Beginning in the second half of the 18th century Mapuche-Spanish and later Mapuche-Chilean trade increased and hostilities decreased. Mapuches obtained goods from Chile and some dressed in "Spanish" clothing. Despite close contacts Chileans and Mapuches remained socially, politically and economically distinct. During Chile's first fifty years of independence (1810-1860) the governments relation to the Araucanía territory was not a priority and the Chilean government prioritized the development of Central Chile over its relations with indigenous groups.
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento stated:
Between two Chilean provinces (Concepción and Valdivia) there is a piece of land that is not a province, its language is different, it is inhabited by other people and it can still be said that it is not part of Chile. Yes, Chile is the name of the country over where its flag waves and its laws are obeyed.
The Chilean agriculture sector was badly affected by the Chilean War of Independence. Following the Chilean silver rush that began in 1832, agriculture expanded in the Norte Chico. The next major expansion of agricultural activity occurred from 1848 onwards thanks to wheat demand during the colonization of Australia and the California Gold Rush. Despite the vanishing of the Californian and Australian markets, wheat cultivation remained highly profitable. In the 1850s, with the German colonization of Valdivia, Osorno and Llanquihue and the onset of sheep farming in the Chilean territory at the Strait of Magellan, Araucanía remained the sole place for agriculture to expand.
Mapuche lands around south of Bío-Bío River began to be bought by non-Mapuches in the late 18th century, and by 1860 land between Bío-Bío and Malleco River was mostly under control of Chileans. The Chilean wheat boom increased the pressure to acquire lands in Araucanía by Chileans and lead to numerous scams and frauds against Mapuches. A limited number of speculators obtained control over vast lands through frauds and maintained control over their assets with the aid of gunmen.
A contrast appeared: while the Chilean economy had a blooming agriculture sector, a large part of the Mapuche economy revolved around livestock operations in one of the largest territories any indigenous group had ever possessed in South America.
In 1849 a ship travelling between Valdivia and Valparaíso, El Joven Daniel, wrecked at the coast between the mouths of Imperial and Toltén River. The shipwreck was looted by a local Mapuche tribe and some of the survivors were killed. These events were first known in Valdivia and later in Santiago where they fueled a strong anti-Mapuche sentiment and reaffirmed views that the Mapuches were brutal barbarians. The opposition to president Manuel Bulnes called for a punitive expedition and Mapuches prepared for a confrontation with the Chilean Army. Bulnes did however dismiss the calls for a punitive expedition in the view of its irrelevance to the eventual conquest of Araucanía.
When Chilean liberals began the 1851 Revolution Mapuche chief Mañil joined the rebel army and fought with José María de la Cruz's army against the troops of Manuel Bulnes at the Battle of Loncomilla. After defeat at Loncomilla Mañil returned south. According to historian José Bengoa Mapuches saw the government in Santiago as their main enemy, explaining thus the participation of Mapuches on the side of José María de la Cruz Concepción-based revolt.
The encroachment of settlers that had advanced over time from the north across Bío Bío River into Mapuche territory and the appearance of German settlers in the south of the Mapuche territory led chief Mañil in 1859 to call for an uprising to assert control over the territory. Most Mapuches responded to the call, except the communities at Purén, Choll Choll, and the southern coastal Mapuches who had strong links with Valdivia. The towns of Angol, Negrete and Nacimiento were attacked. A peace proposal made by settlers was accepted in 1860 during a meeting of several Mapuche chiefs. In the agreement it was established that land transfers could only be made with the approval of the chiefs.
The 1859 uprising reinforced the view of Mapuches as a dangerous threat to the emerging settlements in Araucanía and influenced public opinion in Chile to push for the complete incorporation of Araucanía into Chile. These events contributed to the Chilean authorities' decision of occupying Araucanía.
