The history of habitation begins approximately 10-12,000 years ago, with the recession of the glaciers in the area and continues up to the arrival of Europeans. The retreating glaciers revealed an island 316 acres and the largest of the islands on the Canadian side of the River. Archaeological evidence shows heavy usage of the island by native peoples, including a burial excavated and estimated to date 3000 years ago (1000 BC).
The first European group to land on the island was the French in the early-mid 1700’s; they did little with the Island but did use it for shipbuilding, as a stopping point in shipments, for logging and for grazing animals.
The British occupied the area, after Sir William Johnson won it from the French on July 25, 1759. They built their own shipyard on the island in the 1760's. It was this shipyard that gave the island its name, although it was briefly known as Die’s Island, after the Master Carpenter assigned the task of building the shipyard. The shipyard was used up to the American Revolution, but does not appear to have been used after that. Navy Island was occupied during the War of 1812, but did not play a significant role in the conflict.
“Navy Island from the Canadian Side”, attributed to W.H. Bartlett and C. Cousen.
Navy Island was occupied by William Lyon MacKenzie’s Rebels on December 1837, and the forces grew to possibly as many as 1500 soldiers at its peak. Mackenzie, the leader of the rebels was an advocate of responsible government and was strongly opposed to the Family Compact. Failing in his attempts to peacefully reform the government, he took up arms, but lost during a confrontation with Colonel James FitzGibbon (of War of 1812, Battle of Beaverdams fame), at Montgomery's Tavern, north of Toronto. Barely escaping capture, Mackenzie and his supporters fled to Buffalo, where they armed themselves with cannons and military supplies, and set up a base on Navy Island on December 13, 1837. American authorities intervened and insisted that the rebels return the military supplies which they had taken from the Buffalo arsenal. The "Patriots," as the rebels called themselves, left the Island on January 15, 1838, but not before the burning of the American steamboat, the Caroline, by Canadian soldiers. The “Caroline”, a ship out of Buffalo which was being used to supply men and arms to the island, was destroyed in a night-time raid by British/Canadian forces under the leadership of Captain Andrew Drew. Finding the ship at Fort Schlosser, in American territory, it was rapidly boarded, the crew cleared off the ship, and the ship set alight and adrift in the Niagara River. Amos Durfee is the only known casualty, but the main casualty was to American pride (that the ship was destroyed in American territory was a cause for war). Cooler heads prevailed, and war was averted. MacKenzie’s forces abandoned Navy Island on January 14, 1838, and the government forces re-occupied it the next day.
In the mid-1850s, 100 acres of Navy Island were cleared for farming, and by 1865, four families lived on the Island. In 1876, part of the Island was leased to entrepreneurs who developed a pleasure ground for tourists. They also built a two-storey summer hotel called The Queen's Hotel, and a dock. This venture was abandoned in the early 1900s, the hotel burned around 1910, and was not rebuilt. It has also been said, although no proof has been provided, that the planning for the Assassination of President McKinley originated on this island.
During Prohibition, the island was frequently used as a way-station and depot by smugglers crossing the river. In 1938, a lease was granted to the Niagara Parks Commission allowing them to assume jurisdiction of the Island.
In 1945, a plan was created to entice the United Nations to build its Headquarters on Navy Island. Although there was significant support from both sides of the border, a land donation in New York City by the Rockefeller family to the UN settled the situation.
Image Courtesy of the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library, Aerial View of Navy Island
In 1949, the Parks Commission refused a request to lease the Island as a private game preserve. To discourage similar requests and protect the natural state of the Island, the Parks Commission declared Navy Island a Wild Life and Crown Preserve. Navy Island remains a protected area today, and camping is allowed on some parts with a permit. In 1994, 105 camping permits were purchased from the Niagara Parks Police Department.
A memorial commemorating the three main events in the history of Navy Island - shipbuilding, Mackenzie's occupation and the burning of the Caroline - was unveiled on October 12, 1928, under the auspices of the Lundy's Lane Historical Society. It is located on the Canadian mainland, just opposite Navy Island.