Daguerreotype of Conrad Heyer taken in 1852 by an unknown photographer. Maine Historical Society

WALDOBORO – From old history books to internet memes, readers are told Waldoboro native Conrad Heyer, who died in 1856, crossed the Delaware River with Gen. George Washington in 1776, hunkered down with the Continental Army at Valley Forge, served as one of Washington’s personal bodyguards and fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

He is also routinely cited in publications as well-regarded as the Smithsonian Magazine as the earliest-born person anywhere in the world to have had his picture taken.

Sadly, none of it is true.

Even so, Heyer’s story remains a remarkable one.

Because he was so old when he posed for a picture in 1852, Heyer was born before nearly everyone else who’s ever appeared in a photograph. But there are at least a few photographed folks born before him whose pictures survive.

The photograph depicting Heyer is among those in the often-thrilling collection of the Maine Historical Society, which has squirreled away a vast array of riches that showcase the Pine Tree State’s heritage and help explain its past.


In that early daguerreotype of Heyer, a gray-haired old man is facing slightly to his right, with his eyes looking directly at the camera – eyes that saw the siege of Boston and probably witnessed Washington stalking the heights above the British-held town during the first great American triumph of the Revolutionary War.

That black-and-white, mirror-like image captured on a polished, silver-coated sheet of copper 171 years ago by an unknown photographer offers an everlasting tie between the harried world of today and a time before the United States yet existed.

In that picture is a man whose real story can be retrieved only in bits and pieces, some of them long ignored, but when pulled together, the words form their own sort of image, one that adds substance to the shadow dance of light preserved on that aging daguerreotype.

Heyer was, after all, a man, not just a picture. Let’s find out who he was. And who he wasn’t.


Because he was old and interesting, the long-obscure Heyer landed on the pages of many of the nation’s newspapers a couple of different times in 1852.


The Eastern Times in Bath ran a short piece in February 1852 about “an old gentleman named Conrad Heyer, a hero of the American Revolution, who will be 103 years old on the 10th of April next, if he lives until that time.”

“He entered the army at the age of 25 and served for three years. He belonged to Col. Bond’s regiment and was at the taking of Ticonderoga and the surrender of Burgoyne.”

As if in defiance of the article’s comment “if he lives until that time,” Heyer seemed in no hurry to pass on.

A portrait of Gen. Winfield Scott National Park Service

Later that year, the Portland Advertiser reported that Heyer braved a severe snowstorm on Election Day to walk six miles to cast his vote at the Waldoboro polls for presidential hopeful Winfield Scott, a Whig, who lost in a three-way race to Democrat Franklin Pierce.

The paper said Heyer had always considered himself a Whig Party loyalist. The conservative Whigs were the major alternative political party to the Democrats until the rise of the Republican Party in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Also in 1852, residents of Waldoboro sent a petition to officials in Washington, D.C. to ask the federal government to approve the payment of Heyer’s pension — once the elderly veteran died — to his grandson.


The Committee on Pensions, one of the U.S. Senate’s standing panels at the time, recommended the rejection of the Waldoboro petition, according to a brief account in The Union, a District of Columbia newspaper, and U.S. Senate records.

The Senate agreed that the grandson would have to make his way without the federal cash.

Sometime that year, probably spurred by publicity about Heyer in the press, somebody took his photograph, a process that required him to sit still for as long as 10 minutes as light poured onto a coated sheet of copper long enough for his image to appear, in what was one of the earliest forms of photography.


The sharp-eyed, remarkably healthy old man in the picture was once perhaps the first white European born in what would become Waldoboro, a coastal town settled by German immigrants who moved in beginning in the 1740s.

They were farmers who arrived at Broad Bay Plantation, part of the Massachusetts colony, at a time of turmoil, with warfare among the English settlers, natives and French forces still fresh. The area’s future remained uncertain.


The first to arrive quickly learned “their new environment had been falsely represented to them and that they were helpless to cope with the crude realities of this veritable wilderness,” wrote Garrett W. Thompson in a series of stories that began in 1917 in Sprague’s Journal of Maine History.

“They settled on both sides of the Medomak River, but lived in poor circumstances until a larger number joined them. They did not understand the art of fishing and complained much of disappointment in their expectations,” Thompson wrote.

“The country itself was as bleak and desolate as the sea,” Thompson wrote, so “it is small wonder that discontent and disappointment reigned among these colonists.”

It took years for the immigrants to get established with any solidity in their new home.

The German Lutheran Church in Waldoboro as it appeared in a Great Depression photo series for the U.S. government called the Historic American Buildings Survey. Library of Congress

A deeply researched book by Wilford Whitaker titled “Broad Bay Pioneers: 18th century German-speaking settlers of present-day Waldoboro, Maine” delved into many issues from those early days, including when the immigrants arrived.

There may have been a small number of Germans in the earliest years, but Whitaker found there were major shiploads of Germans who came to the new town: in 1742, 1751, 1752 and 1753.


All told, about 1,500 Germans arrived at the invitation of Samuel Waldo – and most of them survived.

