The Division of Naval History was created in 1881 as part of the Section of Historical Collections, later the Division of History, which reported to the Department of Arts and Industries as well as the Department of Anthropology within the United States National Museum until 1938. In 1939, when the Division of History was established and began reporting to the Department of Engineering and Industries, Naval History was transferred to its control. The Division of History became the Department of History in 1949. In 1957, the Division became the Department of Armed Forces History which included the Divisions of Naval History and Military History and came under the supervision of the Museum of History and Technology (MHT).
In 1969, the Department of Armed Forces History became the Department of National and Military History and, in 1978, the Department of National History. In 1980, the Division of Naval History reported to the Department of the History of Science and Technology. The Division of Naval History and the Division of Military History merged in 1985 to form the Division of Armed Forces History.
The main purpose of the Division of Naval History was to trace the historical development of the United States Navy, beginning with maritime operations during the colonial and Revolutionary War period through subsequent years of change leading to the advent of the modern navy. Research mainly focused on United States naval personnel, vessels, weapons, uniforms, insignia, navigational instruments, and flags. The Division was also involved in staff marine archeology, publishing biographies, attending conferences, and collecting maritime artifacts. Curators and staff of the Division included Mendel L. Peterson, Acting Curator, 1958-1960; Philip K. Lundeberg, Associate Curator, 1959-1961, Curator, 1962-1986, and Curator Emeritus, 1987- ; Melvin H. Jackson, Associate Curator, 1962-1965; Harold D. Langley, Curator, 1969- ; and Lee Houchins, Research Associate, 1978-1984.