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The Earliest-Born American to Be Photographed Is Also a Veteran

In 1852, at age 103, Revolutionary War veteran Conrad Heyer sat down to have his picture taken. 

conrad heyer
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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Conrad Heyer is known today as the earliest-born American to be photographed. He was also a Revolutionary War veteran—and, so the legend goes, even crossed the Delaware River with George Washington. Without question, the man lived an extraordinary life, witnessing first hand the birth of the United States. Yet conflicting historical data suggests not every detail of the legend checks out.

Heyer was born an American in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (now the State of Maine) around 1749. He sat for the above photo in 1852, at age 103. In that time, he saw the young republic finish off the British during the American Revolution and fight them, again, to a draw in the War of 1812. He saw President Jefferson purchase Louisiana and watched President Polk and the U.S. Army defeat Santa Anna in the Mexican-American War of 1847.

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Heyer passed in 1856. In his 107 years of life, he saw 15 Presidents of the United States, 31 colonies and territories become U.S. states, and barely missed the start of the Civil War.

Although the above portrait is not the earliest photograph of an American, Heyer is widely considered to be the earliest-born American photographed—though to be fair, other claims have been made to the title.   

In the retelling of Conrad Heyer's Revolutionary War tale, however, people have been adding one detail for decades that just might not be true: that Conrad Heyer crossed the Delaware with General Washington in 1776.

Washington's daring plan to attack Hessian mercenaries in Trenton on Christmas, 1776, was audacious and dangerous. Any troop who fell into the icy river would likely die—and two of the three flat boats set to make the crossing didn't even make it. Somehow, Heyer was counted among those in Washington's boat, according to the Maine Historical Society.

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The Journal of the American Revolution did some digging into Heyer's story. They went back to the sworn testimony Heyer gave years after the Revolution when applying for a veteran's pension.

In 1818, Congress allotted funds to give pensions to veterans of the Continental Army who were struggling financially. Applicants had to prove their service either by enlistment documents or sworn testimony of those with whom they served. Don N. Hagist went back to the National Archives for the Journal of the American Revolution and found Heyer's original sworn testimony, along with the support of his officers.

Heyer did serve in the Continental Army, but his testimony states he served for a year, starting in the middle of December, 1775. Yet the document also states that he was discharged in December 1777, making his length of service two years instead of one. If true, Heyer could have conceivably fought at the Battle of Trenton. Yet the records of Heyer's unit, the 25th Continental Regiment, indicate that the unit served in Canada and was disbanded in New Jersey in 1776.

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It looks like the year 1777 was a mistake made by the person who wrote Heyer's pension deposition, as mentions of Heyer and his unit disappear into history a year earlier.

If he was discharged in Fishkill, New York, as records show, then there is little chance he could have been at the Delaware River crossing in time to join Washington by Christmas, even if he did re-enlist.

conrad heyer
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  • Washington crossing the Delaware

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But by the time he died, his obituary claimed he'd served three years in the Revolution. Heyer, in reaffirming his pension claim in 1855, swore that he served those three years, was present to see General John Burgoyne surrender to Horatio Gates, and was later part of Washington's "bodyguard."

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This is where Heyer could be correct—there is no complete list of members of General Washington's guard corps. The guard was hand-picked from members of Washington's field army.

But never once did Heyer ever swear that he was with Washington at the Delaware Crossing.

See Conrad Heyer's pension statements at the Journal of the American Revolution.