In 1823, Chilean minister Mariano Egaña had a law project approved by the congress to colonize the territory between Imperial River and Bío Bío River, establishing a series of forts on the northern shores of Imperial and Cautín River in the middle of Araucanía. Chilean president Ramón Freire adopted the project initially but was later convinced to organize instead the expulsion of the Spanish from Chiloé Archipelago, leaving the Araucanía issue pending.
In 1849, Chilean minister Antonio Varas delivered a report to the Chilean congress analyzing the situation in Araucanía. In his report, Varas recommended that a government regime distinct from the rest of the country should be designed for an eventual incorporation of Araucanía. Varas expressed the view that the eventual mission was to be to civilize the indigenous inhabitants by increasing their material standard of living and "raise their spirit to the moral and religious truths".
Manuel Montt, as President of Chile, passed a law on December 7 of 1852 that created the Province of Arauco, a territory intended to administer all territories south of the Bío-Bío River and north of Valdivia Province.
The final planning of the occupation of Araucanía can be largely attributed to colonel Cornelio Saavedra Rodríguez. The plan outlined by Saavedra envisaged a state-led colonization influenced by the developments of the United States frontier in sharp contrast to the old private enterprise-led Spanish colonization of Chile. The plan included the following points:
- The advancement of the Chilean Army to Malleco River and the establishment there of a defensive line.
- The subdivision of state land in plots and transfer of state titles of land in the territory between Malleco and Bío Bío River to privates.
- The colonization of Araucanía by Chilean and foreign settlers gathering at the same places foreign settlers of different nationalities to ease their assimilation.
- Indigenous peoples were to "enter into reduction and civilization".
In 1861 Cornelio Saavedra Rodríguez ordered major Pedro Lagos to advance into the confluence of Mulchén River with Bureo River. A small fort was erected at the site between December 1861 and May 1862 after the local Mapuche chief Manuel Nampai handed over the land. From this fort the town of Mulchén grew. Following a custom inherited from colonial times, Saavedra assigned salaries to friendly Mapuche chiefs in zones of Mulchén.
Cornelio Saavedra attempted to pressure the Chilean government to approve his plans by presenting his renounce in December 1861 and again in February 1862.
In 1862 Saavedra advanced with a group of 800 soldiers into the remnants of the town of Angol while other troops reinforced the defenses of Los Ángeles, Negrete, Nacimiento and Mulchén. An eventual defense of Purén and Santa Bárbara was to be made by groups of civilians.
Saavedra retired from the army in January 1864 after political pressures from the ministers of President José Joaquín Pérez. The Chincha Islands War between Spain and an alliance between Chile and Peru made the government call Saavedra into the army again in 1866 in order to defend the coast of Araucanía against possible Spanish attacks. Saavedra ordered a fort to be constructed in the coast between Lebu and Imperial River. The government also granted Saavedra three steam ships to scout the coast. On December 1866 the coastal locality of Queule was occupied by Chilean troops.
In response to the Chilean advances, the Arribanos decided to go to war while the Lafquenches of Budi Lake, Toltén and Queule had a meeting where they declared themselves neutral in the conflict but still loyal to the Chilean government. The Pehuenches did also declare themselves neutral. The Pehuenche chief Pichiñán is reported to have spoken against the Moluches, who wanted war, claiming that they engaged in robbery and received for that just punishments by Chileans. Historian José Bengoa claims Pehuenche neutrality was indebted to the fact that their lands in the Andes were not subject to colonization.
In 1867 Saavedra called the Mapuches to a "parliament" where he informed them of the Chilean decision of fortifying the Malleco River line. The parliament was attended by around thousand Abajinos. The Arribanos gathered around 2000 men near the parliament but refused to attend unless the Chileans sent some men as hostages. Despite this incident the a parliament was held the next day. Mapuches are reported to have been infuriated when they discovered the plans of Saavedra and that Mapuche chief Nahueltripai had allowed the Chileans to establish forts in his lands.
These events lead to the formation of an alliance between the northern Abajinos and the Arribanos.
