Ilocos Region (Region 1)

Rihiyon na Sagor na Baybay na Luzon (Region at the Northwest Coast of Luzon)

Guide, Reference and Links about Vigan. Islands Philippines Places and Destinations

History: Vigan City Islands Philippines


Vigan is an island, which used to be detached from the mainland by three rivers - the great Abra River, the Mestizo River and the Govantes River. It is unique among the Philippine towns because it is the country’s most extensive and only surviving historic city that dates back to the 15th century Spanish colonial period.

Vigan was an important coastal trading post in precolonial times. Long before the Spanish galleons, Chinese junks sailing from the South China Sea came to Isla de Bigan through the Mestizo River that surrounded the island. On board were sea-faring merchants that came to barter exotic goods from Asian kingdoms in exchange for gold, beeswax and other mountain products brought down by natives from the Cordilleras. Immigrants, mostly Chinese, settled in Vigan, intermarried with the natives and started the multi-cultural bloodline of the Bigueños.

In the book, The Philippine Island, Vol. III, p. 276, Blair and Robertson, two letters of Governor General Guido de Lavezares to King Philip II of Spain mentions: “It seemed best to send Captain Juan de Salcedo with 70 or 80 soldiers to people the coast of Los Ilocano on the shores of the river called Bigan.” Salcedo then sailed from Manila on May 20, 1572 and arrived in Vigan on June 12, 1572.

Thus, after the successful expedition and exploration of the North, Don Juan de Salcedo founded “Villa Fernandina de Vigan” in honor of King Philip II’s son, Prince Ferdinand who died at the tender age of four. From Vigan, Salcedo rounded the tip of Luzon and proceeded to pacify Camarines, Albay, and Catanduanes.

As a reward for his services to the King, Salcedo was awarded the old province of Ylocos which then composed of the Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Abra, La Union and some part of Mountain Province as his Encomienda and was accorded the title as Justicia Mayor de esta Provincia de Ylocos.

In January 1574, Salcedo returned to the capital of his Encomienda, Vigan, bringing with him some Augustian Missionaries to pioneer the evangelization of Ylocos and established a Spanish city, for the purpose of controlling the neighboring country.

Governor General Gomez Perez Darmarinas, in his Account of Encomienda dated in Manila on May 31, 1591 states: “The town of Vigan called Villa Fernandina has five or six Spanish citizens with one priest, a Justice, one Alcalde Mayor (Governor) and a Deputy. The King collects 800 tributes (equivalent to 3,200 subjects). During this period, the old Vigan was composed of 19 barrios.

In 1645-1660, Vigan was already divided into 21 Cavezas de Barangay as mentioned in the “Libro de Casamiento”, the oldest records of the parish house of Vigan found in its Archives. Separated from the naturales, the Chinese have their own place of settlement called pariancillo, “Los Sangleyes del parian” and the Spaniards were residents in a villa called “Los Españoles de la Villa”.

How Vigan got its name is told from an anecdote carried by the tongue of generations, which tells of a Spaniard walking along the banks of the Mestizo River. There, he met a native of the place and stopped to inquire: “Como se Ilama usted de esta lugar?”

Not understanding a word of Spanish, the native scratched his head and upon seeing that the Spaniard was pointing to a plant, exclaimed in Ilocano: “Bigaa Apo”. Bigaa being Alcasia Macroniza, a giant Taro plant belonging to the Gabi family which used to thrive at the bank of the Mestizo River. From the name of the plant – Bigaa, whence Vigan derived its name.

Ilocano Chronicle
Road to Cityhood


The Episcopal See of Manila was erected by Pope Gregory XVIII with the publication of his Bull Fulti Praesidio on December 21, 1581. It was elevated into a Metropolitan Church on August 14, 1595 through the Bull of erection of Pope Clement VIII with the Diocese of Santsimo Nombre de Jesus in Cebu, the Diocese of Nueva Caceres in Naga and the Diocese of Nueva Segovia in Lallo, Cagayan as its suffrage.

The Bull of Pope Clement VIII likewise elevated the seat of the four diocese including Lallo, Cagayan to the dignity of a city being the center of evangelization in their respective territories.

