Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

The World’s First Eyewitness?

with 72 comments



I’ve written about the first photograph of a human being, here is another old photograph that has historical significance in an obscure way. The fine gentleman above is Conrad Heyer, this picture was taken circa 1852. He was approximately 103 when photographed, having been born in 1749. He was reportedly the first white child born in Waldoboro, Maine, then a German immigrant community. He served in the Continental Army under George Washington during the Revolutionary War, crossing the Delaware with him and fighting in other major battles. He eventually bought a farm and retired to Waldoboro, where he happily regaled visitors with tales of his Revolutionary War exploits until his dying day.

Conrad’s life sounds sounds like an historical footnote for sure, but this is not a Revolutionary War post, and isn’t what I find of interest in this particular photograph. It’s the venerable Mr Heyer’s age I find of interest, or more accurately, his date of birth. By being born in 1749, he may very well be the earliest born human being ever photographed. There weren’t any pictures taken in 1749, but at least we have a picture of someone who was there. In some small way, this picture is a real connection with that long ago era.

What was the world like during Conrad’s youth? The United States wasn’t even an idea yet, the colonies were just that, colonies. You wanted to get around? Walking, horse, or sailing ship was it. Candles, fireplaces, and chamberpots were about as far as indoor amenities other than furniture went, no running water or bathrooms except for the very rich. Still, the industrial age was fermenting so to speak, primitive steam engines had been in use for decades…for pumping water out of mines. Though this was mostly in England, few if any of them were in America. The 1750s is also the decade when scientific navigation was introduced, so the world was starting to get smaller.

The world population was under eight hundred million in 1749, most of these in Asia and Europe. Only about 16 million people lived in South American, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In the rest of North America, Conrad’s stomping grounds, there were only about 2 million people. The 1750s finally saw the threat of Indian raids diminish in New England, and the American colonies were starting to grow wildly. Still, 2 million people is nothing, I find it hard to imagine how empty North America must have been then. A squirrel could have gone from the east coast to the Mississippi River without touching the ground.

Though safe from Indian attack, the 1750s was not a safe decade in Maine, bordering as it did on a hostile French Canada. From 1754 to 1763 was the French and Indian War, a smaller part of the Seven Years War. This basically pitted France and its allies against Britain and its allies. The Seven Years War has also been called the 2nd World War, it was the second major war to involve fighting on multiple continents. At the time Canada and environs were under French rule. In 1759 was the historic Battle of the Plains of Abraham, where British General Wolfe defeated the French General Montcalm at the gates of Quebec city. Both died in this historic battle, afterwards Canada was under British rule.

In nearby Maine these events would certainly have been news, but one must remember that in this era news took weeks to travel. I suspect this gave people a more contemplative view of the world. Even if world shaking events were reported, one knew they had happened weeks or months before. No need to get excited, though I’m sure some did. And after the war Britain wanted to tax the American colonies to help defray the cost of “defending” them, thus sowing the seeds for the American revolution.

Old Conrad lived through it all. When he was a kid America was just a motley collection of hardscrabble British colonies. By the time he was an old man the United States was 75 years old and a rapidly emerging world power. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and other great events had occurred during his times: The French Revolution, the War of 1812, the Napoleonic wars, the year without a summer. He lived during the invention of the telegraph and the railroad and the steamboat, such things undreamed of in Conrad’s bucolic youth. And he lived to see the beginning of the age of photography.

Conrad Heyer saw the American Revolution and George Washington with his own eyes, captured forever above. Can you see them too?

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law, it is not being used for profit, is central to illustrating the post, and is being used for educational purposes. Thus it was legally copied and used from this site: Vintage Maine Images. Thanks to commenters John, Anders, and Tom for suggesting this post and pointing me at this site and this site. And yes, there is some question about Conrad’s birth date, so his status as oldest eyewitness is debatable.)

Written by unitedcats

January 8, 2008 at 9:53 am

Posted in History

72 Responses

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  1. fantastic! I wanted to find this, but wasn’t sure how to word it for a google search – oldest photo of oldest person…

    great site!


    January 13, 2008 at 8:44 pm

  2. Hi, I don’t think there’s any dispute surrounding Conrads birthdate. As you can see in this post(from the Heyer Family Genealogy Forum):,heyer::heyer::2.html

    Conrad was born 4/10/1749.

    Anyway, thanks for taking the job and put this in perspective for us!

