Today's relative obscurity belies an apparently long and once prominent Tepehuan regional presence. The Tepehuan of Chihuahua are the northern descendants of an aboriginal group whose broad territory ranged from north of the Río Verde in Chihuahua southward through Durango into the contemporary states of Nayarit and Jalisco. Archival evidence suggests that at the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the Tepehuan were probably the largest and most important tribe in the Sierra Madre Occidental. About half a millennium before the Conquest, their ancestors hunted and gathered in the desert region near the border between Arizona and Sonora before migrating, along with other Southern Uto-Aztecan groups, southward into the mountainous regions of northwestern Mexico, where they began to rely on farming.
After the Conquest of central Mexico, Spaniards moved northward, mining and establishing haciendas and missions in Zacatecas and Durango. In Durango, they ruptured the unity of Northern and Southern Tepehuan by eliminating the central Durango groups northward to Chihuahua. By the end of the sixteenth century, a few miners, missionaries, and soldiers had penetrated southern Chihuahua. The Franciscans, in 1560, were the first order to work with the Tepehuan in the Santa Barbara region of southern Chihuahua. The Jesuits previously ministered to the Tepehuan in central and southern Durango. They entered the northern territory in 1610 and began congregating the Tepehuan into mission towns, and, by 1708, had established missions at Baborigame, Nabogame, and Guadalupe y Calvo. Over a hundred years of isolation followed the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767. The overextended Franciscans, now responsible for the whole region, maintained modest sway. The Jesuits returned at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Tepehuan are usually described as "nominally Catholic," given that the religion practiced is an amalgamation of Hispanic and indigenous elements. Some indigenous groups do not practice any form of Catholicism. Perhaps the most important consequence of Tepehuan relations with the Church is the local acquisition of European plants, livestock, and technology.
The convergence of Indian and mestizo culture was a process driven by the economic exploitation of resources. Chihuahua's first mine and first hacienda were established by thirty Spanish families in 1575, initiating mining and grazing as the future primary industries of the region. Sometimes Indians worked in mines and farms out of choice, but more often they were forced laborers or slaves. At first, wool clothing was a great attraction to volunteer laborers, but impressed labor and harsh treatment soon became unbearable. Beginning in the first decade of the seventeenth century, uprisings led by the Tepehuan resulted in severe repression by the Spaniards. Soon, Santa Barbara, with 7,000 inhabitants, became the largest town in the province of Nueva Vizcaya, even larger than the city of Durango, to the south. From this outpost, the subjugation of the northern territory continued over the next century. The whole of the seventeenth century was one of revolt across the northern frontier by practically every Indian group living north of Durango. Spaniards retreated to protected outposts. Priests met martyrdom. Soon these rebellions were put down, and in the nineteenth century northward expansion continued. Mines, new towns, and presidios, were created, the Jesuits were expelled, and all indigenous peoples—except for a few remote groups—were generally pacified.
Excluding a few settlements such as those at Baborigame and Guadalupe y Calvo, the region of the northern Tepehuan remained mostly isolated and little settled, which allowed the indigenous people to follow a simple subsistence pattern of life relatively unmolested. Even during the turbulent nineteenth century, when revolution and independence consumed most of Mexico, the indigenous people were left very much alone by a Mexico otherwise occupied. Independence from Spain in 1821 resulted in much infighting in the central government, as opposing parties competed for control. Lack of funds meant that soldiers on the far northern frontier were not paid, and it was difficult to influence politics in such remote regions without providing the minimum of services. For Mexico, the nineteenth century culminated in the loss of more than one-third of its territory to the United States. During the nineteenth century, Apache invaders began to drive a wedge between the people living in the high Sierra and the Pima Alta cultures in the north. As mountain dwellers, the Northern Tepehuan, like the Tarahumara, were able to defend themselves against displacement by these Apache raiders. Mostly, however, they were far removed from the major centers of Apache raiding in northern Chihuahua.
The twentieth century has been even less auspicious. The Tepehuan have remained isolated, except for recent decades. In 1952 there was an attempt to bring the Tepehuan into the fold of mainstream culture and economy when the federal government installed an Indian Coordinating Center at Guachochi, across the Río Verde from the Tepehuan homeland. Through the Center, the National Indian Institute has followed a policy of assimilation. It administers various social and welfare services but is hampered by the remoteness of the region. In southwestern Chihuahua, Indians are outnumbered by mestizos by as much as three to one and this ratio increased as economic enterprises grew in the 1970 and 1980s. Logging in this densely forested area has become particularly important as an alternative to the heavily exploited Tarahumara woodlands north of the Río Verde. Forest roads and a paved highway from Parral to Guadalupe y Calvo have also opened the region to the negative impacts of illegal drug harvesting and transportation. Drug traffickers are having a profound impact on local indigenous groups, and many Indians are fleeing to more remote regions to follow a hunting-and-gathering mode of life.