The first European visit the island was in 1819 by Captain William Edward Parry. The island was named after the artist William Beechey by his son Frederick William Beechey who was then serving as Parry's lieutenant.
It is the site of several very significant events in the history of Arctic exploration. In 1845, the British explorer Sir John Franklin, commanding a new but ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage aboard HMSs Erebus and Terror, chose the protected harbor of Beechey Island for his first winter encampment. The site was not discovered until 1851 when British and American search vessels anchored nearby.
They found a large stone cairn, along with the graves of three of Franklin's crew -- Petty Officer John Torrington, Royal Marine Private William Braine, and Able Seaman John Hartnell—but no written record or indication of where Franklin planned to sail the next season. In 1850 Edward Belcher used the island as a base. There are memorials to Franklin and other polar explorers and sailors on the island, including Joseph René Bellot.
In 1903, paying respect to Franklin, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen stopped at the island at the beginning of his successful voyage in search for the Northwest Passage.
In the 1980s, Canadian forensic anthropologist Dr. Owen Beattie examined the three bodies, finding them to be remarkably well-preserved. Autopsies determined that lung disease and lead poisoning were among the probable causes of death; the lead appeared to come from the thousands of lead-soldered tins of provisions with which the Franklin expedition had been supplied.
Beechey Island was declared to be a "Territorial Historic Site" by the government of the Northwest Territories in 1975. Since 1999, it has been part of the newly created Canadian territory of Nunavut.
In 1993, five archaeological sites on Beechey Island and nearby Devon Island were designated as the "Beechey Island Sites" National Historic Site of Canada.
In fiction, the explorers in Jules Verne's novel Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras visit Beechey Island. In addition, Clive Cussler's 2008 novel, Arctic Drift, featured characters that would visit this island in the quest for Franklin's ships. Also mentioned in Dan Simmons' novel, The Terror.