Guam was initially home to the Chamorro people from 1500 BC until 1565, when it was conquered by the Spanish. Today, traces of Spanish architecture stand alongside glitzy tourist centers in the capital, Hagåtña. Fortunately, despite rapid modernization, Guam has managed to preserve the native culture, which continues to thrive in certain areas of the island.
Guam’s original inhabitants are believed to be Indo-Malayan descendants from Southeast Asia, dating back to 2,000 BC. The cultural and linguistic practices of these groups are similar to people in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. The early society established by the Chamorro thrived because of advanced skills in hunting, horticulture and fishing. They were skilled craftsmen who specialized in pottery and weaving, and were excellent seamen. The Chamorro were also praised for their Latte stone structures, which served as pillars for their elevated homes. Today, Latte Park displays these thousand year old structures, which are considered archaeological treasures.
Ferdinand Magellan and his three-ship fleet arrived at Umatec Bay on March 6, 1521, marking the first contact between Europeans and the locals. It was not until 1565 that another explorer, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, claimed Guam and other islands in the Marianas for the Spanish crown. In 1668, Padre Diego Luis de San Vitores and his Jesuit missionaries arrived to promote trade and Christianity. Chief Quipuha was the high ranking male in Hagatna when the Spanish arrived. He welcomed the missionaries and was baptized as a Christian.
Guam’s first Catholic church, Dulce Nombre de Maria (Sweet Name of Mary), was constructed in 1669. The Chamorros were taught how to cultivate corn, tan hides and raise cattle. Western-style clothing was also introduced. Guam became a docking port for Spanish galleons that traveled to and from the Philippines and Mexico. These galleons were attacked by English pirates and today, the sunken shipis can be found and explored via guided wreck dives. In 1815, the galleon era ended, but Guam remained host to many Russian, English and French whalers, as well as voyagers and scientists.
Guam was surrendered to the United States under the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American-Spanish War in 1898. By 1899, it was formally bought by the US from Spain for US $20 million. 1898 to 1941 was marked by improvements in sanitation, public health, land management, public works, taxes, education, and agriculture. In 1941, Guam was surrendered to the Japanese military, and it stayed under Japanese occupation until 1944. The Japanese who died here in WWII are commemorated in the War in the Pacific National Historic Park.
Today, the island is classified as a US territory. Its strategic position makes it a convenient command post for the American military. Guam’s economy continues to flourish as it welcomes new residents from various neighboring countries and the US mainland.
Guam is home to a cosmopolitan community as well as traditional Chamorros. The culture is heavily influenced by both Spanish and American norms. Everything from holidays, government and the media is undoubtedly American. Guam’s culture has also been enriched by Korean, Micronesian, Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese influences thanks to immigrants.
The native Chamorro people still thrive on the island and their respect and interdependence is very much evident. You can watch traditional dances and music in Chamorro Village. Every town has a patron saint and locals hold lavish festivities and celebrations to honor their saint as a result of the Spanish period of colonization.