For 160 years from 1595 to 1758, all the Bishops of the Diocese of Nueva Segovia in Lallo Cagayan, starting with Fray Miguel Benevides to Fray Diego de Soria preferred to stay in Vigan due to the deteriorating condition of Lallo at that time. Malaria was endemic to the place and was constantly flooded during the rainy season. The Rio Grande de Cagayan was eroding and destroying the site of the Diocese leading to a progressive decay of the town.

In sharp contrast, Vigan, during the same period, was a flourishing Spanish settlement nearer to Manila. It was fast developing into the center of Spanish influence and politico-economic power in the north.

When Don Juan dela Fuentes de Yepes became Bishop of Nueva Segovia in 1755, he requested the King Spain and the Pope for the transfer of the Diocese from Lallo, Cagayan to Vigan, which was at the height of its progress as center of religious, commercial and socio-cultural activities.

He summoned three former Alcalde Mayores: Don Maximino Ballero of Vigan, Don Juan Antonio Panelo of Pangasinan, and Don Francisco Ledem of Cagayan to testify and give their support of the requested transfer of the Diocese. Aside from the former Alcalde Mayores, Bishop Yepes also solicited the favorable endorsement of Fray Bernardo Ustaris of the Dominican Order and Fray Manuel Carillo of the Augustinians.

The transfer of the Seat of the Diocese of Nueva Segovia from Lallo, Cagayan to Vigan was formally approved during the Pontificate of Pope Benedict XIV during the reign of Fernando VI, King of Spain by virtue of the Royal Decree of September 7, 1758.

By this Royal Decree, Villa Fernandina which became the new seat of the Diocese, automatically elevated its status as a City known as Cuidad Fernandina de Vigan in honor of the then current King of Spain.

By 1764, there were already 21 sitios or barrios in Vigan as mentioned by Father Pedro de Vivar in the document entitled as “Relacion de los Alzamientos dela Cuidad de Vigan, cavesera dela provincia de Ilocos Sur el los años 1762 y 1763.”

In 1803, Cuidad Fernandina de Vigan has a population of 10,585 souls with 1,966 paying tributes. The natives were working on agricultural land and the mestizos engaged in business with other provinces including Manila. The mestizos played a very important role in the progress and prosperity of the city of Vigan.

The Chinese in Vigan on the other hand, settled in a place called “Pariancillo” while in Manila they were in “Parian”. With their talent and knowledge in business as well as their skills and mastery of the art of manufacturing, the Chinese became rich and powerful in society. They opened business in the heart of Vigan, employed the naturales, intermarried with the natives and mestizos of Vigan and as time passed by; they rose into the class of the elite. They triggered a business boom in the community and engaged in domestic and foreign trade. They exported indigo, lime, maguey, basi, jars, tobacco, woven cloth called abel, and other local products to Europe, China, Borneo and Malaysia. As a consequence of this business boom, there was a mark change in the lifestyle of the inhabitants.

Found in the Philippine Archives in Manila is a report in 1870 describing Vigan, the place. West of the cathedral are the Casa Real and the monument of Salcedo, north of the cathedral is a small house, and south of the cathedral is the Seminary. West of the Seminary were the hacienda publica, barracks of the Carabineros and the Ayuntamiento Municipal.

To further justify the to category of Vigan as a city are the documents from “Instituto de Historia Programa de Modernization del Archivo Nacional de Filipinas” that describes that Vigan has its own carcel, casa de gobierno, mercado publico, Provincial High Court and one the only four (4) Public Works District in the entire Island of Luzon. More importantly, it has an Audencia Territorial, an implicit indication that it was a City.

Revolts and Social Unrest

Being the nucleus of religious, economic, political, social, commercial and cultural activities in the north for more than three centuries, Vigan became a hotbed of social unrest. The social inequity of caciquism and landlordism, the imposition of unfair tributes and other taxes on the natives, the abuses of foreign friars and civil administrators, the demand for free labor in the construction of civil and religious infrastructure, monopolies in some local industries, and the continued infringement on the rights of the citizens provoked the natives to revolt against established authorities.