As the Mapuches prepared for war many moved their families to safe sites south of Cautín River (according to El Mercurio de Valparaíso) or to Lonquimay (according to El Ferrocarril). The Abajino chiefs Catrileo and Pinolevi who had close ties with the Chilean government refused to join the Abajino-Arribano alliance and were in 1868 killed in a malón directed at them.
In 1868 the Arribano chief Quilapán, son of Mañil, attacked a Chilean outpost at Chihuaihue. A group of Chileans led by Pedro Lagos came under attack while moving to Quechereguas. Yet another party of Mapuches defeated a Chilean Army group killing 23 of 28 soldiers. In response to the initial failure commandant José Manuel Pinto launched a scorched earth strategy in Mapuche lands in the summer of 1869. In these incursions by the Chilean Armies houses and crop fields were looted and more than 2 million livestock animals stolen from Mapuches. Part of the Mapuche civil population, including women and children, were either killed or held captive. In addition to the pillaging by the Chilean Army, bandits looted Mapuche property with consent of Chilean authorities. The Mapuches refused to engage in battles allowing the Chilean armies cross all over their territory. The differences in war materiel between Mapuches and the Chilean Army was huge, while Chileans used repeating rifles Mapuches had few firearms and used bolas, spears and slings.
The war provoked a famine among Mapuches in the winter of 1869, with the situation being worsened by an smallpox epidemic. Some Mapuches sold their few remaining livestock and their silver adornments in the towns of La Frontera to obtain food.
In late 1869 and early 1870 Saavedra arranged two parliaments; one at Toltén and another at Ipinco. At Toltén Saavedra attempted to make agreements with the southern chiefs in order to isolate Quilapán. The chiefs attending the meeting could not agree on whether Saavedra should be allowed to establish a town in southern Araucanía or not. At Toltén Mapuche chiefs revealed to Saavedra that Orélie-Antoine de Tounens was once again at Araucanía. Upon hearing that his prescense in Araucanía had been revealed Orélie-Antoine de Tounens fled to Argentina, having however promised Quilapán to obtain arms. There is some reports that a shipment arms seized by Argentine authorities at Buenos Aires in 1871 was ordered Orélie-Antoine de Tounens. A French battleship, d'Entrecasteaux, that anchored in 1870 at Corral drew suspicions from Saavedra of some sort of French interference.
At the parliament of Ipinco the Abajinos rejected all the points proposed by Saavedra. The parliament did nevertheless serve to weaken the Abajino–Arribano alliance.
In 1870 the Chilean Army resumed its operations against the Mapuches. José Manuel Pinto declared formally war to the Mapuches on behalf of Chile in May 1870. In the 1870-1871 period the Mapuches tended to evacuate their families in advance prior to the arrivals of the looting Chilean Army. During the winter of 1870 the Chilean Army continued to burn rukas and steal livestock. These inconclusive operations were subject of ridicule in some Santiago newspapers. Despite of this the situation of many Mapuche worsened; newspaper El Meteoro reported scarcity of food, livestock numbers had declined and harvest or sowing had not been possible for many Mapuches for almost three years. Domingo Melín, who went on behalf of Quilapán, sought unsuccessfully in 1870 a peace agreement with Chile.
In the summer of 1871 Quilapán amassed an army that included reinforcement of Mapuches coming from Argentina and launched a campaign against the fortified Malleco Line and the settlers around it. This attack was repulsed by the Chilean Army whose cavalry had recently changed its Minié rifles by Spencer repeating rifle giving them a distinct advantage against the Mapuches.
Quilapán sent a letter in March 1871 to Orozimbo Barbosa seeking for a peace agreement. No agreement took place but hostilities ceased for 10 years (1871-1881). Cornelio Saavedra renounced to the command of the Army of Operations of Araucanía (Ejército de Operaciones en la Araucanía) in 1871 due to political reasons.
During the period following the war of 1871 Mapuches in the Chilean occupied parts suffered many abuses and even murder by settlers and Chilean military.
