Yacata pyramids of Tzintzuntzan
According to the archeological evidence, there has been human habitation within the territory of the Mexican state of Michoacán for at least 10,000 years.
 In the pre-Hispanic period, there were waves of migration into the area, including the Pirinda,
Nahua, Huetamo, Colima,
Purépecha and other peoples.
 There are sites of formal settlements from all Mesoamerican periods. Important sites include
El Opeño and those in
Coalcomán. The territory has been inhabited by the Nahua,
Pirinda and Teco peoples as well as the Purépecha.
The main pre-Hispanic civilization of the state is that of the Purépecha, which was centered in the Lake Pátzcuaro area.
 Before the 13th century, both Nahua and Purépecha peoples were here, sustaining themselves by agriculture and fishing. The Purépecha are descendants of a late arrival of
Chichimeca who came from the north. At Lake Patzcuaro, they came upon people with similar cultures to their own but who were more technically and socially advanced. The formation of the Purépechan state in the 13th century, when these people started their own dominion at Uayameo, today
Santa Fé de la Laguna, and becoming dominant over the entire Lake Patzcuaro area by the 15th century. Conquest of neighboring tribes and territories occurred between 1401 and 1450, as they absorbed peoples with different cultures and languages into the empire. By the late 15th century, this state rivaled that of the Aztec, having expanded their territory over much of what is now Michoacán and into part of
Jalisco. The Aztec attempted to invade the Purépecha but were repelled. Because of this attack, the Purépecha later denied the Aztecs aid in their defense of
Tenochtitlan against the Spanish.
Prior to the arrival of any Spaniard in the territory, then-ruler
Zuanga died of
smallpox, presumably carried by one of the Aztec delegations seeking military aid. He was succeeded by
Tanganxoan II. The first Spaniard to the area was
Cristóbal de Olid. The Spanish destruction of Tenochtitlan and their promise to allow him to remain ruler convinced Tanganxoan II to submit to Spanish rule. But,
Nuño de Guzmán reneged on this agreement and killed Tanganxoan II in 1530.
Basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Salud in Patzcuaro
During the first years of the Conquest, Michoacán was part of the "kingdom of Mexico" which included the current states of Mexico, Querétaro,
Guanajuato and parts of
San Luis Potosí, Jalisco and Colima. These lands were divided into
encomiendas among the
conquistadors. The provinces with the largest populations were called Alcaldias Mayores, with Michoacán being one of these, with its capital initially at
Tzintzuntzan. Soon after, it was moved to Patzcuaro and eventually settled in what is now Morelia. The provincial and later state capital was founded by
Antonio de Mendoza in 1541. It became the political and ecclesiastical center of the province after the death of
Vasco de Quiroga in 1565.
Soon after the Conquest, evangelists from the
Carmelite and other orders established monasteries all over the territory. Some of the best-known are
Juan de Moya,
Martín de la Coruña and
Jacobo Daciano. As first governor, Nuño de Guzmán disrupted and devastated the social and economic order of the area. Vasco de Quirga succeeded Guzman, bringing Franciscan and Augustinian friars to both evangelize and repair the area's broken economy and social institutions. Quiroga founded the Spanish city of Patzcuaro in 1538, calling it the Ciudad de Mechuacán.
 For his efforts, Quiroga is still referred to in the Patzcuaro area as "Tata (grandfather) Vasco."
 The diocese of Michoacán was established in 1536 by
Pope Paul III, and its boundaries coincide with the old
Purépecha kingdom. Its first bishop was Vasco de Quiroga.
Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo began as the Colegio de San Nicolas Obispo, founded by Vasco de Quiroga in Patzcuaro in 1540. It was originally a seminary for the training of evangelists. It was granted a royal seal in 1543 to become the Real Colegio de San Nicolás Obispo. The school was moved to Morelia in 1580 and was fused with the Colegio de San Miguel Guayangareo. In 1590, its name was changed to the Seminario Tridentino, when the Seminario Conciliar in 1601. By the end of the 17th century, the name returned to Colegio de San Nicolás but its structure was profoundly changed, adding studies such as philosophy, civil law, and others. At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, a number of figures associated with the Mexican War of Independence, such as Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, José María Morelos and others were associated with this school. By the mid-19th century, the school had been secularized and renamed the Primitivo y Nacional Colegio de San Nicolás de Hidalgo adding studies such as chemistry, physics and other sciences. The current name and organization was adopted after the Mexican Revolution in 1917.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Augustinian, Franciscan and Carmelite missions were constructed in the territory as well as civil constructions, especially in the city now known as Morelia. Mining in areas such as
Inguaran was begun, as well as the establishment of agricultural and livestock
haciendas. The first school of higher education, called the Primera Casa de Altos Estudios en América, was founded by Alonso de la Veracruz in
 Michoacán was made a separate province from "Mexico" in 1602. By the mid-17th century, the indigenous population had declined by half. In 1776, the territory of Michoacán was reduced to the area in which the modern states of Michoacán and Colima are now. Soon after, Colima split to join with the province of Guadalajara, leaving Michoacán roughly with the territory it has today.
