Ellicotts, Banneker found common ground in science

Friends: The founders of Ellicott City demonstrated their tolerance by helping black scientist Benjamin Banneker and befriending Native Americans.

150 Years of Howard History

January 02, 2001|By Melissa Arnold | Melissa Arnold,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Tolerance has been a theme in Howard County's history. According to Alison Ellicott Mylander's book "The Ellicotts: Striving for a Holy Community," the Ellicott family, founder of Ellicott's Mills, exemplified the virtue more than 200 years ago.

The Ellicott brothers, Joseph, Andrew and John - who purchased land for a mill east of the Patapsco River in 1771 - were Quakers.

Benjamin Banneker, known as the nation's first black man of science, became a friend of the founders of Ellicott City at a time when such friendships were rare. Banneker and his parents farmed near Ellicott's Mills, off what is now Oella Avenue, between Westchester Avenue and Old Frederick Road.

"Nothing provided Benjamin with new horizons like the arrival of the Ellicotts and their activities not far from his place," local historian Joetta Cramm wrote in "Howard County: A Pictorial History." With texts and instruments borrowed from George Ellicott, Andrew's son, Banneker taught himself to make calculations for his mathematical projects.

Mylander writes that George "first lent Banneker astronomy books and an astronomy table to teach him astronomy and, later, would check the computations in Banneker's almanacs before they were printed." Banneker's almanacs are housed at the Library of Congress, the Maryland History Society and the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

George's daughter Martha Ellicott Tyson described her father as "one of the best mathematicians and finest amateur astronomers of the time," in her book "Settlement of Ellicott's Mills."

With the publication of his almanac for the years 1792 to 1797, Banneker's genius gained him national attention.

In "Historic Ellicott City, A Walking Tour," Cramm says Banneker's trip in 1791 with Maj. Andrew Ellicott, Joseph's eldest son and a well-known surveyor, was "to the swamps of the Potomac to lay out the boundaries of the new federal city, Washington, D.C."

The Ellicotts also befriended Native Americans. Mylander, a descendant of the Ellicotts, says family writings include a description by 12-year-old Martha of several Indian chiefs and their wives who stayed in her parents' house during Christmas week 1807.

The Ellicotts donated part of the land for the Patapsco Female Institute, an early school in Maryland offering women an academic education outside the home.

To provide grain for their new flour mill, the Ellicott brothers worked to persuade local farmers to grow wheat instead of tobacco. Tobacco had exhausted the soil, and the Ellicotts promoted the use of plaster of Paris - which they might have ground at the mill - as a fertilizer to restore the soil so that grain, not tobacco, could be planted.

After the Revolutionary War, the Ellicotts' flour was shipped from the mill through the port of Baltimore.

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