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Baguio – the origin of a geographical name
by James Paw

Baguio City, also known as the “pine city” of the Philippines, is the only urban settlement built by the Americans during its colonial intrusion into the Asia-Pacific region from 1896 to 1946. Somehow and despite the prevalence of pine trees, the city was and is officially called Baguio City and none other, i.e., pine city or Kafagway. Many stories and articles have been passed down and written about the origin of the geographical name Baguio but from oral traditions among the local Ibaloys, the remembered name was Kafagway, which referred to the nearly plain grassy area presently the site of Burnham Park.

Figure 1

A place called Baguio

Most of the historical references about the origin of the geographical name Baguio point to Dr. Otto Scheerer, a German expatriate who lived in La Trinidad, Benguet and Baguio in the late 1890s. Dr. Scheerer wrote the article, “On Baguio’s Past,” which was published on two occasions: in 1932 (On Baguio’s Past. Chapters from local history and tradition in The Archive, Accessory Paper No. 1) and reprinted in 1975 (“German Travellers on the Cordillera” (1880-1890), Filipiniana Book Guild). On his comments on the name Baguio, Dr. Scheerer wrote.

“The name Baguio, spelled phonetically, presents itself as the Inibaloy term bagyu, which denotes, ... that submerged slimy waterplant with floating leaves that is known to botany as Potamogeton, and to the Tagalog as lumot. Old inhabitants (of Baguio) assured me that this was the name given formerly to the watery bottom of the Kisad valley between Baguio and (La) Trinidad although none of them could tell how it had come to apply to the locality now so designated. For Baguio, as the term generally current in the Philippines for ‘typhoon’, the Ibaloys have the word puok. As will appear further on (referring to the life and times of Baguio’s well known Ibaloy families), Baguio bore in olden times the name of Kafagway (Iloco kapaway, stem paway, grassy clearing) which alludes to the center of the Baguio basin, a piece of prairie that was more conspicuous before the creek Minak meandering through it was expanded into the present Burnham Park Lake.” (page 3, The Archive).

Careful reading of Scheerer’s paragraph shows that the name Baguio could have two etymologies. First being a slimy freshwater aquatic plant and second, the watery bottom of the Kisad (i.e., Guisad) valley, which could be similar to a swamp or a natural well. It is a bit confusing because the two terms cannot be connected, as there was no context. By itself, the aquatic plant could have been found in places other than in the Kisad valley but clearly, there is a link between the two. If referring to the watery bottom, this landscape feature was rather widespread in the area due to the limestone formation so there must be some distinctive feature that would make it memorable and eye catching. I would venture that there were some clerical errors in the aforementioned Scheerer’s paragraph and what he wanted to state was that the name Baguio was derived from the aquatic plant, Potamogeton found thriving at the watery bottom of the Kisad valley.

In Ibaloy, that aquatic plant is called bagiw (contemporary spelling).

Other etymologies of Baguio come from various undocumented sources assumed to be oral traditions like mosses and lichens, both of which thrive in damp but terrestrial environment. Both plants are widespread in the Cordillera highlands although their abundance may be restricted based on edaphic factors. It is hard to put a context why this area would be named after these two very common plant species other than also being called bagiw in Ibaloy. The term bagyu as phonetically interpreted and explained by Scheerer has nothing to do with the origin of the name Baguio. Aside from its meaning as referring to typhoons or weather disturbance, the spelling of bagyu is essential based on the English language and its root is not Cordilleran (presently spells as bagyo in Tagalog and Iloco languages). In Ibaloy, weather disturbance as mentioned earlier is called powek (puok) or even nepnep (relating to monsoon).

Figure 2

The morphing of the place name Baguio

Maps are important sour-ces of place names and even the evolution of place names. In searching for the origin of the geographical name Baguio, map records created or published during the Spanish colonial period were consulted, which consisted of three types. Most maps were hydrographic maps such as those by Claudio Montero Y Gay (mid-1800s) and Claudio Fonteso while the second type are topographic maps like Enrique D’ Almonte Y Murriel (1880 to 1890s) and Ydelfonso de Aragon (early 1800s) and the third being sketches of either the hydrographic map (HM) or the topographic map as well as non-standard maps (no projection standard).

Claudio Montero’s hydrographic maps were updated since 1841, the latest in 1875. The 1875 Montero map published in Madrid shows the place names Benguet and Baguio although the latter was spelled Baguin. Beginning with maps published after 1861, the area matching the proximate coordinates of Baguio was spelled as Baguin (1876), Baguiu (1883) and Baguio (1887, 1894).

