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Where did Door County get its name from?

a group of people sitting on a boat in the water

Throughout the bustling tourist season, one curiosity frequently arises: “What’s the story behind Door County’s name?”

The roots of the name stir a mix of legend and historical debate, with many tales converging on the ominous-sounding Death’s Door—the treacherous strait that lies between the Door Peninsula’s tip and Washington Island.

The strait’s notoriety is steeped in history, known for its perilous conditions that have ensnared ships, sailors, and even pirates. Its roiling waters, concealed reefs, and mercurial weather have claimed numerous lives, including those of Potawatomi and Winnebago tribe members.

A widely held belief traces back to the 17th century when a devastating battle between tribes across the strait resulted in such loss that the name “Death’s Door” emerged in honor of those who fell and as a stark reminder of the strait’s danger.

Historical accounts are hazy, but they converge on a tale of Potawatomi warriors launching an assault from Washington Island against the Winnebago. What began as a serene crossing abruptly turned into chaos, with canoes overturned by violent waves, leading to a significant loss of life.

Another conjecture holds that the gruesome title, “Porte des Morts,” was actually coined by French explorers who, after navigating the perilous strait and hearing local stories, named it so. This designation was eventually anglicized and softened to “Door” county.

Regardless of its true genesis, the name has etched itself into the minds of visitors, historians, and aqua adventurers. In present times, Death’s Door’s legacy is carried forward in more benign ways—through the safe passage provided by the Washington Island Ferry, the underwater expeditions of scuba divers uncovering sunken ships, the tributes paid by the Death’s Door Maritime Museum, and the venturesome souls who traverse the strait, lured by Washington Island’s allure of adventure and charm.