Hispaniola was inhabited by Arawak Indians when Christopher Columbus landed there on his first voyage in 1492. He called the island La Isla Española (“the Spanish Isle”), the latinized form of which is Hispaniola. His brother Bartholomew founded the city of Santo Domingo in 1496, naming it for his father's patron saint. For a while the entire island was called Santo Domingo.

Hispaniola became the first Spanish stronghold in the New World but lost its position of importance after the conquest of Mexico (1519–21). In the 17th century French buccaneers took control of the western part of the island (now Haiti). In 1697, in the Treaty of Ryswick, Spain recognized French title to this region. From that time on the name Santo Domingo was applied to the eastern part of the island (what is now the Dominican Republic).

In 1795, during the Napoleonic Wars, Spain ceded Santo Domingo to France. The Dominicans reestablished Spanish rule in 1809 and proclaimed their independence in 1821. Haiti ruled its neighbor from 1822 to 1844, when the Dominican Republic was established.

The country suffered from revolutions, dictatorships, and wars with Haiti. In 1861 President Pedro Santana turned the country back to Spain. The Dominicans regained independence in 1865. More dictatorships followed. In 1907, the United States agreed to take control of the republic's finances to save it from bankruptcy. Strife continued until 1916, when the United States sent in Marines to restore order. They were withdrawn in 1924.

In 1930,General Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina deposed the president and eliminated political opposition. He brought stability to the government and began rebuilding the economy, but his regime was a brutal dictatorship. He held the presidency until 1938, and again from 1942 to 1952, when his brother Héctor took office. Héctor Trujillo was succeeded by Joaquín Balaguer in 1960. While not holding the presidency, Rafael Trujillo continued to control the government as head of the armed forces. On May 30, 1961, he was assassinated.

President Balaguer tried to keep his position after Trujillo's assassination, but there was much popular unrest. In January, 1962, an opposing faction set up a ruling council. It survived an attempted coup and revised the constitution. In December, the country's first free elections since 1924 were held. Juan Bosch became president. He was deposed in a military coup in September, 1963, and a military-supported government took control.

In April, 1965, an uprising aimed at reinstating Bosch took place. Civil war resulted. U.S. Marines were sent by President Lyndon B. Johnson to help restore order and to avert a Communist takeover.

The OAS created a committee to mediate between the Dominican factions and sent an inter-American peace force. The United States withdrew all its troops except for those serving with the OAS forces. The four-month civil war ended in August with agreement on a provisional government, but sporadic fighting continued into 1966. General elections in June, 1966, reinstated Balaguer as president. That September all remaining foreign forces were withdrawn.

Balaguer was reelected many times, and served as president until 1978, and again from 1986 to 1996. Under Balaguer's leadership, the Dominican Republic became politically stable and developed one of the strongest economies in Latin America. However, poverty caused many Dominicans to leave the country and emigrate illegally to the United States.