The Jicarilla are descendants of Southern Athapaskan Hunters who migrated from the subarctic region west of Hudson Bay to the Southwest between 1300 and 1500. The probable route of migration was through the plains along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. The Apacheans in general came into contact with the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth Century, and until the beginning of the eighteenth century Contacts with the Spanish were limited and generally friendly. During the 1700s Hispanic settlement of Jicarilla lands gradually increased through land grants by the Mexican government to its citizens. The Jicarilla never agreed to these land grants. After the Jicarilla territory passed to the jurisdiction of the United States in 1848, American settlement of Jicarilla lands also increased.
The expansion of Hispanic and American settlement rendered the Jicarilla's traditional way of life impossible, and in response they began to raid White wagon trains and settlements. In 1854 the government of New Mexico declared war on the Jicarilla and the following year forced them to sign a peace treaty providing for their removal to a reservation. The plan for the Jicarilla reservation did not materialize until 1887. When it did, the system of individual land allotments intended to transform the people into farmers failed owing to the unfavorable climate and terrain of the reservation site, which led to social dislocation and dependence on government welfare. After the turn of the century the federal government added new lands to the reservation in an unsuccessful attempt to promote livestock raising. At this time living conditions on the reservation reached their low point, with wide-spread unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, and disease. Finally, in the 1920s the federal government succeeded in introducing sheep raising, and conditions on the reservation improved.
Culturally, the Jicarilla were heavily influenced by the Plains Indians to their east and the Pueblo Indians to their west, with the result that their own culture exhibited a combination of nomadic hunting and settled farming characteristics. One of the Plains Indian traits prominent in Jicarilla Culture was an emphasis on raiding and warfare. After Spanish contact raiding increased in frequency and intensity with the use of and need for horses. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Jicarilla commonly raided the Plains tribes to their east and used the fruits of their successes to trade with the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish. During the second decade of the eighteenth century Comanches who had obtained guns from the French drove the Jicarilla out of Colorado and into the foothills and mountains of northern New Mexico. Subsequently, the Jicarilla sought help from the Spanish by offering allegiance to the king of Spain, but with little result. In 1779 a combined force of Jicarilla, Ute, Pueblo, and Spanish soldiers defeated the Comanche, who, after another seven years and several more military campaigns, finally sued for peace. Thereafter the Jicarilla were able to reestablish themselves in southern Colorado.