    Oslo, Norway


    May 20, 2008 at 4:07 am

    • The dates and the genealogies indicated are correct but the photo of the old dude is that of Hendrick Van der See ( also known as Willem Sonders Jr) not Conrad. I’m his descendant in direct line so I should know.

      Charles « Chuck » Heyer

      October 24, 2018 at 1:55 pm

  3. I have come accross 2 other extremely old pictures of people born in the 1740’s.
    First that of : Hannah Stilley Gorby (v.1746-1850), which can be found on the web, and a certain “Jersey Centenarian”, daguerreotyped in 1848 with his great-grandson, aged 103. This would indicate a birth date of 1745…I saw this picture in a book and have never seen it since.


    May 27, 2008 at 9:06 am

    • Yes – as it currently stands, I’d have to go with Hannah Stilley Gorby as the current contender for the earliest-born individual of which an extant photograph exits. That certainly should not take anything away from Conrad Heyer, or any other of our Revolutionary War Veterans that were photographed in the 1800’s. Just looking into their eyes transports one to another time….

      Johnny B

      February 14, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    • Es gubt het photo og een sehr oldect mann des wan gebort hindt 1739! Und photograniertut em 1846 stranbackt!! List wart 107 agend uns wars elst des FIRST pictureg am Historien!!

      Klaass Finnonen

      September 15, 2018 at 2:40 pm

      • Let me translate this Finnish post above. It says :
        “ this is the seminal portrait of the late Ezechiel Der Baum who was born in 1739 and expired at the age of 107 in the year 1846”


        September 15, 2018 at 2:50 pm

      • That is not Finnish! I are Finnish myself hence I certain to know that. I can translated it in effect from sudeten tongue into the British one. At least I am fluent so it can was easy for to me!: « please have a look at this photo – it has of the old man that is born to 1739 and they are of photo of 1846 too. It man is of 107 years and the initial one on photo »

        Ferto Hasdentchul

        October 15, 2018 at 7:36 am

  4. I am related to Conrad Heyer. I think I am the 8th or 9th generation! I am reseraching him right now with my grandmother!


    December 7, 2008 at 10:06 am

    • I am a direct descendant of Conrad HEYER and appreciate your narrative on his story. Thank you for your quality research and eloquent presentation.


      March 22, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    • I too am related to Conrad Heyer on my grandfather’s side. Apparently that part of the family hasn’t moved very far. My grandfather moved all the way from Maine to New Hampshire. I just started doing some independent research on my own about the family, and this is one of the first things that popped up. Thank you so much for your work, unitedcats! My fiance, who’s a photographer, was excited to learn about The World’s First Eye Witness.


      August 21, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    • Liar! He had no issue!

      Klaass Finnonen

      September 15, 2018 at 2:42 pm

    • How come you ignore of the right generation toward the old man? You say that 8 or 9 generation to get to him? Why not you know? That not normal

      Ferto Hasdentchul

      October 15, 2018 at 7:39 am

      • Give him a break! What difference does it make whether it’s 8 or 9 generations? And who are you to police this website?

        Charles « Chuck » Heyer

        October 24, 2018 at 2:03 pm

  5. Hi Sacha (are you also related to Sacha Distel?), can you confirm that your great, great, great, great, great grandfather is the person on the picture and his dates? thanks. Sonfjourn


    December 30, 2008 at 7:45 am

  6. Sofnjur, his name is STASHA, not Sacha and therefore he is probably not necessarily related to Sacha Distel, the American actor.


    February 19, 2009 at 6:50 am

    • Is he related to Conrad or Willem Donders the old guy on the pic? If not why discuss Sacha distel on this forum? Sacha distel did not own this picture nor was he Dutch

      Charles « Chuck » Heyer

      October 24, 2018 at 1:59 pm

  7. Snofjounr, I have a photo of an ancestor Keel Van Der See born in 1633! The picture was taken in 1712 and has been authentified as one of the oldest in the world by daguerrotype specialists in Holland.


    February 27, 2009 at 9:10 am

  8. Richard, what you are saying don’t stand in a Court of Law! Photography was invented by a dude caloled Niepsce in 1727 therefore you’re ancestor cannot have been taken in 1712. Its mathematically impossible. Are you darn sure its him? Could it be his son?

    Billy Ray Conway

    March 3, 2009 at 7:18 am

  9. Hi Bill Ray,

    I am the direct descendant of Henrik aka “Keel” Van Der See. He was born in Holland back in 1633 and came to the US as a pilgrim because he was persecuted back at home, probably for being gay or something (not entirely sure if this was the cause?). He was not photographed and what we have left is a drawing.
    Are you related to the canadian singer “Billy Ray” Cyrus?

