Photography didn’t become commonplace until the 1840s, which means there aren’t very many photographs of people born before the 1770s. One of the surviving portraits before that time, however, is of a man from Maine who served in the Revolutionary War and reportedly lived into his 100s. He may be the earliest-born person to have ever been photographed.
Conrad Heyer, born in Waldoboro in 1749, was photographed in 1852 at the whopping age of 103. The image — a daguerreotype, the earliest widely available form of photography — is believed to be the earliest-born American to be photographed alive, though some historians dispute that. It also may be that Heyer was not only the earliest-born American — he may be the earliest born person, period, as other photographs of earlier-born people have yet to be discovered.
Heyer was born to German immigrants, among the 1,500 or so Germans who were recruited by Massachusetts land speculator Samuel Waldo to settle along the Medomak River in the 1740s and 1750s. It’s believed that Heyer was the first German child born in the settlement.
When the American Revolution broke out in 1776, Heyer signed up to fight at the age of 27. He served for more than a year before being discharged in December 1777, and was among those soldiers with Gen. George Washington when he crossed the Delaware River in December 1776, ahead of the pivotal Battle of Trenton.
Heyer returned to Maine in 1778, and spent the rest of his life as a farmer in Waldoboro. According to newspaper accounts of the time, Heyer was a parishioner at the German Lutheran Church for his entire life, singing in the choir until he was at least 101 years old. Heyer is buried at the German Protestant Cemetery behind the building that formerly housed the church, today known as the Old German Meeting House.
It’s likely that the photograph taken of Heyer in 1852 was one of the earliest images ever produced in Maine. Given Heyer’s incredibly advanced age and the fact that he was one of the few Revolutionary War veterans still alive at that time, it’s possible photographers sought him out, rather than the other way around. The original photograph is held by the Maine Historical Society in Portland.
Some historians, however, question whether Heyer was, in fact, the earliest-born person to ever be photographed. There are three other individuals that may have been born earlier than Heyer, that also were photographed in the 1850s. The first, a man named John Adams, claimed to be born in 1745; the second, another Revolutionary War veteran named Baltus Stone, claimed to have been born in 1744, though there are a number of discrepancies in documentation regarding his birth. A third, an enslaved man known only as Caesar, claimed to have been born in 1738. Caesar’s photograph, taken in 1850 or 1851, would make him either 113 or 114 years old at the time.
Regardless of which man holds the distinction of being the earliest-born American — or earliest-born person in the world — to be photographed, Heyer himself is a fascinating Mainer.