There is no archaeological record for the present-day Temne area that covers the precontact era. Oral traditions, however, are fairly consistent in citing a Temne migration from the northeast, from the Fouta Djallon plateau area in the Republic of Guinea. Subsequent movements of small groups criss-crossed the Temne area in all directions.
There were Temne speakers along the coast when the first Portuguese ships arrived, probably in the 1460s. Temne were indicated on subsequent Portuguese maps, and references to them and brief vocabularies appear in the texts. Trade began, albeit on a small scale, in the fifteenth century with the Portuguese and expanded in the late sixteenth century with the arrival of British traders, and later traders of other nations. Slaves, gold, ivory and local foodstuffs were exchanged for European trade goods—mostly cloth, firearms, and hardware.
As Temne traders were in contact with the permanent European factories in the river mouths, so did they establish and maintain relations with the settlement at Freetown after its founding in the late eighteenth century. This settlement, inspired by philanthropic abolitionists, was regarded ambivalently by Temne traders, who had long been involved in the profitable export slave trade. In the nineteenth century, following abolition, Freetown became the primate trade entrepot, attracting trade caravans from Temne and beyond. Creoles from Freetown moved progressively up-county to trade in the second half of the nineteenth century, and relations with the Temne and other were not always amicable. The British colonial government at Freetown followed a policy of "stipendiary bribery" punctuated by threats to use armed force in an attempt to prevent Temne and other chiefs from hindering trade from and with areas farther inland. When diplomacy failed, British expeditions invaded the Temne area of Yoni (1889) and then at Tambi (1891).
The Protectorate of Sierra Leone was proclaimed in 1896, and, subsequently, a colonial overadministration was instituted. The traditional Temne chiefdoms became units of local government, and a house tax was levied to support the colonial administration. Armed rebellion broke out in 1898, first in Mende country and later in the western Temne area, where a Temne chief, Bai Bureh, led successful campaigns and became a folk hero. The colonial era began again after 1898, with a more effective administration and increased penetration of the hinterland. Railway construction and, later, feeder roads were pushed in an effort to increase exports. Towns developed to meet the needs of government and increased trade, and expatriate firms and Lebanese and Creole traders expanded their activities throughout Temne and adjacent areas. Schools developed slowly under Christian missions and, later, under government aegis. For the Temne, culture change accelerated.
Portuguese Christian missionary efforts began before the Protestant Reformation but had no lasting effects on the Temne. The Protestant presence accompanied the founding of Freetown in the late eighteenth century; Church Missionary Society representatives were active up the Rokel River and elsewhere in Temne country through the nineteenth century. In the 1890s the Soudna Mission was the first American mission in the Temne area; American Wesleyans and the Evangelical United Brethren subsequently joined the field.
Muslim contacts probably go back several centuries, and fifteenth-century Portuguese were cognizant of Muslim peoples. Early traders, holy men, and warriors brought Islam into the Temne area from the north (Susu) and northeast (Fula, Mandinka, and so on). Through the nineteenth century, as the volume of trade grew, Muslim influences increased; in the late twentieth century a significant proportion of Temne claim to be Muslim converts.