War in the Pacific
Administrative History
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Chapter 1:


The original settlers of Guam arrived from Southeast Asia. Their society was stratified by class, was typified by large, physically imposing individuals, and it exemplified both agrarian and maritime characteristics. They were serially monogamous, occupied multi-family housing, and demonstrated knowledge of sophisticated naval architecture.

The first settlers, referred to as Chamorro, are believed to have arrived from Southeast Asia bringing taro, yams, breadfruit, and rice. The first settlers also brought knowledge of pottery making and poultry. Noticeably absent were dogs and other domestic animals. Some anthropologists have commented that Guam's first residents were the only settlers they were aware of who didn't migrate with domestic animals. Importantly, they were also the only residents in Oceania who cultivated rice. [1]

The Chamorro were socially organized in matrilineal extended family groups, monogamous, and were stratified into three distinct classes. [2] They lived in single-family residences that were rectangular, had gabled roofs and were elevated above the ground approximately twelve feet. One of the first written descriptions of the Chamorro residents, recorded in 1668, reported that in that year there were approximately 180 villages on the island, each village comprised of between fifty and one hundred such single-family residences. [3] There was a total island population of between 35,000 and 50,000. These original island settlers dined on fish, yams, taro, coconuts, bananas, rice, and federico palms. They wore no clothing except hats for men and short aprons for women, and sandals when the going got rough. They also designed and constructed some of the most impressive ocean-going vessels in the world at the time. [4] One of the most unique design features of the Chamorro ocean-going vessels (called proas by Euro-Americans) was the asymmetrical hull shape when viewed in cross section. As illustrated by figure 1-1, this unusual shape resulted in the hull making minimal leeway when sailing on a tack.

Figure 1-1: Source Evans-Hatch & Associates.

The first residents were reportedly serially monogamous, young unmarried men lived communally in a single large house. The more affluent lived in single-family houses constructed atop 12-foot high stone pillars, called latte stones, the less affluent used wooden posts to support their houses. It has been established that there were more than 250 latte sites on Guam prior to World War II. [5] Walls and roofs were constructed of wood and palm fronds. There is also evidence of residences being established in island caves, although these quarters may have served primarily as refuges during Spanish occupation. A late seventeenth century ethnographer described the houses he observed as being two rows of wooden posts, five posts in each row. The posts supported the roof as well as serving as framework for the walls. The roofs were plaited coconut fronds as were the walls. The floors were approximately one meter above the ground, and the houses reportedly had neither decorations nor carvings. [6]

Figure 1-2: Source of graphic: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam.

By the last quarter of the seventeenth century, disease and physical violence between Chamorro and the newly-arrived Spanish priests and soldiers had reduced the Chamorro population to approximately 4,000, and the European island residents who fancied themselves in charge began successfully encouraging Filipino settlement of the island. Popular history records that the Spanish priests (though somewhat uncomfortable with the Chamorro custom of public nudity) got along well with the residents. There was, however, a Chinese resident on the southern end of the island, according to local history, who was anti-Spanish and anti-Roman Catholic. This Chinese resident, Choco by name, had reportedly shipwrecked on Guam and not only been assimilated into island culture, he had acquired influence. Choco claimed that the priests were baptizing infants with poisonous water causing the children to become ill, and, in some instances, to die. Violence flared in 1670 when a priest was purportedly killed on Saipan. It would appear that residents took exception to the propensity on the part of the priests to forcibly remove children from their parents and burn the village for failure to attend church. The Chamorro-Roman Catholic violence culminated in an organized assault on a fortified church in September 1671 by 2,000 Chamorro. The siege lasted approximately forty days. Spanish reports of the protracted battle allege that there were no Spanish casualties. Afterwards, governors Salas and his successor, Jose de Quiroga, directed organized violence against Chamorro towns and villages for several years.

Chamoro family
Figure 1-3: Chamoro family hauling rice, early 1900s. Source: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam.

