The meager archaeological evidence available suggests that the Tarahumara have lived in Chihuahua for at least two thousand years. At Spanish contact (around 1600), they were bordered on the south by the Tepehuan, on the east and north by the Concho, on the northwest by the Mountain Pima, on the southwest by the Tubar, and on the west by the Guarijía and a number of other small groups closely related culturally and linguistically to the Tarahumara. Spanish settlement in and around Tarahumara country was motivated primarily by the discovery of rich silver and gold deposits; the settlers carried Old World diseases that decimated local Indian populations. The Tarahumara served as both forced and free laborers in the colonial economy; they adopted Old World livestock and agricultural technology. Between 1639 and 1767, Jesuits established missions across the Tarahumara region, but most Tarahumara maintained only a loose affiliation with the Catholic church. Although there were Tarahumara who integrated into Spanish colonial society, many resisted Spanish expansion: several revolts erupted throughout the seventeenth century, Spanish settlements were raided during the eighteenth century, and some Indians sought refuge by establishing communities in inaccessible areas. Franciscan and secular priests replaced the Jesuits in 1767.
By the mid-nineteenth century, social and economic disruptions following Mexican independence in 1821 led to the abandonment of the mission system, but the Jesuits reestablished it in 1900. Since the late nineteenth century, expanded mining, agriculture, and lumbering have displaced the Tarahumara from many areas outside the Sierra and have attracted non-Indian settlers into the Sierra. Tarahumara relations with these non-Indians vary from community to community, but generally each ethnic group views the other negatively and intermarriage between them is rare. The Mexican government and the Catholic mission provide the Tarahumara schools and medical services. In the late twentieth century Protestant missionaries have been active in several Tarahumara communities, where they also offer some social services.