The Cholan, the historical predecessors of the Ch'ol, once occupied most of the lowland areas from the Río Grijalva on the west to the Río Motagua on the east, including the southern (riverine) half of the Yucatán Peninsula. The urban centers of this civilization were abandoned with the fall of the Classic Maya around the tenth century; the Cholan survived in small agricultural settlements until the sixteenth century, when they were decimated by diseases and other repercussions of Spanish colonialism.
At the end of the sixteenth century, Ch'ol settlements were located along the Río Usumacinta and its lowland tributaries, from northern Guatemala to the Gulf coast. The Ch'ol resisted Spanish incursions, including missionary activity, and carried out raids on highland areas that were pacified and controlled by the Spanish Crown. As a consequence, the Ch'ol were subjected to a 100-year military effort (1590-1690). Conquest and resettlement of the Ch'ol, area by area, resulted, beginning with the lower Río Usumacinta and Río Tulija area and proceeding upriver in successive campaigns that concluded with the subjugation of the Mopán and the Itza' Maya, to the east of the Ch'ol. Ch'ol populations that survived pacification were resettled in Palenque, Tila, Tumbala, and Bachajon, in Chiapas, and in Retalhuleu, Guatemala, but only those in the Tila and Tumbala areas survived into the twentieth century.
John Loyd Stephens, a U.S. explorer who traveled through the Tumbala area in 1840, remarked that the Indians there lived in essentially aboriginal conditions, with little sign of Spanish influence. After mid-century, however, German and North American interests founded coffee plantations and incorporated the Ch'ol in a system of debt peonage. This system disappeared after the Mexican Revolution, and, in the 1930s, Ch'ol gained control of many coffee plantations through land reform.
About 1960, the federal government authorized expansion of highland populations into lowland jungle areas left virtually unpopulated since the seventeenth century. As groups organized and petitioned for lands under the ejido system, hundreds of new settlements evolved, and the population expansion has taken Ch'ol into almost all of the Mexican territory their ancestors occupied in the sixteenth century.