One of those immigrants was a man named Martin Heyer, father of Conrad.


When Conrad Heyer died on February 19, 1856, the Bath Tribune gave a brief account of his life, mentioning that he was “the first child, of the white race, born” in Waldoboro. He resided there his entire life, the paper said.

“Though of rather slender form, Mr. Heyer had great physical energies, with much power of enduring labor and fatigue,” the Tribune said. “He was possessed of remarkable health” as well, it said, “having never until this winter been confined a day by sickness.”

Cyrus Eaton’s “Annals of the Town of Warren, in Knox County, Maine: With the Early History of St. George’s, Broad Bay, and the Neighboring Settlements on the Waldo Patent,” published in 1877, noted that Heyer had always been “a hardworking, temperate man” who could still “read fine print without glasses” in his final years though his hearing had grown impaired.


An 1850 drawing of elderly Waldoboro resident Conrad Heyer made by William E. Rivers. Source: “Annals of the Town of Warren, in Knox County, Maine: With the Early History of St. George’s, Broad Bay, and the Neighboring Settlements on the Waldo Patent”

Eaton said Heyer was born at what was then called Schenk’s Point, but later came to be known as Hollis’s Point.

He also said that Heyer’s father died before his son’s birth, a situation that Eaton said caused many people to believe that because he “never saw his father” he had a special gift of “healing sore eyes and other ills by a look or touch.”

Heyer was sought after, said Eaton, for his supposed skills. He cited Heyer’s success in curing the daughter of a rich Bostonian as an example, but he did not say what was wrong with her. Heyer turned down a reward for his efforts “for fear of annulling the cure.”

The Bath newspaper said Heyer was until the end of his days “a respected and constant member of the German Lutheran Church” erected in Waldoboro in 1772.

The American Bibliopolist said Heyer spent more than 80 years in the church choir and “would sing the highest notes with scarcely any of the tremulousness of age.”

The Rev. Henry Pohlman, who gave a speech in 1869 to the Historical Society of the Lutheran Church, recalled hearing from Waldoboro residents that Heyer always “occupied a conspicuous seat in the singing gallery.”


The Tribune said Heyer, a farmer, had voted in every presidential election.

“For the last 10 years, he attracted much attention,” the paper added, with many strangers visiting him who “always found him a source of much interest not only as a relic of the past, but for the exactness of his memory, and the very clear accounts he loved to give of early occurrences within his own observation,” the paper said.

“His maxim of prudence and of propriety, deduced from his long observation of men, had weight with his neighbors,” the Tribune stated.

“As he lived with mental powers so wonderfully preserved, so he continued to hold the respect of his acquaintances, and the memory of his virtues and his wisdom will, for a long time, exert useful influences in the circle where he was so well known.”


Every contemporaneous account cited Heyer’s age at death as a given: “106 years, 10 months, 9 days,” as a tombstone erected by Waldoboro residents in 1856 put it.


The day of his birth was clear: April 10, 1749. That, too, is listed on the marker at the German Lutheran Church that sustained Heyer’s faith.

Everyone at the time also asserted, and carved in his memorial stone, that Heyer “was the first child born of European parents in Waldoboro.”

As it turns out, however, neither Heyer’s birthday nor the claim that he was the first white baby in Waldoboro hold up to scrutiny.

A postcard from about 1915 depicting the Old German Lutheran Church in Waldoboro where Conrad Heyer sang in the choir for more than 80 years. Private collection

For Heyer to have been born in 1749, his parents would have had to be on a ship to America in 1748 since vessels didn’t come during the long, harsh winter months. But there is no record of any ship arriving in 1748.

There is, though, a passenger list for a ship named the St. Andrew that includes among those on board “John Martin Heyer & Family.” It left Germany in June 1752 and arrived in Boston on September 19 with about 260 people on board.

Half of them proceeded on to Broad Bay, the future Waldoboro, according to research done by Gary Horlacher for the Old Broad Bay Bund and Blatt, a newsletter focused on the German colonizers.


Conrad Heyer was born the following April 10, Horlacher said, well after a number of other German families in the area had contributed babies to the growing colony.

Horlacher delved into the issue further and found that in a Revolutionary War pension application in 1820, Heyer reported his age as 67, which is what he would have been with a 1753 birthday. An 1840 census cited Heyer’s age as 88, which would have required his birth in 1752

The reality is that Heyer wasn’t 106 at his death. He was instead a spry 102.


There wasn’t any reason for Heyer or anyone else to fake his birthdate. It was almost certainly due to a mistaken assumption that his parents arrived in 1748 rather than 1752, something that could easily have cropped up if someone misread an old document. It’s not as if a birth certificate existed in those days.

But the date became significant years later when researchers poring over photographs from the early days of picture-taking decided that it was significant which of those old faces looking out from the page had been born first.


For many years, researchers accepted that Heyer had been around before anyone else captured by the earliest photographers. He’s still often cited as No. 1 on the list.

But he shouldn’t be.

A 1749 birthdate, which the researchers accepted for Heyer rather than his actual one in 1753, made a serious difference in the lineup.