    Eugene "Chips" Van Der See

    March 4, 2009 at 2:39 am

    • Billy Ray Cyrus is NOT Canadian!! He is from my home state! Kentucky!! USA!!

      Todd Conn

      March 26, 2011 at 7:58 pm

      • I am related to Billy Ray Cyrus – that’s right my mom was born in Cincinnati and grew up in Kentucky, we share a great great grandfather. So that makes me cousins with Hanna Montana


        January 7, 2013 at 12:13 am

    • Conard Heiyer is potential to be the oldest on the photo and f perhaps Henrik van der zee who is well know niknamesake of Popo! But no if it are not! And no forget the old woman photographen Hand Silley it is old woman

      Ferto Hasdentchul

      October 15, 2018 at 9:41 am

  10. Guys,
    I have that picture of Henrik Van Der See! it says behind in Dutch:
    ” Els clar Henrik Van Der See, Sr, ols naci um jahr 1633 um tod if 1728. Est ward um 1712 gefarb.”
    Dont understand old Dutch. Anyone out there able to translate?
    Regarding Henrik Van der See, he was definetely not gay as he was a preacher!

    Sidney "Skip" Chorizo, III

    March 4, 2009 at 9:39 am

    • The Dutch phrase means something like “This is Henrik Van Der See, Sr, who was born around the year 1633 and died in 1728. This was painted around 1712.”

      Po Lu

      February 9, 2013 at 7:07 am

  11. Sidney, (or should I address you as “Chips”),
    I think you are confused as I, and I alone, am in possession of that picture!
    The only thing I can think of is that either this was a fake picture (but why would anyone do that?) or perhaps Henrik took the picture himself?

    Eugene "Chips" Van Der See

    March 6, 2009 at 8:47 am

    • Henrik couldn’t have taken the photo himself. Early glass and tin types required about 30 minutes or more of absolute stillness in order to capture an image, and could not be copied like modern photos. There was no ‘Ye Olde Photo-mat’. multiple copies required multiple sittings and exposures. Second, homosexuality and the clergy is by no means mutually exclusive. Happens all the time and has been happening since the dawn of humanity. A preacher fleeing The Netherlands in the 1600’s could easily be a Calvinist running from the Spanish Inquisitional squads, as at the time, Spain controlled the Netherlands.

      K. Byron Smith

      March 9, 2013 at 2:48 pm

  12. Response to Billy Ray Conway: Sidney Chorizo III(aka Skip) claims he has a picture of Henrik Van der See (aka Keel). You say that you have doubts because he was born too early to be photographed. However, Eugene Van Der See (aka Chips) figures that this may well be because he was homosexual and persecuted therein. Sonfjourn is probably the only one who knows the truth!

    Jo Gaillard

    March 10, 2009 at 2:40 am

  13. Sidney Chorizo III aka “Chips” is damn wrong! So is Eugene Van Der See aka “Chips”! The “Earliest ever picture of a human”, the record of the oldest heneceforth, cannot be Henrik Van der See aka “Keel” (why does everyone have a nickname on this Forum???) for the simple reason that photography was invented in 1827 NOT 1727! Therefore, as Billy Conway aka “Ray” (did I get that right?) pointed out, its darn impossible!

    BTW, my nickname is “Sulu” !!

    Sonfjourn (aka Sulu)

    March 11, 2009 at 2:19 am

  14. Apologies to Siney Chorizo III whom I wrongly referred to as “Chips” mistaking him with Henrik Van der See…I meant “Skip”!!!

    Sonfjourn (aka Sulu)

    March 19, 2009 at 2:55 am

  15. Sofjounr,
    Henrik Van der See’s nickname is NOT “Chips” but “Keel” !
    By the way, I dont recognise your name but I believe there is an oriental character in Star Trek called Mister Sulu. Like Henrik Van der See aka Keel it is possible that both were gay although not necessarily related to one another or to Sacha Distel.

    Eugene "Chips" Van Der See

    March 20, 2009 at 4:06 am

  16. I AM Henrik Van Der See aka “Popo” (and sometimes Patato) and I’m definetely alive!!!! I was not born in the 1600’s but in 1955!!!
    Is it possible that you are confusing me with another Van Der See? For instance I know that there is a picture of one of my ancestors Henrik Van Der See aka “Peel” (with a “P” not a “K”). He was picyured in the 1850’s a centenarian. Could you be looking for this individual? (excuse my English as I am Afrikaner).