In 1762, Diego Silang, the first Filipino emancipator led the famous Ilocano Revolt against the collection of exorbitant tributes and the imposition of monopoly on provincial commerce by the Alcalde Mayor and the “babaknangs” of Vigan. The revolt coincided with the short-lived British occupation of Manila. After Diego Silang was assassinated on May 28, 1763, his wife, Gabriela Silang, took over as leader of the uprising until she was captured and hanged publicly in Vigan four months later. She was later extolled as the Filipino Joan of Arc and the first woman to lead a revolt in the Islands.

In 1817, the civil government imposed a monopoly forbidding the Ilocanos to brew “basi” the sugarcane wine compelling them to buy the product from government controlled stores. On September of that year, Ambaristo led a popular uprising until they were caught and summarily executed along the banks of the Bantaoay River in the neighboring town of San Vicente, Ilocos Sur.
To warn the restless natives against any future attempts to overthrow the colonial government, a series of paintings was commissioned. In 1821, fourteen oil paintings measuring 91.44 by 91.44 centimeters each were produced by a Vigan-born painter named Esteban Pichay Villanueva (1797-1878).

Retelling the Basi Revolt from the Spanish colonial viewpoint, the fourteen paintings echo the via cruces or way of the cross paintings in churches. According to art historian Santiago Pilar, the paintings, in sequence show the following scenes: (1) Alcalde Mayor Juan Ybanez and local troops at vigil; (2) Ybanez calls the chiefs of Bantay, San Vicente, and Santa Catalina; (3) Chiefs of Candon and Santiago are reprimanded for tardiness; (4) Rebels of Ilocos Norte march to Ilocos Sur; (5) Troops sent to confront the revels; (6) An arrested rebel dies of lashing; (7) Vigan troops are sent to repel the enemies; (8) Natives flee to Bantay Church; (9) Bloody battle is wage at Bantaoay; (10) Dead rebels are buried; (11) Victory comes on September 7, 1807; (12) Convicts are brought to the gallows; (13) Revel leaders are hanged; (14) The condemned are decapitated.

Villanueva’s style is naïve. The figures appear two-dimensional, and follow the hierarchical perspective (the government officials are larger than the farmers on the same plane). According to Pilar, Villanueva did not take formal lessons in an established artistic tradition. He derived artistic devices in his environment. He stylized clouds in the manner of carved santo images.

The Basi Revolt paintings are important, not only because they chronicle, albeit rather prejudicially, a milestone in the Filipino struggle for freedom. The fourteen panels are important also because they are some of the finest examples of a particular stage in the development of paintings in the Philippines. Before the time of Villanueva, subjects for paintings were predominantly religious in nature. It was only in the 19th century that non-religious subjects became popular.

Today, the Basi Revolt paintings are on display at the Vigan branch of the National Museum, inside the ancestral house of Father Jose Burgos.

The Edict of Governor General Narciso Claveria in 1847 required all inhabitants of the Philippines to adopt surnames to facilitate the collection of taxes. Being the capital town, the “naturales” or natives in Vigan were required to adopt surnames beginning with the letter “A” while the mestizos with the letter “F”. In the case of the De Leon, Dela Cruz, Prudencio, Donato and Del Rosario families, each added another surname beginning with the letter “F”. Thus, Faz de Leon, Filar dela Cruz, but later dropping the dela Cruz and added the “T” to Filart, Foz Prudencio, Ferre Donato, and Fino del Rosario. It was also during this period that the influential Mariano family changed their surname to Formoso.

As early as in 1890, the prominent families of Vigan were quick to support the revolutionary movement of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo against the Spaniards. Aguinaldo finally captured Vigan in 1896 making the Archbishop’s palace as the province’s revolutionary headquarters during the first phase of the Philippine revolution. General Tinio arrived in Vigan in 1898 to drive away all Spaniards out of Ilocos. Finally, on August 13, 1898, the Filipino flag was raised on top of the Archbishop’s palace for the first time in 325 years. Vigan and the rest of the Ilocos region were left completely in Filipino hands.

But on the same year, the Dewey squadron sank the entire Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. The Spanish-American War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which ceded the Philippines to the victorious Americans. This precipitated the Philippine-American War, which was announced in Vigan with the ringing of the bells. The Ilocos under the leadership of Gen. Tinio, the brothers Blas and Juan Villamor, and Bishop Gregorio Aglipay became the last bastion of defense against the incoming American forces until the US 45th Infantry under Col. James Parker captured Vigan in December 4, 1899.

