The first historical mention of the Barí (as "Motilones") dates to 1622 and is a comment on their attacks on Spanish trade. Spanish military expeditions ravaged their territory sporadically for the next 150 years, burning longhouses and killing and capturing (as slaves) their residents. In 1772 the Barí were pacified through the offices of a boy who had been captured a few years before. In the following decades most of them were "reduced" to missions operated by Capuchin monks. The missions recorded a total population of 1,233 in 1799, and of 1,025 in 1810; the size of the "unreduced" portion of the population is unknown. In 1818, following the war of independence led by Simón Bolívar, the Capuchins were expelled, and the Barí returned to their traditional way of life. Relations with local criollos had turned bloody again by the 1880s, and raids on the Barí increased in scale and number after the discovery of oil in the region in the first decade of the twentieth century. By the 1950s a band of Colombian Indian killers was making a regular living hunting Barí, and oil-company pilots were bombing longhouses with gasoline drums. Peaceful contact was made in July 1960 by anthropologist Roberto Lizarralde, then in the employ of the Venezuelan Departamento de Asuntos Indígenas (Department of Indigenous Affairs). The pacification program was then turned over to the Capuchin order, now aided by nuns of the Hermanas de la Madre Laura order. An independent North American missionary, Bruce Olson, began work with the Colombian Barí in 1961.
A reservation was established in 1961 in Venezuela and another in Colombia in 1974. On both reservations the traditional manioc-farming and spear-fishing economy has been massively supplemented by cattle raising financed by the missionaries, and to a lesser extent by the cash cropping of cacao, rice, beans, and plantains. Most Barí children now receive some formal schooling. Since the 1970s the Colombian Barí region has been a refuge for guerrilla groups financing themselves with kidnappings and marijuana cultivation; their relations with the Barí are increasingly tense.