The Chamorro united behind a local leader named Agualin. They fought the Spanish with clubs and with lances tipped with sharpened human bone. They did not have bows and arrows. After a prolonged struggle, many of the Guam residents fled the Spanish, and relocated on Rota. [7]

Guam residents, like much of the world population first contacted by Europeans in the late 1600s and early 1700s, contracted diseases to which they had no immunity. Europeans had developed some immunity to smallpox, whooping cough and influenza, at least population immunity to the degree that exposure would not always result in a high morbidity or a high mortality rate. Guam residents had no such immunity. Consequently, the presence of the smallpox virus within a Chamorro community would inevitably result in most of the members contracting the disease, and, when contracted, the disease would often be fatal. Guam residents suffered epidemics in 1688, 1700, 1849, 1855, 1861, 1898, and 1899. The 1855 epidemic killed 3,463 on the island of Guam alone. [8]

Deaths resulting from both disease and fights with the Spanish left approximately 3,700 residents by 1710. Father Sanvitores had estimated the population to be almost 100,000 when he arrived in 1665.

Spanish priests encouraged marriages between Spaniards and Chamorro as well as between Filipino emigrants and Chamorro. By 1790 the number of mixed-race offspring from these unions exceeded the total Chamorro population (1,639 Chamorro; 3,218 mixed).

Georg Fritz reported that when he made his observations on Guam (c.1898) nearly the entire island population occupied the southern end of the island. He reported communities at Hazatna, Sumai on the Orote peninsula; Agat; Umatag; Merizo; Inaraham; Asan; Tepungan; and Pago in the south. The northern end of the island had no villages, however there were numerous isolated dwellings. Fritz reported that most villages had a population of between 200 and 600 residents except Merizo, which was the largest at 800.

During Spanish occupation, and probably before their arrival, the Chamorro had extensive farms throughout the island. The arrival of the Spanish resulted in livestock being added to the farms as well as some new crops previously unknown to the original residents. [9]

Chamorro oral tradition provides us insight into the creation of the universe. It seems that in the time before before, a brother and sister were born without parents. Puntan, the brother, decided to die so a universe could be created. He prevailed upon his reluctant sister, Fu'n~ua, to assist. Puntan then died so parts of his body could be made into the universe. From one eye Fu'n~a created the sun; she made the moon from the second eye. Puntan's stomach became Mt. Tuyon; his penis became Laso de Fua; and his eyebrows became the rainbows. After the universe had been created, spirits inhabited the world at Mt. Sasalaguan, including a malicious devil named Chaife who not only controlled the winds, waves, and fire but derived particular delight in torturing the souls residing in Mt. Sasalaguan. One day some of these tortured souls escaped and were transformed into men and women at Fouha Bay. They were made from the red earth and the heat of the sun. All people are descendants of those created at Fouha Bay. Those unable to speak Chamorro simply have been away from the island for so long that they have forgotten how to speak the island language.

Other myths of ancient Guam include the Legend of Sirena the Mermaid, describing the fate of a chamorita who loved swimming in Agana River; the Legend of Chief Gadao — The Challenge, the contest of strength between two chiefs; the Three Feats of Strength of Chief Gadao, Chief Gadao swam around the island fifty times; and the Origin of the Coconut Tree. [10]

Chamorro culture was class-stratified. Matua was the highest class. They enjoyed the greatest privileges, including land ownership, control of the island wealth and prestigious occupations. They were the warriors, the sailors, the fisherman, the canoe builders, and the merchants. The next class, known as atchaot, was usually related to a matua by blood or marriage; they were permitted to assist matua in trades and professions. The lowest class was essentially a slave class. Known as mangatchang, they were not permitted to become warriors, sailors, or build canoes, and their fishing was reportedly limited to river fishing. As a matrilineal society the female enjoyed a great deal of influence. It was women, generally, who controlled family life, property, and inheritance. [11]

diagram of Chamorro multi-family residence
Figure 1-4. Chamorro multi-family residence. Pole-and-woven mat structure rests atop latte stone columns. Source: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam.

Their sophisticated ocean-going vessels enabled them to engage in inter-island trade with residents on other Mariana Islands as well as residents of the Carolines. The medium of exchange was typically tortoise shell formed into disks strung together and worn around the owner's neck. This money was apparently accepted on most of the surrounding islands.

There is little direct genetic linkage between present-day Guam residents and ancient Chamorro. The ancient Chamorro were strongly built "proto-Malays," and had immigrated to the Mariana Islands by 1500 B.C.E. Disease, conflict with European immigrants, and intermarrying, primarily with immigrants from the Philippines, has resulted in the existence of Chamorro being almost exclusively a cultural rather than racial phenomenon. The romantic notion by some Guam residents of recapturing their "Chamorro roots," is largely an attempt to claim commonality based upon place only, not upon any meaningful, objective genetic linkage.

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Last Updated: 08-May-2005