what it might mean to be a new nation.

One of the most intriguing almanac creators in the early United States was the Black farmer, mathematician, and inventor Benjamin Banneker. Born in 1731 in Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland, he became—through an inquiring mind and self-taught efforts—one of the first African Americans to gain distinction in science. His interest in religion overlapped with his scientific accomplishments, and together they profoundly affected the perception of African Americans, both enslaved and free.

Discovery and Revelation: Religion, Science, and Making Sense of Things

An illustrated history of how scientific study and religious thought have influenced each other throughout the history of the United States.

A well-known figure in his day, Banneker frequently corresponded with the leaders of the new nation, to whom he strove to demonstrate the error of their ideas about racial limitations. Banneker believed that his almanacs, which precisely predicted eclipses and planetary alignments, could debunk the widespread racist notion that persons of African descent were intellectually inferior. His most notable exchange was with Thomas Jefferson, whose claims about Black inferiority Banneker publicly challenged.

On August 17, 1791, Banneker wrote to Jefferson, who was then secretary of state, disputing his assertion that “the blacks . . . are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body of mind.” In his letter, Banneker appealed to Jefferson to share his faith “that one universal Father hath given Being to us all, and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also without partiality, afforded us all the Same faculties, and that however variable we may be in Society or religion, however diversified in Situation or colour, we are all of the same family, and Stand in the Same relation to him.” To bolster his argument he also included the words of Phillis Wheatley, the famed enslaved poet of New England, along with abolitionist voices further making the case for equality.

Banneker also enclosed a handwritten manuscript of his forthcoming 1792 almanac. “Having long had unbounded desires to become acquainted with the Secrets of nature,” Banneker wrote, “I have had to gratify my curiosity herein thro my own assiduous application to Astronomical Study, in which I need not to recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages which I have had to encounter.”

Jefferson replied almost immediately with praise for Banneker’s almanac, calling it “a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. . . . 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 and America.”

Banneker’s Almanack and Ephemeris for the Year of Our Lord, 1793 Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Banneker later published his letter, along with Jefferson’s response, in the 1793 edition of his almanac. Banneker was the first Black man to directly and publicly challenge Jefferson’s prejudiced assumptions, and the exchange was circulated widely by abolitionists in the United States and Great Britain.

The cover of Banneker’s 1795 Almanac opening this chapter features a woodcut portrait depicting the author dressed in the simple Quaker garb for which he was known. Though often associated with the group known as the Religious Society of Friends, his religious interests were in fact far more eclectic, as can be seen in his astronomical journal— which, as something of a personal almanac, blended his many interests on nearly every page. A single day’s entries might include projections for eclipses, a list of church feast days, and a vivid account of his dreams.

In recent years it has been these dreams that have most excited new interest in Banneker as a figure in whom the complicated interplay of science and religion in early American can be seen. Some of his dreams focused on a mysterious shape known as Quincunx, which is at once an ancient Roman unit of measure, an astrological term referring to the precise position of the planets, and a symbol used in Senegalese Islam. While the journal never mentions its author having any known Muslims in his lineage, scholars at the Maryland Historical Society have hypothesized that such references may reflect knowledge passed down through the generations, perhaps beginning with Banneker’s West African grandfather. Other dreams, meanwhile, seem to draw upon the rich spiritual and folkloric traditions of enslaved communities:

December 13, 1797

I Dreamed I saw some thing passing by my door to and fro, and when I attempted to go to the door, it would vanish. . . . At length I let in the infernal Spirit. . . . I know not what became of him but he was an ill formed being—Some part of him in Shape of a man, but hairy as a beast . . . but while I held him in the fire he said something respecting he was able to stand it, but I forget his words.

April 24, 1802

I dreamed I had a fawn or young deer; whose hair was white and like unto lamb’s wool, and all parts about it beautiful to behold. Then I said to myself I will set this little captive at liberty, but I will first clip the tips of his ear that I may know him if I should see him again. Then taking a pair of shears and cutting off the tip of one ear, and he cried. . . . I did not attempt to cut the other but was very sorry for that I had done . . . and he ran a considerable distance then he stopped and he looked back at me . . . and he came and met me and I took a lock of wool from my garment and wiped the blood of [the] wound which I had made on him (which sorely affected me) I took him in my arms and brought him home and hold him on my knees.

“What are these dreams exactly?” the Maryland Historical Society has asked. “Are they riddles? Allegorical? Or can they be characterized as curiosities and nothing more?” While their meaning remains elusive, Banneker’s practice of recording his strange and intriguing dreams alongside his detailed astronomical observations is suggestive of the ways in which spiritual notions and scientific ideas have long shared space in the American psyche.

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Excerpt from Discovery and Revelation © 2022 by Smithsonian Institution