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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Crelie, Joseph 1773 - 1866


Prairie du Chien pioneer and Wisconsin's "oldest man"; Crelie (sometimes found as "Crely") was born in Kaskaskia, Ill., on Sept. 7, 1773, and became one of the early settlers in Prairie du Chien in 1792. He engaged in the fur trade for the next three decades, traveling widely through the region, and defending Prairie du Chien during the War of 1812. He moved to Portage after 1820 and when the U.S. Post Office established its first service in Wisconsin in 1826, he was one of two carriers who transported mail along the Fox-Wisconsin waterway. During the Black Hawk War of 1832 he carried express messages for the American troops and narrowly escaped being killed. After decades spent largely outdoors, Crelie became quite elderly in his appearance and about 1850 began to exaggerate his age. He gained some notoriety as the "oldest man in the world" during the following 16 years, a time when people of remarkable age were exhibited in Barnum's circus and  Green Bay's Eleazar Williams claimed to be heir to the French throne. In 1850 Crelie listed his age in the U.S. census as 110 years, and in in 1860 as 145 years. He was exhibited at Wood's Museum in Chicago in 1864 as an ancient curiosity, when Juliette Kinzie wrote this description of him. Though he capitalized on the celebrity of his supposed long life, family members later claimed that he "doubtless innocently fell into the habit, common enough with old men in his station of life, of claiming an age that he had never reached." Crelie died on Jan. 27, 1866, actually aged 92 years, 4 months, and 20 days. 

View newspaper clippings at Wisconsin Local History and Biography Articles.

[Source: Hansen, James. Unpublished ms. "Ancestry of Joseph Crelie of Prairie du Chien and Portage"; Wis. Historical Collections XII: 400-401]
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