Washington Island is one of a string of islands stretching across the entrance of Green Bay from the Door Peninsula in Wisconsin to the Garden Peninsula in Michigan. Its earliest known name is Wassekiganeso, an Ojibwa name that translates to “his breast is shining” and apparently refers to the glint of the sun that at times reflects off the limestone cliffs.
The narrow passage connecting Lake Michigan and Green Bay, only 6 miles wide, has very turbulent currents. Add to this the strong sudden winds of the Great Lakes, and it is obvious the area would be dangerous water for frail Indian craft. Consequently, there are many stories of old Indian war parties being drowned in the area. The Indians called the passage the “Door to Death,” which early French explorers then translated into Port des Morts, the “Death’s Door” of today. Prior to modern navigation aids, hundreds of ships floundered in Death’s Door. In the Fall of 1872, over 100 large vessels were stranded or damaged, and in 1880 alone, about 30 boats were driven ashore at Plum Island. Today, with Coast Guard protection, there is little danger of major shipwrecks in the area.
The earliest records and maps of the French, with whom the written history of the region begins, do not name the individual islands, but refer to them all as a group. The names chosen depended on which group of Native Americans they found on the islands at the time. The most common name from after 1650 to 1816 was the Potawatomi Islands (various spellings).
The Potawatomi appear to have first come to the southern islands in the string about 1641, then left the area for a while, returned again and remained for a considerable length of time. The French form of this name is l’Isle des Poux, based on a shortened form of the tribe’s name. At times the French used the latter portion of the tribe’s name, “Pou a louse,” resulting in Louse Islands.
Before 1800, however, a few other names were applied to these islands. The Jesuit Records of 1670-1672 refer to them as the Huron Islands. Other records of the time refer to them as the Noquet Islands, named for the small band of Ojibwa that lived in the area of what is now called Big Bay de Noq, as well as, for a time, on Washington Island. Jonathan Carver, who traveled the area in the late 1700s, called them, simply, the Islands of the Grand Traverse.
In the late 17th century, French explorer Robert La Salle did a flourishing fur business with the Indians. To transport the furs quickly and at less expense, he had a boat built at Cayuga Creek above Niagara Falls. He called it the Griffin. On Sept. 2, 1679, the Griffin left Mackinac and arrived a few days later at Detroit Harbor on Washington Island, the first sailing vessel to appear on the Great Lakes. After the pelts were loaded, the Griffin lifted anchor on September 18, 1679, presumably on its way home. It was never heard from again.
In July, 1816, Col. John Miller was in charge of garrisoning a new fort at the head of Green Bay to be called Fort Howard. A small fleet of three schooners and one sloop sailed from Mackinac. They were the sloop Amelia and the schooners Wayne, Mink, and Washington; the last being the largest and flagship of the fleet as well as, reportedly, the largest vessel on the lakes at the time. The fleet was separated en route, and the Washington anchored in what is now Washington Harbor to wait for the others.
With two days of waiting, some of the crew did some exploring on the island, and the officers, assuming theirs was the first ship to anchor there, named the harbor after the ship and in honor of President Washington, who had only recently died. They also began naming the various islands in the area after significant members of their party, with the name of Col. John Miller being honored on the largest island as Millers Island. (Other members of the party included Maj. Talbot Chambers, John O’Fallon, and Joseph Kean. Chambers Island retains its name today, while Keans Island and Fallons Island are now called Rock and Detroit Islands, respectively.)
Not every map maker or journalist, however, knew of or paid attention to this. The names of Potawatomi and Louse continued to be used by many for many years (with a continued variety of spellings). At times Potawatomi was applied to the main island; sometimes to what is now Rock Island. At times the main island is totally missing from the map. When the lighthouse was built on Rock Island, it was called Potawatomi Light, a name it retains to this day. While a few maps did chart either Mellens or Mellens Island (a possible corruption of Miller), the settlement of the island began with the fishers and craftsmen living around Washington Harbor. These commonly called the whole island by the name of their harbor and in the census of 1850, “Washington Island” appears. After that, both Potawatomi Islands, and Potawatomi Island soon fell out of use.
On June 20, 1850, the Town of Washington was founded at Henry Miner’s house on Rock Island. The new town included the three islands of Washington, Rock and Detroit. One of the first acts of the town board was to establish a log schoolhouse on the beach at the south end of Washington Harbor. In 1865, the community built its first church, Bethel Seaman’s Chapel, still standing. Henry Miner moved from Rock to Washington Island in 1867. He built a small house large enough to accommodate a family of three, his cooper shop, and the Island post office.
In 1870, W.F. Wickman, a Dane, persuaded four bachelors from Iceland to move to Washington Island. They came and established the second oldest Icelandic settlement in America. Our early settlers were primarily fishermen. As new arrivals came from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, they brought farming, logging as well as other skills that enhanced the Island way of life and the economy. The Island exports included fish, lumber, stone, potatoes and maple syrup, transported by ships to ports along Green Bay and as far as Chicago.
A popular retreat for the late 19th and 20th century visitors looking to escape their urban stresses, the Island grew to be a tourist destination for many families whose descendants still call Washington Island their summer home.
Most of the people who settled on the island were Scandinavian immigrants, especially Icelanders. Today, Washington Island is one of the oldest Icelandic communities in the United States and among the largest outside of Iceland itself.
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