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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Wisconsin's Oldest Resident?

This was long thought to have been Wisconsin pioneer Joseph Crelie, who was exhibited to spectators in 1864 as being 139 years old.

His Frontier Adventures.

Crelie came to Wisconsin in 1792, as one of the early settlers in Prairie du Chien. He worked as a voyageur in the fur trade for two decades, doing the heavy lifting on canoe trips throughout the wilderness of Wisconsin and Minnesota. During the War of 1812 he helped defend Prairie du Chien against a British invasion, and after 1820 moved to Portage where his daughter married Pierre Paquette.

When the U.S. began postal service in Wisconsin in 1826, Crelie carried the mail between Galena and Green Bay. During the Black Hawk War of 1832 he narrowly missed assassination while running express messages between American camps. He was present at Portage in 1836, when his famous son-in-law Paquette was murdered.

Famous for His Longevity

After nearly half a century of working outdoors, Crelie began to look pretty wrinkled and ancient, as this portrait reveals, and starting about 1850 he began to exaggerate his age. In the census of that year he claimed to be 110.

Most of his contemporaries had moved away or died off by then, and there were no records in Wisconsin to contradict his claims. At a meeting of the Wisconsin Pioneer Association in Madison in 1857, he said he was 117 and granted this interview to a reporter from the Argus & Democrat.

Time accelerated dramatically for old Crelie after that. "As the years went on," his grandson recalled, "having no fixed knowledge of his age, 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." Or perhaps he deliberately exaggerated his age to earn some notoriety.

A Professional Relic

Having been 110 years old in 1850 and 117 in 1857, he was miraculously 145 in the 1860 census. Soon after that he was hired to be a live exhibit at Wood's Museum in Chicago, which claimed he had been born at Detroit in 1726. Author Juliette Kinzie came across him there. She had known him in Portage 30 years before, had taught his grand-daughters to read, and left this account of his performance as living history.

Crelie finally died in Caledonia, Wis., on Jan. 27, 1866. Church and court records later proved that he had adopted his father's birth date of 1726 as his own, and that he probably succeeded at the ruse because they shared the same first name. He was actually born on Sept. 7, 1773, in Kaskaskia, Illinois, making him 92 years, 4 months, and 20 days old at the time of his death.

For more information, see the Dictionary of Wisconsin History and Wisconsin Historical Collections.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on November 1, 2012
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