Local historians claim that the word davao came from the phonetic blending of the word of three Bagobo subgroups when referring to Davao River, an essential waterway which empties itself into Davao Gulf near the city.
The aboriginal Obos who inhabit the hinterlands of the region called the river, Davoh; the Clatta or Guiangans called it Duhwow, or Davau, and the Tagabawa Bagobos, Dabu. To the Obos, the word davoh also means a place "beyond the high grounds", alluding to the settlements located at the mouth of Davao River which were surrounded by high rolling hills. When asked where they were going, the usual reply is davoh, while pointing towards the direction of the town. Duhwow also refers to a trading settlement where they barter their forest goods in exchange for salt or other commodities.
Spanish influence was hardly felt in the Davao until 1847, when an expedition led by Don Jose Oyanguren came to establish a Christian settlement in an area of mangrove swamps that is now Bolton Riverside. Davao was then ruled by a Moro chieftain, Datu Bago, who held his settlement at the banks of Davao River (once called Tagloc River by the Bagobos). After Oyanguren defeated Datu Bago, he renamed the region Nueva Guipozcoa, in honor of his home in Spain, and became its first governor. Oyanguren's efforts to develop the area, however, did not prosper.
A few years after the American forces landed in 1900, private farm ownership grew and transportation and communication facilities were improved, thus paving the way for the region's economic growth.
A Japanese entrepreneur named Kichisaburo Ohta was granted permission to exploit vast territories which he transformed into abaca and coconut plantations. The first wave of Japanese plantation workers came onto its shores in 1903, creating a Japan kuo, or Little Japan. They had their own school, newspapers, an embassy, and even a Shinto Shrine. On the whole, they established extensive abaca plantations around the shores of Davao Gulf and developed large-scale commercial interests such as copra, timber, fishing and import-export trading. Filipinos learned the techniques of improved cultivation from the Japanese so that ultimately, agriculture became the lifeblood of the province's economic prosperity.
Davao was formally inaugurated as a charter city in March 16, 1937 by President Elpidio Quirino. Thirty years later, Davao was subdivided into three independent provinces, namely Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, and Davao Oriental. Over the years, Davao has become an ethnic melting pot as it continues to draw migrants from all over the country, lured by the prospects of striking it rich in the country's third largest city.