The first photograph that includes a person was taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838. It was a Paris street scene that included a man having his shoes shined. The reason he’s visible is because he was stationary for the entire seven minutes the exposure took. The rest of the street appears deserted because the moving traffic was not captured due to the long exposure.
Photographs of people became more common after that but it wasn’t until much later that having a photograph made became something the average citizen could afford. As a result, photographs of ancestors prior to the late 1880s are not common. An exception is participants in the U.S. Civil War. Often soldiers had their pictures taken before going off to war so photos from the 1860s can sometimes be found for ancestors who fought in that conflict.
The oldest original photograph I have of an ancestor is a tintype of my second great grandmother, Ellen Cherry Hammock, at ten years old taken around 1870. She is holding a doll and sitting with her mother Nancy Aiken Cherry, my third great grandmother:
The earliest photograph I’ve found of a relative period is of my fifth great grandfather, William Harrison Weaver. It was taken in North Carolina in 1860 when he was seventy-nine years old. He was a prominent citizen, serving both as a Justice of the Peace and Deputy Clerk of Court, which may explain why there is a portrait of him from such an early date. His home still stands in Alleghany County, North Carolina and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Weaver died in 1876 and is buried in the family cemetery at his home in Alleghaney County.
What’s the earliest photograph of an ancestor you have?