Mapuches noticed the shrinking of Chilean garrisons as Chile sent troops northwards to fight Peru and Bolivia during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883). The apparent weakening of Chilean military presence in Araucanía and the many abuses made Mapuches to start planning rebellions.
A case of theft of horses in 1880 caused chief Domingo Melín to be escorted by Chilean troops to Angol in order to declare. Before reaching Angol Domingo Melín and some of his relatives where killed by the Chilean military. Mapuches responded to this by attacking the fort and village of Traiguén in September 1880. Almost thousand warriors participated in the retribution, something that according to José Bengoa evidences that Mapuches had been preparing for war.
The campaigns of the Argentine Army against Mapuches in the other side of the Andes pushed in 1880 many Mapuches into Araucanía. Pehuenche chief Purrán was taken prisoner by the Argentine Army and the Argentine Army penetrated in the valley of Lonquimay which Chile considered part of its legal territory. The fast Argentine advance alarmed Chilean authorities and contributed to the Chilean-Mapuche confrontations of 1881.
In January 1881 the Mapuches of the Malleco zone rose against the Chilean occupation. The town and forts of Traiguén, Lumaco and Collipulli were attacked.
Having decisively defeated Peru in the battles of Chorrillos and Miraflores in January 1881 Chilean authorities turned their attention to Araucanía seeking to defend the previous advances that had been so difficult to establish. The idea was not only to defend forts and settlements but also to advance the frontier all the way from Malleco River to Cautín River. Interior minister Manuel Recabarren was appointed by president Aníbal Pinto to oversee the process from the town of Angol. Colonel Gregorio Urrutia was summoned from Chilean-occupied Lima to Araucanía to take charge of the Army of the South.
On March 28 Gregorio Urrutia founded the town of Victoria at the shores of Traiguén River. Racabarren personally led a large column that established the forts of Quillem, Lautaro and Pillalelbún. In this last place Recabarren was approached by some Mapuche chiefs who asked him to not advance beyond Cautín River. Recabarren answered by telling them that the whole territory was being occupied. At the founding of Temuco in the northern shores of Cautín River Recabarren met chief Venacio Coñoepán and other chiefs from Choll-Choll who asked him to not advance further.
With the Chilean advance to Cautín River a small mountain range called Cadena de Ñielol remained a focus of Mapuche resistance from where warriors conducted pillaging raids or attacks against vulnerable targets. To end this activity Gregorio Urrutia established a fort in the range.
Initially Mapuches offered little resistance to Chilean advance to Cautín River. Recabarren believed that Mapuches had not reacted because they expected the foundation of new forts and towns to be preceded by parliaments with Chilean authorities.
A wave of Mapuche attacks begun in late February 1881, just a few days after the founding of Temuco in the middle of Mapuche territory. The first major attack was against a caravan of carts carrying injured soldiers from Temuco to Fuerte Ñielol. The whole escort of over 40 soldiers and the 96 injured and sick soldiers were killed. In response to these attacks Gregorio Urrutia launched an attack on the Mapuche warriors of Cadena Ñielol burning in his way over 500 rukas and caputered over 800 cattle and horses. On the other side of the Andes Pehuenches assaulted on March the Argentine outpost of Chos Malal killing the whole garrison of 25-30 soldiers. In mid-March Mapuche chiefs met to discuss the situation. They rejected the establishment of new Chilean settlements and decided to go to war. They set 5 November as the date for their uprising.
A group of Arribanos attacked by mistake on wrong date, November 3, the fort of Quillem. This attack put on alert all Chilean garrisons in Araucanía, settlers took refuge in the forts. Mapuches unsuccessfully attacked Lumaco, Puerto Saavedra and Toltén. Around Tirúa Costino warriors suffered heavy casualties in two engagements with a group of more than 400 armed settlers, campesinos and some soldiers. Only Imperial was effectively overrun.
