The mountains lie within the Ural geographical region and significantly overlap with the Ural Federal District and with the Ural economic region. They have rich resources, including metal ores, coal, precious and semi-precious stones. Since the 18th century the mountains have contributed significantly to the mineral sector of the Russian economy.
As attested by Sigismund von Herberstein, in the 16th century Russians called the range by a variety of names derived from the Russian words for rock (stone) and belt. The modern Russian name for the Urals (Урал, Ural), first appearing in the 16th–17th century when the Russian conquest of Siberia was in its heroic phase, was initially applied to its southern parts and gained currency as the name of the entire range during the 18th century. It might have been a borrowing from either Turkic "stone belt" (Bashkir, where the same name is used for the range), or Ob-Ugric. From the 13th century, in Bashkortostan there has been a legend about a hero named Ural. He sacrificed his life for the sake of his people and they poured a stone pile over his grave, which later turned into the Ural Mountains. Possibilities include Bashkir үр "elevation; upland"" or Mansi ур ала "mountain peak, top of the mountain", Ostyak urr (chain of mountains). V.N. Tatischev believes that this oronym is set to "belt" and associates it with the Turkic verb oralu- "gird". I.G. Dobrodomov suggests a transition from Aral to Ural explained on the basis of ancient Bulgar-Chuvash dialects. Geographer E.V. Hawks believes that the name goes back to the Bashkir folklore Ural-Batyr. Ethnographer E.N. Shumilov suggested a Mongolian origin, Khural Uul, that is, "meeting of the mountains". The Evenk geographical term era "mountain" has also been theorized. Finno-Ugrist scholars consider Ural deriving from the Mansi word 'urr' meaning a mountain. Turkologists, on the other hand, have achieved majority support for their assertion that 'ural' in Tatar means a belt, and recall that an earlier name for the range was 'stone belt'.
As Middle-Eastern merchants traded with the Bashkirs and other people living on the western slopes of the Ural as far north as Great Perm, since at least the 10th century medieval mideastern geographers had been aware of the existence of the mountain range in its entirety, stretching as far as to the Arctic Ocean in the north. The first Russian mention of the mountains to the east of the East European Plain is provided by the Primary Chronicle, when it describes the Novgorodian expedition to the upper reaches of the Pechora in 1096. During the next few centuries Novgorodians engaged in fur trading with the local population and collected tribute from Yugra and Great Perm, slowly expanding southwards. The rivers Chusovaya and Belaya were first mentioned in the chronicles of 1396 and 1468, respectively. In 1430 the town of Solikamsk (Kama Salt) was founded on the Kama at the foothills of the Ural, where salt was produced in open pans. Ivan III of Moscow captured Perm, Pechora and Yugra from the declining Novgorod Republic in 1472. With the excursions of 1483 and 1499–1500 across the Ural Moscow managed to subjugate Yugra completely.
Nevertheless, around that time early 16th century Polish geographer Maciej of Miechów in his influential Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis (1517) argued that there were no mountains in Eastern Europe at all, challenging the point of view of some authors of Classical antiquity, popular during the Renaissance. Only after Sigismund von Herberstein in his Notes on Muscovite Affairs (1549) had reported, following Russian sources, that there are mountains behind the Pechora and identified them with the Ripheans and Hyperboreans of ancient authors, did the existence of the Ural, or at least of its northern part, become firmly established in the Western geography. The Middle and Southern Ural were still largely unavailable and unknown to the Russian or Western European geographers.
In the 1550s, after the Tsardom of Russia had defeated the Khanate of Kazan and proceeded to gradually annex the lands of the Bashkirs, the Russians finally reached the southern part of the mountain chain. In 1574 they founded Ufa. The upper reaches of the Kama and Chusovaya in the Middle Ural, still unexplored, as well as parts of Transuralia still held by the hostile Siberian Khanate, were granted to the Stroganovs by several decrees of the tsar in 1558–1574. The Stroganovs' land provided the staging ground for Yermak's incursion into Siberia. Yermak crossed the Ural from the Chusovaya to the Tagil around 1581. In 1597 Babinov's road was built across the Ural from Solikamsk to the valley of the Tura, where the town of Verkhoturye (Upper Tura) was founded in 1598. Customs was established in Verkhoturye shortly thereafter and the road was made the only legal connection between European Russia and Siberia for a long time. In 1648 the town of Kungur was founded at the western foothills of the Middle Ural. During the 17th century the first deposits of iron and copper ores, mica, gemstones and other minerals were discovered in the Ural.