    Henrik"Popo" Van Der See

    March 23, 2009 at 2:27 am

  17. Henrik aka “Popo”, you must be confused. Van Der See is very common and in the 1600-1700 nearly all Dutch people (and Afrikaners to that effect) were called Keel , Peel or Jonkers so how can you be sure that its not Chips or Skip? What makes it so rationally improbable should Henrik have been and yet there is doubt! Thus, my impression is that one would certainly NOT!
    Why cant you understand this?
    Sonders “Hank”.

    Sonders "Hank" Van Der See

    March 24, 2009 at 7:55 am

  18. Sonders, you aint learnt english in a civilzed City! Darn! I cant understand nothing you said! Who is Jonkers? What’s he got to do with this Forum about folk on pictures? This is all horsecr*p to me!

    Billy Ray Conway

    March 25, 2009 at 9:05 am

  19. Billy Ray,

    You are NOT the king of this website and therefore I flush you and your sense of humor!
    Vulgar americano!

    Sonders "Hank" Van Der See

    March 26, 2009 at 7:46 am

  20. Get! Sonders! get! You SOB! Dont you never call me a vulgar americano, comprende?! Because I aint open to this bullcr*p! You bad! Dont you cross my path no more cos I aint a patient dude!
    Stupido retardo!

    Billy Ray Conway

    March 31, 2009 at 2:22 am

  21. Sonders aka “Hank” and Billy Ray, STOP you’re bickering and get back to the topic! We are here to discuss Daguerre photography!!!! You morons!

    Els Grans Couillons

    March 31, 2009 at 6:56 am

  22. […] mention them here. The first is the “1 shot 2 kills” post and the other is the “World’s First Eyewitness” post. Join the discussion if you dare. Another reader recently asked if Doug’s […]

  23. I would like to suggest that Els Gran Couillons start by stopping himself! I do not know whether all the akas ie Chips, Keel, Hank, Popo, Sulu, Skip, Peel or Chorizo are right but they have contributed NOTHING to the topic!
    By the way, I am also known as Couilles and sometimes Bite.

    Sonders Verbeck

    April 16, 2009 at 2:32 am

  24. I have a very old picture of Vinnie “u pazzo” Cucurredu who was born in 1889 and emigrated to the States in 1910. I think its possibly one of the oldest italian-american pictures ever. Does anyone know?

    Rick "Fatso" Bestia

    May 15, 2009 at 7:11 am

    • That is a picture of my great grandfather and I doubt it’s the oldest ever of an Italian- American since it dates to 1926…anyway I believe you should return this picture to us and stop saying imbecilities linked to our name

      Jim Cucurredu-Smythe

      October 27, 2018 at 2:19 pm

      • This is a free world… I don’t see why you should attack Rick Bestia just because he’s ignorant?! And why should you get the picture of Vinnie Cucurredu just because he’s one of your ancestors? He’s dead by now and probably wouldn’t recognise you from Adam!

        Stanley Boglioni

        October 27, 2018 at 2:25 pm

  25. There is something crazy about the past, isn’t there? Our world today is so well documented that people living 200 years from now will not look at us with the awe and nostalgia that we do with people who lived centuries prior. It’s an ironic shame in a certain way …..


    December 17, 2009 at 2:17 pm

  26. I just recently started researching my family tree and found that i was related to this man i was amazed at how important a person he was I am proud to be his great granddaughter 7 times removed :)

    Sarah Lane

    April 14, 2010 at 9:14 am

    • What a stupid comment! Who cares if you’re related or not? And there’s nothing to be proud of being related to an ugly old peasant!

      Stanley Boglioni

      October 27, 2018 at 2:27 pm

  27. I’ve been staring at this spectacular picture for a long time. I wonder what it would be like to make a time machine and bring him to a Lady Gaga concert. I wonder if he’d like it or be really put off by it. I’m guessing he would not be amused at all.


    November 1, 2010 at 8:03 pm

  28. […] This post is one of my most popular posts of all time, if you liked it you might also like The World’s First Eyewitness, World’s First Colour Photograph, and The World’s First […]

  29. I always thought Thomas Peters (1745-1857) was the oldest person on a picture?

    Peter van Rooden

    July 20, 2012 at 10:31 am

  30. […] Added by on January 7, 2013.Saved under Hot Pages The World’s First Eyewitness? « Doug’s Darkworld […]

  31. The statement that only 2 million people lived in North America in the 1750s would be extremely funny if it wasn’t so insulting to our intelligence.

