Tenino was officially incorporated on July 24, 1906, though it existed as a rural community since the mid-1800s. Originally, American settlers were attracted to the area by the open prairies, which were the result of local natives conducting controlled burns to promote the proliferation of camas root, one of their staple foods.
Tenino's downtown is built of mostly Tenino Sandstone, which is quite unusual for such a small city. The sandstone was used to build many government buildings, post offices, and schools, throughout the northwest and is still used for some decorative architectural purposes. Many buildings are listed on the National Historic Register.
The town is now largely a bedroom community for those working in the larger cities to the west and north.