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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The legends surrounding Death's Door portray grim scenes worthy of the passage's name. They tell of a huge Indian war party pummeled to death against its rocky shores. They recount the last voyages of innumerable wooden ships pulverized by swirling currents and howling winds. But like a fierce squall that blurs the line between sea and sky, the potent legacy of Death's Door obscures the line between fact and fancy.

Death's Door is the chief navigational passage between the Bay of Green Bay and Lake Michigan. It lies between the northeast end of Wisconsin's Door Peninsula and the rocky shores of Pilot, Plum, Detroit, and Washington islands.

Thumbnail of Death's Door Passage

View a larger map of Death's Door.

The precise origins of the passage's name remain shrouded in legend. One story recounts the destruction of a large Native American war party in a sudden storm. Early French and American travelers' accounts contain similar stories. However, these earliest written accounts mention nothing of a war party per se. They say only that "there were a hundred Indians dashed against these rocks and killed in a single storm" (an 1835 account), or that a band of Indians, travelling in canoes to a French trading post, were resting on a rock shelf in the Door when a sudden storm trapped and drowned them.

A French document from 1728 refers to the passage as Cap a la Mort . Thus, any actual events that may have inspired the name must have occurred before 1728. One author contends that a frightful legend was concocted by the French to discourage English exploration. This French connection is reflected in modern charts that identify the passage as Porte des Morts.

 
     
 

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