One of the most common questions we hear during tourism season is: “how did Door County get its name?”
There is some debate about the true origin of the name, but all the folklore points to Death’s Door as the inspiration—that chillingly (and appropriately) named strait between the northernmost tip of the Door peninsula and Washington Island.
The treachery of Death’s Door for ships, sailors, merchants, and pirates is well documented, but the strait’s massive, choppy waves, hidden underwater rocks, and unpredictable weather also claimed the lives of many members of the Potawatomi and Winnebago Native American tribes over the years.
One popular theory suggests that, in the 1600s, so many Native Americans perished in the strait during an inter-tribe battle that the tribes and other settlers began to refer to it by “Death’s Door,” both out of reverence for the deceased and out of bodily fear.
The exact details of this night are murky and unconfirmed, but historic accounts agree that when Potawatomi warriors set out from Washington Island to attack the Winnebago on the mainland, the waters were calm but suddenly turned violent during the brief voyage across the strait. Canoes capsized, warriors disappeared beneath the waves, and both sides lost hundreds of men.
An alternative theory postulates that while the two tribes’ epic battle did in fact inspire the moniker, it was actually French explorers who gave the strait its macabre name. After hearing these accounts from locals and travelers and sailing the waters themselves, the French began referring to the strait as “Porte des Morts” or, in English, “Death’s Door,” which was eventually shortened to the much friendlier “Door” county.
No matter the origin of the name, what’s clear is that this small, narrow body of water has captured the imaginations of countless visitors, historians, and local water sports enthusiasts alike.
Today, the legacy of Death’s Door lives on, but in kinder, gentler, and nonfatal forms—the Washington Island Ferry safely shuttles passengers across the strait, scuba divers explore the lake and bays looking for shipwreck remnants, the Death’s Door Maritime Museum in Gills Rock pays tribute to the lake and the lives lost, and ambitious travelers continue to cross the strait, in search of the adventure and romance of Washington Island.
Deeper Dive: How Did Door County Get Its Name?
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