    Rome, a single city in the iron age had over 1 million inhabitants. Native Americans greatly exceeded the ridiculous figure of 2 million. Try 50 million for a more accurate figure. Also remember, it was not european’s ancestors who did the killing (how could they, they stayed in Europe) but rather the ancestors of Americans (you know, the colonists).

    Just a friendly heads-up from one of the former colonial powers about how Americans twist their own history.


    January 7, 2013 at 6:31 am

    • Bitter much?

      jan angevine

      January 7, 2013 at 6:41 am

    • 2 million in North America excluding Latin America and the Caribbean might be a bit low, but not by much. Native western hemisphere populations may have exceeded 50 million in 1492, but they crashed by as much as 99% in the century afterwards as European diseases ravaged their populations, and by 1750 native populations were a tiny percentage of their 1492 numbers. I’m not sure where you even got your remark about who did the killing, it doesn’t seem to relate to anything I said. And I’m not American either. —Doug


      January 7, 2013 at 9:39 am

  32. […] Photography interlude: The oldest person ever photographed. […]

  33. what year did he die?

    Larry Sarto

    January 7, 2013 at 3:40 pm

  34. […] Conrad Heyer: The World’s First Eyewitness… […]

  35. […] via Doug’s Darkworld […]

  36. Great post! My Captain John Linton was born in 1750 in Fairfax County, Virginia. I’ve often thought about the many things he witnessed during his lifetime!

  37. Have you considered the possibility, however slim, of someday no longer using run-on sentences throughout your posts?

    bob nelle

    January 10, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    • LOL The rough draft would drive you insane then. I’m pretty happy with the style of writing in this post, and you’re the first with this complaint. I’ll certainly consider writing a post or two with a dramatic change in style, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. This post did make it to the front page of Reddit, I must be doing something right. Thanks for the feedback! —Doug


      January 10, 2013 at 11:00 pm

  38. […] Doug’s Darkworld, via […]

  39. […] This is a photograph of probably of the earliest-born person to be photographed. Conrad Heyer, a Revolutionary War soldier who crossed the Delaware River with George Washington, was born in 1749, meaning that when his picture was taken in 1852, Heyer was 103 years old. Link […]

  40. […] person with the oldest birth date to ever be photographed was a man named Conrad Heyer. He was born in 1749 and served under George […]

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    October 11, 2013 at 11:09 pm

  42. Have you considered the possibility, however slim, of someday no longer using run-on sentences throughout your posts?


    October 17, 2013 at 6:14 pm

  43. According to an 1835 census of Revolutionaries, Hyer or Heyer was 81 that year. This would place his birth date around 1754. In 1849, which is a reasonable date for the daguerreotype, he would have been about 95 — he looks about that age or younger in the image. If, however, the claim that he was born in 1749 is correct, he would have been 100 at the time of the dag. I just don’t think he looks quite that old. And I see no reason to doubt the 1835 census. In 1820 he stated he was 67, which would make his birth date about 1753, in line with the 1840 listing. But in 1855 he claimed he was 106, which would push the date back to 1749. I am inclined to believe the later date.

    Joe Bauman

    March 15, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    • but what about the photo of Hank van Dee see that Jonkers talks about above? Doesn’t this prove that he may actually be older than Heyer?


      August 24, 2017 at 10:30 am

  44. […] 24. Istnieje przynajmniej jedna osoba urodzona w pierwszej połowie XVIII wieku, której zdjęcie zachowało się do dziś. Conrad Heyer urodził się w 1749 roku, a poniższą fotografię wykonano gdy miał 103 lata. Możliwe, że trzy lata przed Heyerem na świat przyszła Hannah Stilley Gorby, jednak jej wiek nie jest do końca potwierdzony. […]

  45. I just discovered that I’m related to Henrik Van Der See. Henrick , nicknamed Hako- not Keel- was born in 1633 and I can confirm there is a photo of him taken in 1710. It was shot in Rotterdam and looks great considering it’s nearly 150 years old!

    Saint John Smythe

    September 4, 2018 at 11:52 am

    • What Saint John Smythe says is ridiculous: how can he say that his ancestor was photographed in 1710 when photography didn’t even exist?! It’s absurd. And where do all these nicknames come from? It’s silly


      September 15, 2018 at 2:34 pm

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