Electrolytic lesions of the dorsal hippocampus (DH) produce deficits in both the acquisition and expression of conditional fear to contextual stimuli in rats. To assess whether damage to DH neurons is responsible for these deficits, we performed three experiments to examine the effects of neurotoxic N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) lesions of the DH on the acquisition and expression of fear conditioning. Fear conditioning consisted of the delivery of signaled or unsignaled footshocks in a novel conditioning chamber and freezing served as the measure of conditional fear. In Experiment 1, posttraining DH lesions produced severe retrograde deficits in context fear when made either 1 or 28, but not 100, days following training. Pretraining DH lesions made 1 week before training did not affect contextual fear conditioning. Tone fear was impaired by DH lesions at all training-to-lesion intervals. In Experiment 2, posttraining (1 day), but not pretraining (1 week), DH lesions produced substantial deficits in context fear using an unsignaled shock procedure. In Experiment 3, pretraining electrolytic DH lesions produced modest deficits in context fear using the same signaled and unsignaled shock procedures used in Experiments 1 and 2, respectively. Electrolytic, but not neurotoxic, lesions also increased pre-shock locomotor activity. Collectively, this pattern of results reveals that neurons in the DH are not required for the acquisition of context fear, but have a critical and time-limited role in the expression of context fear. The normal acquisition and expression of context fear in rats with neurotoxic DH lesions made before training may be mediated by conditioning to unimodal cues in the context, a process that may rely less on the hippocampal memory system.