Most of the major cities of the world are located at the banks of rivers and history has it that earliest civilizations evolved and developed in river valleys. Examples are the Nile River of Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of the Fertile Crescent, the Ganges River of India and the Yangtze River of China. Ancient people converged to the river because of the water which is essential for life. The area around the river creates an ecosystem conducive for humans and animals to live dependently with each other. In addition, the overflow of river carries with it sediments along the banks which makes the soil in that area fertile for planting food crops. However, river can be destructive during events such as typhoons and heavy rains that cause its channel to overflow and flood the outlying areas near its banks.
In northern Mindanao, in ancient times, indigenous nomadic people followed the course of the river called Kalambaguasahan to search for games, fish and other foods. Finding caverns on a promontory, they made it as their shelter and over time made a settlement around that area which was 8 Kilometers south from the center of the present day Cagayan de Oro. That place was conducive for their survival since the river provided them source of food and water, and the promontory with its elevated location afforded them security from other hostile tribes. As the settlement called Himologan grew, interactions and trade with other places developed. Its outside contacts even reached as far as Butuan and Maguindanao. Sultan Kudarat, the Muslim chieftain of Maguindanao later imposed a tribute to the settlement of Himolugan.
The payment of tribute should be overemphasized because it was a sort of jizya which is a tax levied by a Muslim ruler over his non-Muslim subjects in exchange of his protection to them. The tribute to the Muslim ruler also carried with it the implications that they recognized his authority, that his followers would not attack or harass them, and that they would not be obliged to convert to Islam. That practice is probably the reason why the early inhabitants of the city were polytheistic animists and not Muslims despite the fact that the sultan’s sphere of influence had reached that small settlement.
In 1622, the Spaniards arrived and came upon the old settlement which was also called “Cagayan” which is an Austronesian word for river. Fray Agustin de San Pedro then successfully convinced the inhabitants led by Datu Salangsang to move to a new settlement located in an area of what is now the Gaston Park and Saint Augustine Cathedral. In the new Cagayan the priest converted the natives to Christianity and told them to stop paying tributes to the Muslim Sultan. With a more powerful new protector, the Spaniards, the natives were able to avoid possible retribution from the Muslims for stopping the payment of tribute and embracing Christianity..
Myths and legends abound in relation to this great river. There is a story of a giant fish that supposedly devoured a priest from the Saint Augustine Cathedral. That tale was probably a misinterpretation of a tablet on a fence wall which was long removed from public view which depicted the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale. Superstitious people also believe that the river is inhabited by supernatural creatures such as aquatic monster that drowns their victim to death by grabbing his feet as he unsuspectingly swims in the river.
The river is one of the venue on which the city government promotes tourism. Upstream is a good place for whitewater rafting which is popular to tourists. Kayaking and river trekking are also tourist promoting activities. At present, there are 6 bridges that span the eastern and western banks of the river which also serves as a boundary between the 1st and the 2nd districts of the city.
Despite its scenic beauty and fantastic tales, Cagayan River at times can be a bearer of death and destruction. There were some incidents in the past on which the swelling of the river channel caused flooding that resulted to loss of lives and properties. On December 16-17, December 2011, Typhoon Sendong hit Northern Mindanao. The huge volume of rainwater falling on the mountain ranges of Bukidnon sent massive volume of waters, mud, sediments, logs and rocks downstream in an overwhelming force that swept away people, houses and animals along the way resulting to thousands of deaths. That tragedy which claimed the lives of 1,268 people was the biggest natural disaster that the city experienced in decades.
The river is vulnerable to degradation due to people’s activities such as illegal mining, logging, quarrying and the irresponsible disposable of waste products by people living along the river banks. Those bad practices cause bank soil erosion, shallow river bed, pollution of the water and the overflow of river during heavy rains which flood the nearby areas. To preserve the river, the city government adopted measures to stop people from doing activities that will adversely affect the river and its nearby environment. City residents also voluntarily plant trees along the river banks and mangroves at the mouth of the river.
From its sources in Kalatungan and Kitanglad mountain ranges in Bukidnon, the waters of Cagayan River run through a 90 kilometers course that traverses the municipalies of Libona, Talakag and Baungon in Bukidnon and Cagayan de Oro where they finally empty into Macajalar Bay.
Cagayan River and the Malasag mountain range are two of the most prominent terrain features that can be seen at the heart of the city. The river is associated with the city’s name, history and cultural development. “Cagayan”, a name taken from an old settlement aptly describes CDO’s location which is a city by the river.