The early history of Palamu is shrouded in legends and traditions. Since the district consisted mostly of forest tracts the territory seldom engaged the attention of invading armies, and the area remained outside the pale of influence of empires which were established in other parts of modern Bihar. The area was probably inhabited by autochthonous tribes in the past. The Kharwars, Oraons and Cheros, three oboriginal races practically ruled over this tract. Inscriptions and other relics which have been found indicate a fairly developed civilization inspite of the jungles and comparative inaccessibility of the area. The Oraons had their headquarters at Rohtas Garh in the then Shahabad district (which included the present district of Kaimur and Rohtas) and there is every indication that for sometime a portion of Palamu was ruled from the headquarters of Rohtas Garh. The Cheros reigned in Palamu for nearly 200 years and the most famous of the Chero rulers was Medni Rai who according to tradition made himself lord Paramount of the southern portion of Gaya and of large portions of Hazaribag and Sarguja (in Madhya Pradesh). His son, Pratap Rai built a fort at Palamu separate from the fort that had been built by his father.
Prior to the domination of Palamu by the Cheros, Rakshel Rajputs held sway over the district. They in turn, had supplanted early Marhatta settlers of whom, however, no trace is to be found now. They have probably been assimilated in the indigenous population.
A factual history of Palamu, begins from the first half of the 16th century. In 1538 Sher Shah Suri had sent one of his officers to control the turbulent chiefs and free the Grand Trunk Road from their clutches who used to exploit the travellers. The Mughal influence extended to Palamu during the reign of Emperor Akbar when it was invaded by Raja Mansingh in 1574. The troops left by him were, however, driven out in 1605 when Akbar died.
In 1629, Emperor Shahjehan appointed Ahmad Khan as the sufedar of Patna. Palamu was conferred to him as his Jagir. Ahmad Khan imposed tax to the tune of Rs.1,36,000. The non-payment of this mandatory tax by Chero rulers of Palamu led to three successive attacks by the Mughals. The first invasion took place in the reign of Pratap Rai. The Mughal army was led by Shaista Khan the Governor of Bihar. The army reached the fort of Palamu, defeated Pratap Rai and compelled to pay tax of Rs.80,000.
The second invasion was called by internal bickerings. As a result of this Pratap Rai after negotiations agreed to pay an annual tax off Rs. One lakh only On the recommendation of Itaikad Khan, successor of Shaista Khan, Emperor Shahjehan gave Palamu to him as a military chief on a jama of Rs. 2.5 laksh.
Despite two invasions the payment of tax by Chero Chiefs were never regular. As a last resort, Daud Khan, Governor of Bihar, left Patna with a strong force in 1660 and in spite of heavy drawbacks and difficult terrain, reached within three kilometers of palamu. There was an engagement and fighting which lasted three days, after which the fort was captured. Palamu was then placed in charge of Muhammadan Faujdar. But this system was done away soon and Palamu was placed under the direct control of the Viceroy of Bihar in 1660. Palamu was again invaded by Subedar Sarballand Khan. But actual fighting was warded off by the payment of one lakh of rupees in cash and in the shape of diamonds.
As in some other districts here also the British intervened at others' invitation. The circumstances leading to the stablishment of Bihar rule in Palamu sowed the seed of disaffection and enmity between the dispossessed Cheros and their new masters. The first intervention of the British in the affairs of the Chero Raj of Palamu occurred in 1772 owing to the protracted internecine quarrels between two rival Chero factions (1722-70). Two candidates claiming to be the rightful Raja, one Gopal Rai, grandson of Jaikishun Rai, the other Chitrajit Rai, grandson of the murdered ruling chief Ranjit Rai, brought their suits to the British. The British, more interested in revenue collection than in family quarrels, decided to occupy the fort of Palamu. As Chitrajit's Dewan, Jainath Singh, refused to agree to this even in return for recognition of Chitrajit's claim, the controlling council at Patna decided to support the cause of Goapl Rai. The fort was occupied by the British in February, 1771 and Gopal Rai was installed as the ruler on the agreeing to pay an annual tribute of Rs. 12,000. Gopal Rai was however, removed after trial in 1776. There followed a scramble for power. Bishwanath Rai, his minor brother, succeeded him while Gajraj Rai became the manager. But their position was assailed by Sugandh Rai, and Sheo Prasad Singh. However, Gajraj Rai could continue due to the support of the Collector of Ramgarh. Meanwhile in 1780 Daljit Rai, brother of Chatrapati Rai, attempted to revive the fortune of the house of Medni Rai. The Governor ordered that Bishwanth Rai, the third brother of Gopal Rai and not Gajraj or Sugandh, was the successor to the gaddi. Since this order was resisted Major Grawford was sent to Palamu with military force to restore peace. Major Crawford managed to capture Gajraj and Sugandha. Raja Bishwanath Rai died in 1783. he was followed by Churaman Rai who came of age in 1793.
Churaman Rai succeeded in resuming the estate of his weaker tenants. His action provoked the tenantry, and led to the Chero insurrection in 1800. The leader was Bhukhan Singh, a Chero. The British came with a force and suppressed the insurrection but by that time the Raja and the administration had been reduced to bankruptcy. An Assistant Collector of Bihar was apointed to look after the revenue collection in the western part of the province. Parry, the Assistant Collector who took over in 1811 made the first settlement of revenue in 1812. he annulled the Sanad, granted by Churaman Rai and took over direct collection. The Palamu estate was attacked. In 1812, the sale of Palamu estate was authorized and it was accordingly sold for Rs. 51,000 against arrears amounting to Rs. 65,000. The assessment of the estate was reduced to Rs. 9,000 in 1814 when it was granted to Ghanshyam Singh of Deo as a reward to his help to the British in suppressing the Cheros and the Kharwars.
In 1813 there was a rising organized by great Jagirdars. This led to the attachment of the estates of Chainpur. Ranka, Lokaya, Bisrampur and Obra. The Kok rebellion of 1832 had its impact in Palamu also. The Cheros and the Kharwars rose against the administration, and non-tribal Hindus and Muslims. The insurgents were, however, defeated in an engagement with the British forces near Latehar.
During the 1857 Movement, Palamu was the most severely affected district of the Chotanagpur plateau.
The brothers Nilambar and Pitambar were chiefs of Bhogta clan of the Kharwar tribe, who held ancestral jagirs. Immediately after they heard movement against the British rule they made up their minds to declare independence. They were joined by many Chero Jagirdars. On 21st October, 1857 a force of 500 persons was organised which was led by Nilambar and Pitamber. They attacked Raghubar Dayal at Chainpur since he had sided with the British. From there they proceeded to Leslieganj and caused heavy destruction. Lt. Graham, with only 50 persons at his disposal, could not do much to thwart the insurgents. The entire countryside appeared to be up in arms. Lt. Graham was besieged in the house of Raghubar Dayal. In December, two companies arrived under Major Cotter. He was able to capture Devi Baksh Rai, one of the principal leaders of the movement. In January Col. Dalton, the Commissioner of Ranchi himself came to Palamu and captured the Palamu Fort. Ultimately the insurgents were captured and peace was restored soon afterwards. It is noteworthy that the movement in Palamu was no mere sepoy mutiny but an uprising of the indigenous population of the district.
Palamu played an important part in the freedom movement of the country. The Bihar Students’ Conference was held at Daltonganj in 1920 under the presidentship of Rev. C.F. Andrews. The participants included Mazharul Haque, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Rajendra Prasad visited Daltonganj in 1927. The August disturbances in 1942 had their echoes in Palamu. The people of Palamu took active part in all the subsequent movements which led to the country’s independence.