The name "Tampico" is of
Huastec origin, tam-piko meaning "place of otters" (literally "water dogs"). The city is surrounded by rivers and lagoons of the delta of the
Pánuco River, which was the habitat of a large population of
otters. There have been successive human settlements in the area for centuries. The region had several early
Huastec settlements, among them the important site at
Las Flores, which flourished between AD 1000 and 1250.
In 1532, during the
Spanish colonial period, the Franciscan priest
Andrés de Olmos established a
mission and monastery in the area, building over a former Huastec village. At his request, Spanish officials founded a settlement named San Luis de Tampico in 1554. This site was abandoned in 1684 and the population relocated to the south of the
Pánuco River because of frequent attacks by European and American pirates. The area was abandoned for nearly 150 years.
The present Mexican city was founded on April 13, 1823 on the north bank of the Pánuco River about 10 kilometres (6 mi) from the Gulf, after Mexico achieved
independence from Spain. Tampico built its economy on the exportation of silver; business development was mostly as a trading center and market town of an agricultural region. The town also became a common waypoint for the re-routing of African slaves to be illegally smuggled into the
Southern United States, which had outlawed the international slave trade in 1807.
 In August 1829, Spain sent troops from
Cuba to invade Tampico in an effort to regain control of the region, but in September, General
Antonio López de Santa Anna forced the Spanish troops to surrender, and Mexican control of Tampico was re-established.
20th century to present
The first oil well in Mexico was drilled near Tampico at Ébano S.L.P. in 1901, by Californian
Edward Doheny, who founded
Mexican Petroleum Corporation.
 In the early 20th century, there was extensive U.S. investment in oil development in Tampico, with a sizable United States expatriate community developing in relation to the industry. With the outbreak of the
Mexican Revolution, which lasted roughly from 1910 to 1920, the U.S. monitored the situation to protect its citizens and investments. Doheny sold some of his businesses to the
Standard Oil Company which operated its monopoly here. The oil-producing area was so productive it was called the "Golden Belt."
The oil fields known as Ébano, Pánuco, Huasteca, and Túxpan are all situated within a 160-kilometre (99 mi) radius of the city. Oil was often shipped on barges along the rivers. To improve transportation of oil to the port, the government built the
Chijol Canal, beginning in 1901. It is 1.8 m (6 ft) deep and 7.6 m (25 ft) wide and runs 120 km (75 mi) southward through the oil fields to Túxpan.
Mexican Revolution, on April 9, 1914,
10 Mexican troops and nine
U.S. Navy sailors from the
USS Dolphin confronted each other in a failure to communicate as U.S. forces tried to get fuel supplies. General
Victoriano Huerta's forces in the city were threatened by different groups from both north and south. The Americans were arrested and later freed, but the U.S. resented Huerta's demands for some recognition. In the resulting
Tampico Affair, the U.S. sent naval and marine forces into
Veracruz and occupied the city for seven months in a show of force. Due to resulting anti-American demonstrations on each coast, other U.S. Navy ships were used to evacuate some American citizens to refugee camps in southern U.S. cities. The U.S. occupation contributed to the downfall of Huerta, and
Venustiano Carranza became president. He ensured that Mexico maintained neutrality during
World War I, in part due to lingering animosity against the U.S. for these actions.
In the 1970s, Tampico annexed the port city and suburb of
Ciudad Madero, which now comprises part of the
Tampico metropolitan area. Tampico has a modern port with excellent facilities, as well as rail and air connections to Mexico City and the United States.
The Mexican government nationalized the oil industry in 1939 and has maintained that for 75 years. In November 2014, President
Enrique Peña Nieto announced a policy change of ending
Pemex's monopoly and inviting private companies back into the oil and gas industry. While analysts believe the largest finds are likely to be offshore, new techniques may yield oil even at mature fields such as those of Tampico.
 In early 2015, the government planned to accept bids on 169 blocks, 47 of which are within 110 kilometres (70 mi) of Tampico.
 It is expected that smaller companies will be active in the mature fields, such as those in this region. This area has extensive
shale oil deposits, and the "
U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that Mexico has the world’s eighth-largest shale-oil resources."