This area, like the rest of the Lake Pátzcuaro region, was settled by the Purépecha people starting from the 12th century. In this area, the Purépecha founded villages such as Churucumeo, Cuirindicho, Andicua, Huitzila, Taboreca and Itziparátzico with the village closest to the modern town of Santa Clara del Cobre being Xacuaro. Of Mesoamerican cultures, only the Purépecha and the Zapotec peoples in Oaxaca were able to extensively use copper. This metal was rare among the Aztecs. The Purépecha were the most advanced in metallurgy, with the ability to fashion bells, decorations, jewelry and tools such as axes. They also knew how to inlay gold into copper objects. Burial grounds here have yielded copper items such as axes, masks and pincers. Part of the reason for this is that the area contained mines such as Inguarán and Opopeo which were known for abundance and which attracted the Spanish when they arrived.
At the beginning of the Conquest, most natives here fled the Spaniards, but were later enticed to return by the Spanish to continue their former trades. One of the incentives that Vasco de Quiroga gave the natives of the Santa Clara area was the exclusive right to produce “cazos” a cross between a large caldron and a very large wok. These are still used today in Mexico, often to render fat or to fry pig skin into chicharrones. He also introduced new methods of smelting and working copper. Evangelization of the area was led by Friar Francisco Villafuerte, and the town was founded as Santa Clara de Acuero by Friar Martín de Jesús in 1521.
In 1540, a large forge was built here to smelt copper, which was not from local sources but rather from mines miles away. Smelting was done here because the process require three times the charcoal as ore, and the surrounding forests provided the charcoal. The town was officially founded in 1553, with the name Santa Clara de los Cobres. Santa Clara became the most important copper smelting area in New Spain, meeting the demand for cauldrons, stills, casks, church bells and sending copper to the mint for coinage. In 1765, the town of Santa Clara de los Cobres incorporated two Indian settlements called Santa María Opopeo, and Santiago de Ario. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was a sacristan of the parish church in 1788. The settlement was officially named a town in 1858 and called Santa Clara de Portugal in honor of Cayetano de Portugal.
Copper production peaked in the second half of the 19th century. At this time a huge fire destroyed the town and it remained impoverished from the end of the 19th century into the early 20th. It burned again in 1910, with the Spanish population abandoning the town for nearby Pátzcuaro and Morelia, leaving only the indigenous. The municipality was the scene of the first uprising in support of Francisco I. Madero, led by Salvador Escalante. However, the town had so degraded economically that its coppersmithing tradition was ignored by Dr. Atl in his 1921 classic work The Popular Arts of Mexico. In 1932, the town’s name was changed to Villa Escalante and the municipality’s name was changed to Salvador Escalante but neither name was ever used popularly. In 1946, a group of local artisans decided to organize a copper fair, which continues to this day. The copper industry was revived here making decorated jugs, vases, centerpieces and other items. However, the nearest copper mines were tapped out in the mid 20th century. Today, the 10,000 tons of copper that comes into Santa Clara each week arrives in the form of recycled copper wire and cable from electric and telephone companies in Mexico and abroad. In 1981, the town changed its name back to Santa Clara del Cobre but kept Salvador Escalante as the official name of the municipality.