At the beginning of the historic period the native groups neighboring the Chipewyan included Western Woods Cree to the south, Inuit to the north, and Dogrib, Slavey, and Beaver to the west. To the northwest was a regional group of Chipewyan usually identified as the Yellowknife. Aboriginally and in historic times the Inuit and Western Woods Cree were considered enemies. Even today, in settled Cree-Chipewyan communities, ethnic relations are usually strained.
Direct contact with Europeans was initiated in the late seventeenth century when French and English traders encountered Chipewyan women and children who had been taken captive by the Cree. Direct trade with the English was established in 1715, and in 1717 the English established a post at Churchill (Prince of Wales Fort) on Hudson Bay for the purposes of carrying on this trade. In response to the Pressures of the fur trade and the desire for European trade goods, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries some groups of Chipewyan moved permanently into the boreal forest zone, where fur-bearing game was more plentiful. Those groups became known as the Boreal Forest Chipewyan, and those who continued to occupy the forest edge and the barren grounds and hunt caribou became known as the Caribou Eater Chipewyan. In 1846 Roman Catholic missionaries established a mission at Lake Isle à la Cross, and in 1912 an Anglican mission was founded at Churchill.
In 1899 and 1907 treaties with the Dominion of Canada extinguished Chipewyan land titles in exchange for annuity payments and other considerations. Many of the lifeways of the early-contact period persisted among the Caribou Eater Chipewyan well into the twentieth century. During the 1950s and 1960s, however, repeated government efforts to relocate, settle, and acculturate these traditional Chipewyan resulted in rapid and disruptive culture change. Nevertheless, even in the 1970s some Chipewyan still were committed to the caribou-hunting way of life.