During the entire colonial period, the economy was concentrated in the hands of the Spanish-born, who held vast lands and haciendas. They also held the rights over minerals mined in places such as Tlalpujahua, Angangueo and
Huetamo. Indigenous peoples were exploited for their work, and
slavery was not uncommon. Education was restricted for only those born in Spain and their descendants and was controlled by the Church. The main educational institutions were the Colegio de San Nicolas, founded in the 16th century; and the Seminary of San Pedro and San Pablo, founded in the 18th century. These schools produced a number of distinguished men, but the best-known is
Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.
 At the end of the 18th century, ideas from Europe began to infiltrate the upper classes of the state, especially in Valladolid (Morelia) and
Zamora. These would eventually lead to the
Mexican War of Independence in the early 19th century.
 This war was foreshadowed by the 1809 conspiracy in Valladolid.
One of the early and main protagonists of the war,
Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, was educated as a priest in the state and began to disseminate Enlightenment ideas here. Soon after Hidalgo performed the
Grito de Dolores in Dolores (now
Dolores Hidalgo), Guanajuato, a number of people influenced by his thought took up arms against the colonial government. These included
Manuel de la Torre Lloreda,
José María Garcia Obeso and
Ignacio López Rayón. During his campaign, Hidalgo returned to Valladolid, issuing a decree eliminating slavery.
After Hidalgo's death, much of the insurgent government was located in Michoacán, with documents such as "Primera Constitución o Decreto Constitucional para la Libertad de la América Mexicana" (First Constitution or Constitutional Decree for the Liberty of the Mexican America) and "Sentimentos de la Nacion", both of which would shape constitutions and governments in the years to come. The first
Mexican Supreme Court was also founded here. The Mexican War of Independence was culminated by the army of
Agustín de Iturbide, also a Michoacán native, who took Morelia in May 1821.
After the war ended in 1821, the territory of Michoacán became the "Free and Sovereign State of Michoacán on 31 January 1824.
 This state was initially divided into 4 departments and 22 portions (partidos) under the Ley Territorial of 1825, with the first constitution ratified in the same year. The name of the capital was changed from Valladolid to Morelia at the same time.
In 1831, the state was reorganized into 61 municipalities and 207 locales (tenencias). Due to the struggle between centralists and federalists in Mexico in the 19th century, Michoacán's rights as an entity would change depending on who was in control. The state was declared a department in 1836 but became a more independent state again in 1846. Colima broke off from Michoacán to form its own state in this year. In 1849, the municipality of Coyuca was separated to form the state of Guerrero. In 1853, the state became a department again, regaining state status in 1856. In 1857, the municipality of Contepec separated to join the state of Guanajuato.
 Along with the loss of political territory, by 1863, the original diocese has shrunk but it was also elevated to archdiocese.
French Intervention in Mexico, Morelia was taken by French forces in 1863. Since resistance to the French was particularly strong here, punitive acts were undertaken by the French in places like
Zitácuaro, where much of the city was burned . One of the first victories that would get the French out of Mexico occurred in Zamora.
In 1907, Michoacán's boundaries changed again with the addition of the communities of
Zirandaro added from Guerrero state to make the
Balsas River a natural border.
Mexican Revolution came to Michoacán in 1911, when those loyal to
Francisco I. Madero proclaimed
Santa Clara del Cobre as their territory, then went on to take towns around Lake Patzcuaro under the leadership of
Salvador Escalante. The governor of the state, Aristeo Mendoza, resigned. Fighting among various factions would continue in parts of the state for the rest of the war. The state's current constitution was ratified in 1918.
In 1920, the
Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo was founded.
Soon after the end of the Revolution, the
Cristero War would affect the state, which affected agricultural production and distribution. In 1926, hostilities closed the seminaries in Morelia and Zamora. Near the end of the war,
Lázaro Cárdenas was elected governor of the state and served until 1932; he became president of Mexico in 1934.