Periodic clearance of new land for agriculture and the practice of slash-and-burn cultivation began around 750–530 BC. Artifacts found in the area suggest that an increasing number of travellers from Karelia in the east, Häme in the south and the Arctic Ocean coast in the north must have come there from 500 AD onwards. The Sami are considered to be Lapland`s most indigenous existing population.
Rovaniemi is first mentioned by name in official documents in 1453, existing effectively as a set of small villages whose inhabitants earned their living mainly in agriculture and animal husbandry with fishing and hunting the most important offshoots.
The exploitation of Lapland's natural resources in the 1800s boosted Rovaniemi's growth. Extensive logging sites and gold fever attracted thousands of people to Lapland. As the mining of natural resources was increased, Rovaniemi became the business centre of the province of Lapland.
During the Second World War, Finland signed the Moscow Armistice and found itself involved in the Lapland War with its former German ally. Retreating German forces utilised scorched earth tactics, and though initially German General Lothar Rendulic ordered only the public buildings in Rovaniemi to be destroyed, on 13 October 1944 the German army received orders to destroy all the buildings in Rovaniemi, only excluding hospitals and houses where inhabitants were present. While the German rear guard was going about the destruction, an ammunition train in Rovaniemi station exploded and set fire to the wooden houses of the town. The German troops suffered many casualties, mainly from glass splinters. A Finnish commando unit claimed to have blown up the ammunition train and may well have been the primary cause of the town's ruin. The cause was then unknown and generally assumed to be the deliberate intent of Rendulic. During these hostilities 90% of all the buildings in Rovaniemi were destroyed. There is a German cemetery 19 km from Rovaniemi where soldiers killed fighting in Lapland during the war are buried.