History of
Death's Door

History of Death's Door

So where does the name Door County come from? You can trace it to the area’s most dangerous, mythical feature - Porte des Morts, or as it’s now called, Death’s Door.

The strait linking Lake Michigan and Green Bay, between the tip of the peninsula and Washington Island, was once one of the most notorious, treacherous stretches of water on the Great Lakes.

The name has been traced to a battle between rival Indian tribes in the seventeenth century by both an early government surveyor and historian Hjalmar Holand.

It was a calm night on the waters of Lake Michigan when a group of Potawatomi Indians set out from the islands north of the Door County peninsula to attack the Winnebago Indians on the mainland. While the historic records disagree on the some of the details, all accounts agree that the waters were calm when the Potawatomi warriors left their islands, but abruptly, the weather turned bad, capsizing canoes and trapping warriors in an onslaught near the the rocky shore of what is now Ellison Bay.

Meanwhile, a group of Winnebago warriors who were sent to attack the Potawatomi villages on the islands also got caught in the dangerous waters. They were never heard from again. In all, hundreds of warriors died, giving the thin stretch of water its name.

In the centuries since, Death’s Door’s reputation for rough waters, unpredictable weather and hidden shoals have made it something of a legend with shipwrecks and accounts of lost lives to back it up.

French explorers named the passage after hearing the Native American accounts and sailing the waters themselves. Some say that the French named the passage to discourage British exploration and fur traders through the strait. After all, it was the only way to get from the trading post at modern-day Green Bay to the rest of the Great Lakes.

Whether any of these accounts is absolutely true is unclear, but none will deny that it is home to scores of shipwrecks, perhaps the most of any freshwater in the world.

The passage claimed 24 sailing vessels between 1837 and 1914 and nearly 40 in the nearby waters in the same period. The destruction was so apparent that it contributed to the decision to build the canal through Sturgeon Bay in 1881. Not only could a ship cut 100 miles off their journey, but they could avoid the swirling waters and dark memories.

While the legend is still shrouded in mystery, it has lived on in the culture of the county. It has inspired the name of beer, spirits and even a barbeque festival on Washington Island each August.

For more than 75 years, the Washington Island Ferry Line has made it possible for locals and visitors to safely cross Death’s Door. Make your reservation to cross through the door that has claimed the lives and ships of so many through the county’s history.

Check out Our Door County - The Wreck Hunters, part of an ongoing local video series.

For more videos like this one, CLICK HERE.

Learn more about Door County's history, HERE.