Don Manuel Scheidnagel, Benguet’s military governor, also used the spelling Baguio during his 1875 census and in his published map of 1878. It should also be noted that the present valley of La Trinidad was called Benguet since 1755 until Scheidnagel changed it in 1875.

La Trinidad valley was not named after the presumed wife of Lt. Col. Guillermo de Galvey, who was a soltero and died in 1839. Galvey was the first governor of Benguet when it was established as Comandancia General de Igorrotes in 1833.

In earlier maps such as by Ydelfonso de Aragon dated April 15, 1820 and others, most of the Cordillera was labeled land of the Igorots. In terms of map information, the earliest ever found that referred to Baguio was the sketch map prepared by Don Guillermo de Galvey in 1834 (Figure 1). This sketch map is housed in the Archivo General Militar de Segovia and Baguio was more or less in the right proximate coordinates and spelled as Bagiu. Thus far, this is oldest historical document on record for the place name Bagiu as located south of Benguet (La Trinidad) and west of Acupan (in Itogon, Benguet). So here we are, we have the actual phonetically rendering of the Ibaloy bagiw by the Spanish contingent most likely under Galvey if not himself. The Ibaloy term bagiw as presently spelled is based on the English language whereas the term bagiu (i.e., the Spanish phonetic rendering) is based on the Spanish language.

In the Spanish language, the vowel “u” is pronounced as “oo” whereas the consonant “w” is pronounced as “v”, hence, the use of “u” in rendering the Ibaloy term bagiw. Thus, we have here a definitive etymology of Baguio albeit phonetically. Given that bagiw refers to at least three distinct plant species, i.e., moss, lichen and an aquatic plant (Potamogeton), which one is the most likely species equivalent?

In “The Skyland of the Philippines” by Lawrence Lee Wilson (1953), it was moss but spelled the local name as baguiw. Wilson further wrote that it was a place name located below the Easter School (this is within the vicinity of the Guisad valley and present map shows a tributary of the Balili River).

In “Memoire of Baguio” by Lazaro Gutierrez (editor, revised 1962), the moss (bah-giw) and the submerged water plant (bagyu) were mentioned and that the latter was an Ibaloy term. In resolving this conundrum, there is a need to look at context. Scheerer’s identification of the slimy aquatic plant as the etymology of the geographical name Baguio is the most likely correct version for he was closer in time to the Spanish colonial period where he was able to get hold of Spanish records of the area and to interview/consult the older Ibaloy generations of that time to document local traditions. Lichens and mosses are ubiquitous land-based species with worldwide distribution, including Spain.

As the basic morphologies of some species of mosses and lichens are about the same wherever they are found, these plants would not be unfamiliar to any one threading through a forested or wooded landscape, even in Spain. Thus, mosses and lichens may be eye-catching but unremarkable, especially for the observant Spanish officials that passed through the La Trinidad-Baguio (Guisad) area but Potamogeton does (figure 2).

Figure 3

The location of the Spanish Baguio and the American Baguio

Many people are unaware that the geographical name Baguio points to two different localities. During the Spanish colonial period, the Benguet military governor, Don Manuel Scheidnagel, issued a census report dated Oct. 18, 1875, which listed the following barrios as part of Baguio pueblo: Baguio, Capauay, Luacan, Pamutputan, Caimusan, and Pulac. There were 33 pueblos listed in that census for the Distrito de Benguet, including La Trinidad, Cabayan, Buguias, Amlimay and Capa-ngan.

In all the Spanish maps cited earlier, the site of Spanish Baguio is shown to be some distance northwest of Minac lake (presently the Burnham Lake) situated in a confluence of streams (this would be the tributaries of the Balili River) and part of the Guisad valley (figure 3). Note that Lawrence Wilson stated the place as Baguiw but the Spanish maps of 1887 onwards spelled it as Baguio. In between the two locales would be Capauay or Kafagway that includes the site of the present City Hall.

A tribunal was established in the Spanish Baguio manned by a vacunador and a directocillo (secretary). It was probably during the First Philippine Republic period that the geographical name Baguio was to encompass all six barrios when according to local informants, Mateo Cariño, being the president of Baguio, moved the tribunal to his house in Kafagway (his elder brother, Juan Oraa was the first governor of Benguet under the First Philippine Republic, 1898 to early 1900). This action must have also resulted in the consolidation of land rights among the local Ibaloy families under the new regime.

Figure 4

This was the Baguio that the Americans under Captain Beaumont Bonaparte Buck and the 48th Infantry came to know when they reached the place in April 1900. Three months later, members of the Second Philippine Commission led by Dean Conant Worcester and General Luke Edward Wright would begin their systematic survey of Baguio to establish a hill station that evolved into the chartered City of Baguio in 1909.
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