This area was long part of the Iroquois Confederacy territory: five powerful First Nations mostly along the southern edge of the Great Lakes. The Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca were based largely in present-day New York, ranging from east near the Hudson River, to western areas of Seneca Lake and along Ontario and other Great Lakes.
The Niagara Falls area has had some European settlement since the 17th century. Louis Hennepin, a French priest and missionary, is regarded as the first European to visit the area in the 1670s. French colonists settled mostly in Lower Canada, beginning near the Atlantic, and in Quebec and Montreal. Increased settlement in this area took place during and after the American Revolutionary War, when the British Crown made land grants to Loyalists to help them resettle in Upper Canada and provide some compensation for their losses after the United States became independent. Loyalist Robert Land received 200 acres and was one of the first people of European descent to settle in the Niagara Region. He moved to nearby Hamilton three years later due to the relentless noise of falls.
Tourism started in the early 19th century and has been a vital part of the local economy since that time. The falls became known as a natural wonder, in part to their being featured in paintings by prominent American artists of the 19th century such as Albert Bierstadt. Such works were reproduced as lithographs, becoming widely distributed. In addition, Niagara Falls markets itself as a honeymoon destination; it is the self-proclaimed "honeymoon capital of the world."
In 1856, the Town of Clifton was incorporated. The name of the town was changed to Niagara Falls in 1881. In 1882, the community of Drummondville (near the present-day corner of Lundy's Lane and Main Street) was incorporated as the village of Niagara Falls. The village was referred to as Niagara Falls South to differentiate it from the town. In 1904, the town and village amalgamated to form the City of Niagara Falls.
In 1882, Irish author Oscar Wilde visited Niagara Falls after lecturing in Buffalo during a lecture tour of North America. He stayed at the Prospect House in Niagara Falls, New York.
An Internment camp was set up at The Armoury in Niagara Falls from December 1914 to August 1918.
In 1953, the American actress Marilyn Monroe filmed Niagara here. This was a major event for the city.
In 1962, the city amalgamated with the surrounding Stamford Township, resulting in a doubling of population.
With the creation of a Niagara regional government in 1970, the city absorbed the village of Chippawa, Willoughby Township and part of Crowland Township, creating the present-day municipal boundaries.
The city's official historian is Sherman Zavitz, who gives regular radio broadcasts on many aspects of Niagara's history.