Prior to European contact, this territory was populated by numerous native tribes, each resident along one of the many rivers. Although Spain colonized western Nicaragua and Honduras during the sixteenth century, the eastern regions were not contacted until approximately 1700. At this time the population of the Miskito Coast began its long affiliation with English-speaking peoples, first buccaneers and later traders and settlers. In the late seventeenth century a small Indian population near the mouth of the Río Coco obtained guns and ammunition and other trade goods. This population also began to accept Black slaves fleeing from various Caribbean and Central American locales, who quickly intermixed with the local Indian population. This mixed native-Black society became the Miskito people—that is, the Miskito did not exist in pre-Columbian times but developed as a result of European-African-Native American contact and admixture.
This native-Black Miskito society had access to European guns and thereby expanded their territory at the expense of other Indian groups. Some of these Indian groups were assimilated into the Miskito, who expanded from the mouth of the Río Coco north along the coast of eastern Honduras, south along the coast of eastern Nicaragua, and upriver along the banks of the Río Coco. Those indigenous natives who were not assimilated were pushed farther into the interior. Today, their survivors are known collectively as "Sumu." Their population has declined steadily, whereas that of the Miskito, who are frequently identified as "Zambos," meaning a mixed Indian-Black population, increased, making them the dominant coastal group. Miskito success derived from their peaceful relations with the small groups of English-speaking traders and settlers who came to the coast and from their role as middlemen between English traders and Sumu. The Miskito also developed a strong hatred for the Spanish-speaking peoples of western Nicaragua and Honduras. These attitudes persist to this day.
After Nicaragua and Honduras became independent republics, the dominant anglophone foreign influence on the Miskito Coast was the United States. By the late nineteenth century, various U.S. business concerns found the area attractive, including those interested in banana production. Banana-plantation managers imported darkskinned, English-speaking laborers from the West Indies. Descendants of this new West Indian population, called "Creoles," became identified as the dominant "Black" population of the coast; they lived predominantly in the port towns that developed in the early twentieth century. The Miskito, who spoke a distinctive non-European language and lived in rural villages, now became known as "Indians," although they continued to intermarry with many types of foreigners. After centuries of de facto isolation from western, Hispanic Nicaragua, Miskito life has been strongly affected by the Sandinista Revolution, which began in 1979 and which will almost certainly draw the Miskito Coast closer to the Hispanic cultural pattern and national political organization of the Republic of Nicaragua. The description of Miskito culture that follows refers to conditions prior to the Revolution.