The World’s First Eyewitness?
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.)