The reality is that there are at least a handful of no-question-about-it folks who were photographed and who were born before Heyer, including the man usually placed at the top of the list today: John Adams, a shoemaker in Pennsylvania who was born about 1745 in Worcester, Massachusetts.


In a feel-good Christmas story in a 1925 issue of the Lewiston Evening Journal, an unidentified writer told the accepted story of Heyer’s life during the Revolutionary War.


The piece said Heyer “enlisted in Washington’s army and history records that he fought nobly and well.”

“He was one of the great general’s body guard and was in the same boat with him when he crossed the Delaware,” a key moment in the Continental Army’s surprise attack on Hessian mercenaries in nearby Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas night in 1776, the story said.

Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1851 painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Earlier in 1925, the Portland Press Herald carried a story about Heyer that said he enlisted when the Revolution broke out in 1775 and joined Washington’s army outside Boston.

“He served long and faithfully,” the story said, and helped build the fortifications at Ticonderoga in New York before crossing the Delaware with Washington.

Half-a-century later, in 1975, Ruth Richardson wrote in the Journal that Heyer was with Washington constantly and “can be seen today in that famous painting ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware.’”

To be fair to Richardson, she got her “facts” from an uncle who lived in Waldoboro.


The Bangor Daily News in 1910 said Heyer served in Washington’s army for four years.

Its unidentified writer said he heard from one of Heyer’s daughters that Heyer was not only at Ticonderoga and a bodyguard for Washington when he crossed the Delaware, but had also fought at the battles of Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey.

That same year, the Pennsylvania German said Heyer also spent the winter of 1778 with Washington at Valley Forge.

One 1877 account said Heyer “was in the army at Cambridge when the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought” and stuck with Washington as a member of “the advance guard” through many battles.

Still others placed Heyer among the winners at the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, one of the war’s turning points, when British Gen. John Burgoyne surrendered to the ragtag Americans, a victory that helped convince France to throw its weight behind the revolutionaries.

All in all, the accounts portray Heyer as a veteran of three or four years in the army, often at Washington’s side and involved in many of the long-remembered, much-honored moments in a cause that generations of Heyer’s countrymen considered glorious.


Even his tombstone in Waldoboro repeats the claim that he served three years in the Revolutionary army.

The real story isn’t quite the same.

A historian named Don Hagist who got curious about Heyer unearthed a key document, which he wrote about in a 2016 piece for the Journal of the American Revolution.

In 1819, Heyer went to a justice of the peace and told about his war record in a sworn affidavit prepared to establish his right to a military pension.

In that deposition, which Heyer signed with an X, he declared that “about the middle of December 1775, I enlisted to serve as a private in the army of the American Revolutionary War” against “the common enemy for the term of one year.”

Heyer said he served a year, beginning in Col. William Bond’s 25th Regiment, which records show was camped for the winter of 1775-76 at Prospect Hill in Massachusetts.


Gen. George Washington is shown in a 19th century rendering watching the British evacuation of Boston in March 1775 after a nearly a year-long siege by American troops. New York Public Library

He said he stayed with the regiment until his honorable discharge that he said he received in December 1777 from an officer on the “North River at Fish Kilns,” probably the present-day Fishkill, New York.

Hagist examined supporting documents from other soldiers in the unit and found several who served alongside him. They each said they completed their service in December 1776, which is almost certainly when Heyer returned to Maine as well.

During their time together, the regiment marched to New York City in April 1776, then was sent north to join a planned foray into Canada. But smallpox struck down many of the men so the regiment stayed put along the Hudson River.

It moved to Morristown, New Jersey, in November of 1776 and then disbanded completely in December, its troops having completed their year-long service.

There is virtually no chance, Hagist said, that Heyer could have gotten from Fishkill to Washington’s army in Pennsylvania to cross the Delaware on Christmas Day even if the Mainer had reenlisted.

How the claims arose that he fought at Bunker Hill, Trenton, Princeton, Saratoga and more are impossible to say.


But Heyer’s memories of the war grew rather more detailed and extravagant between 1819 and 1855.

Hagist found that less than a year before Heyer’s death he swore out another pension claim that specifically cited a discharge in December 1778 following a three-year stint in the service of his country and “was at one time one of Genl Washington’s body guard.”

It sounds suspiciously like an old man’s exaggerations, perhaps done knowingly or perhaps a sign that his mind wasn’t quite as sharp as contemporaries thought.

Maybe in that famous picture of Heyer, we should see him as he was rather than the hero many cast him as over the years.

It’s enough to say that Heyer lived an honorable life, serving his church, his country and his family through some of the hardest and most vibrant times that New England has ever experienced.

According to research, that marker erected over his grave got most everything in its short inscription wrong.

But its final words still resonate: “This monument is served by the citizens of Waldoboro to perpetuate the name of an honest and worthy man.”

The interior of the old German Lutheran Church in Waldoboro was captured in a postcard about 1910. It includes a picture of Conrad Heyer on the wall next to the pulpit. Private collection

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