The Don Canal was the result of early efforts to make the River Don in South Yorkshire navigable between Fishlake and Sheffield. In 1626 the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden had altered the mouth of the river, to improve drainage, and the new works included provision for navigation, but the scheme did not solve the problem of flooding, and the 'Dutch River' was cut in 1635 to link the new channel to Goole. The first Act of Parliament to improve navigation on the river was obtained in 1726, by a group of Cutlers (Cutlers Co) based in Sheffield, and the Corporation of Doncaster obtained an Act in the following year for improvements to the lower river. The Channel was cut and locks were built, and by 1751 the river was navigable to Tinsley.
The network was expanded by the opening of the Stainforth and Keadby Canal in 1802, linking to the River Trent, the Dearne and Dove Canal in 1804 linking to Barnsley, and the Sheffield Canal in 1819. 
The canals were bought by railway companies until the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation Company was created in 1889, and eventually bought back the canals and the Don Navigation in 1895. Plans for expansion were hampered by a lack of capital. One success was the opening of the New Junction Canal in 1905, jointly funded with the Aire and Calder Navigation.