The most important engagements were held at the fort of Ñielol and Temuco located at the heart of Araucanía. In these localities revolting Mappuches were unsuccessful in dislodging Chileans and their allies from fortified positions.
The uprising was not unanimous as number of Mapuche leaders and communities sided with Chile. After defeat uprising Mapuche chiefs were severely punished. The rukas of Ancamilla and other revolting chiefs were razed.
Cornelio Saavedra had considered the ability to cross the Andes one the Mapuches principal military strengths. To block Mapuches from freely cross the Andes and to assert sovereignty over the Andean valleys several expeditions were organized in the summer of 1882. One expedition founded the fort of Nitrito in the Andean valley of Lonquimay, another founded Cunco near Llaima Volcano and yet another expedition founded Curacautín in the upper course of Cautín River.
On January 1, 1883, Chile refounded the old city of Villarrica ending thus formally the process of occupation of Araucanía. Six months later, on June 1, president Domingo Santa María declared:
The country has with satisfaction seen the problem of the reduction of the whole Araucanía solved. This event, so important to our social and political life, and so significant for the future of the republic, has ended, happily and with costly and painful sacrifices. Today the whole Araucanía is subjugated, more than to the material forces, to the moral and civilizing force of the republic...
Historian Ward Churchill has claimed that the Mapuche population dropped from a total of half a million to 25,000 within a generation as result of the occupation and its associated disease and famine. The conquest of Araucanía caused numerous Mapuches to be displaced and forced to roam in search of shelter and food. Some Chilean forts responded by providing food rations. Until around 1900 the Chilean state provided almost 10000 food rations monthly to displaced Mapuches. Mapuche poverty was recurring theme in Chilean Army memoirs from the 1880s to around 1900.
By 1929 the Chilean government had given nearly 5,000 hectares of land in more than three thousand plots to settlers in Araucanía.
The forts established in coast became nuclei for the formation of new towns.
In the years following the occupation the economy of Araucanía changed from being based on sheep and cattle herding to one based on agriculture and wood extraction. The loss of land by Mapuches following the occupation caused severe erosion since Mapuches continued to practise a massive livestock herding in limited areas.
When the territory of Araucanía was subdued the Chilean government issued calls for immigration in Europe. The most numerous groups of settlers were the Italians who settled mainly around Lumaco, the Swiss who colonized Traiguén and Boers who settled mainly around Freire and Pitrufquén. Other settler nationalities included Englishmen, French people and Germans. There are estimates that by 1886 there were 3,501 foreign settlers in Araucanía, another investigation points out that 5,657 foreign settlers arrived to Araucanía in the 1883–90 period.
At first Chilean settlers arrived to Araucanía by their own initiative. Later the government begun to stimulate the settlement of Chileans in Araucanía. Chilean settlers were mostly poor and largely remained so in their new lands.
In 1858 there were 22 public schools in the Province of Arauco. This number increased as with each new town established in Araucanía a school was built. Public education definitely overshadowed the older and tiny missionary school system in Araucanía during the conquest. During the conquest many Mapuche chiefs were forced to send their sons to study in Chillán or Concepción. In 1888 the provinces first high school was established in Temuco. Scholar Pablo Miramán claims the introduction of state education had detrimental effects on traditional Mapuche education in Araucanía. The sons of Mapuche chiefs were the key targets of public education.
After the Mapuche resistance had been crushed Araucanía suffered a sudden rise in violence and continued to be an insecure zone for many years. Assaults and robbery were common. Because of this until the 1920s carbines, revolvers and other firearms were common in the households of Araucanía.
In 1896 a police force called Cuerpo de Gendarmes de las Colonias was created to improve law and order in the provinces of Arauco, Malleco, Cautín, Valdivia, Llanquihue and Chiloé. This institution was until 1905 led by captain Hernán Trizano. Later Cuerpo de Gendarmes de las Colonias would be fused with other policing bodies to form Carabineros de Chile, Chile's current national police force.