Traditionally part of Marmarica, and later part of the province of Cyrenaica in Italian Libya, with the division of Libya into ten governorates in 1963, Al Butnan became part of the Darnah Governorate. In 1983 the Darnah Governorate was divided into a number of baladiyat (districts), with what is now Butnan being included in the Tobruk baladiyah and others. Butnan District was created in 1988 as one of the twenty-five reorganized baladiyat. In 1995, Butnan was one of the thirteen new shabiyah, and Butnan retained its status through the reorganizations of 1998, 2001 and 2007.
In 2007 the formerly autonomous city of Jaghbub became part of Butnan District.