The explorer Ruy López de Villalobos headed an expedition to Surigao in 1543, an attempt at subjugation which failed because of the resistance of the natives. At that time the island of Mindanao was given the name Caesarea Caroli, in honor of Carlos V of Spain. Jesuit missionaries visited Butuan in 1597 but did not make much progress in Christianizing the people. It was not until 1609, when a full-dress expedition was launched, that Spanish authority was imposed to Tandag. In 1622, the arrival of the Recollect missionaries in Tandag commenced the establishment of permanent mission in Surigao.
The area of Surigao del Norte was once part of an ancient district referred to as “Caraga” during the Spanish colonial period named after its chief inhabitants, the Caraga tribe or Caragans who were largely concentrated in a settlement called Caraga. The ancient district of Caraga, which was established in 1609 comprised all of the present day provinces of Surigao del Norte, Dinagat Islands, Surigao del Sur, the northern part of Davao Oriental and eastern Misamis Oriental. The seat of government was at Tandag until it was transferred to the town of Surigao in 1848. Six Spanish military districts were established in Mindanao in 1860 and the areas of present-day Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur, Dinagat Islands, Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur (collectively called Agusan back then), including the territory lying between present day Butuan and Caraga bays, formed the third district called the “East District” which was changed in 1870 to “Distrito de Surigao”. By the end of the Spanish rule in 1897, Agusan had been organized as a single politico-military comandancia named “Butuan”, within the administrative jurisdiction of Distrito de Surigao.
Distrito de Surigao became a chartered province on May 15, 1901 (Philippine Commission Act 127). The territorial expanse of the Surigao province was further reduced in 1907 when the politico-military commandancia of Butuan, then a sub-province of Surigao, was created into a separate province and officially named it Agusan with present-day Butuan as its capital.
On September 18, 1960, through Republic Act 2786 dated June 19, 1960, the province of Surigao was divided into the present-day provinces of Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur. Agusan province was later dissolved and divided into the present-day provinces of Agusan del Norte (retains present day Butuan as capital) and Agusan del Sur in 1967 by Republic Act No. 4979. The town of Surigao became a city on August 30, 1970 pursuant to RA 6134.
Dinagat Islands had been a part of the First District of Surigao del Norte until becoming a province on its own on December 2, 2006, with the approval of Republic Act No. 9355, the Charter of the Province of Dinagat Islands, in a plebiscite. Between February 2010 and March 2011, the islands were part again of Surigao del Norte after declaring RA 9355 unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, then were reinstated as a separate province.
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