In the fight against the Americans, the Katipunan movement was very much alive in Vigan. According to William Henry Scott – Ilocano Responses to American Aggression, 1900-1901, “ The Calvo family was associated with the family of Estanislao delos Reyes in a supply network which served Filipino forces from his mother’s house for more than a year before it was discovered and broken-up. Five feisty females operated it: Eleuteria Florentino, Salome Reyes, Lucia del Rosario, Conching Calvo and Carmen delos Reyes. They were arrested for “communicating with and giving aid and comfort to the insurgents and shipped to Fort Santiago in Manila on 18 February 1901. Eleuteria was Estanislao’s widowed mother whom “Dangadang” (Struggle) called “Capitana Teriang”. At the time of her death 30 years later, she was compared to Balintawak’s Tandang Sora. This family alliance, whose members occupy so much space in Vigan’s list of “names of natives connected with the insurgent government”, was based on the marriage of two Reyes brothers with two Florentino sisters and illustrates the sort of family solidarity which supported men in the field”.

The revolutionist finally surrendered to the Americans on February 1901. The Americans established a civil government in September 1, 1901, with Mena Crisologo as the first provincial governor. Ironically, Mena Crisologo was the husband of Felipa Florentino, Eleuteria’s elder sister.

Miracle During the Liberation Period

A miracle actually saved the town of Vigan during the last days of the Japanese occupation. As part of their military strategy at the end of the war, the Japanese were ordered to burn and completely destroy occupied zones before withdrawal. On the eve of their departure from Vigan, the Japanese Military Commander, Captain Fujiro Takahashi pleaded with the SVD procurator of the Vigan Seminary, Fr. Joseph Kleikamp, to take custody of the Japanese officer’s Filipino wife and their love child. The priest agreed on the condition that Takahashi and his men would leave Vigan without burning the town to prevent the town folks from seeking revenge on his family. (At that time, drums of gasoline was already strategically stored at the town plaza, ready to be used in burning the town). Takahashi agreed and left with his troops during the night.

The following morning, the people of Vigan discovered that the Japanese had left peacefully. They immediately spread an oversized American flag at the plaza forestalling the planned bombing by the Americans to flush out the Japanese forces. Thus, Vigan miraculously escaped total destruction, a misfortune that befell other colonial cities like Cebu and Intramuros in Manila.

Post War Period

The Philippines was fully liberated from the Japanese on July 1, 1946. The Japanese lost in all, 409,267 killed and only 9,744 were taken as prisoners. American losses were 11,921 killed, 401 missing and 42,569 wounded or a total of 54,891. The ratio was 8 to 1. Over a million Filipinos, military and civilians were killed and the overall property damage in the Philippines was 16 billion pesos.

When the Japanese left Vigan on January 9, 1945, Dr. Gregorio Favis, the Japanese appointed mayor, went in hiding for fear of being caught by the guerillas. Late in March of 1947, Dr. Favis and Remedios Donato, his chief of police, were captured in Narvacan by the guerillas. They were tortured and executed at the outpost of the USAFE-NL “M” company near the junction of the national highway in Narvacan leading to Abra.

President Roxas succumbed to a heart attack while delivering a speech at Clark Field on April 16, 1948 and his Vice President, Elpidio Quirino assumed office as the 2nd President of the Republic. President Quirino was born in the building, which now houses the Provincial Jail in Vigan because his father was the prison warden then. He became the first Ilocano President and will long be remembered as the architect of the country’s foreign policy and for implementing the total economic mobilization program to rehabilitate a ravaged country just after the war. Because of his negative stand in the retention of the American bases in the Philippines, the CIA mounted a vicious propaganda campaign against him to prevent his re-election so that he could not continue as President in 1954 when the review of the bases agreement was to be resumed. He lost the Presidency to Ramon Magsaysay, his Secretary of National Defense, in the national elections of 1953.

The hand of fate wrote an unforgettable line in the history of Vigan when Congressman. Floro Crisologo was assassinated inside the St. Paul Cathedral on October 18, 1970 during the 4:00 PM mass. Following the death of the family Patriarch, the political leadership of the Crisologos ended on November 8, 1971 with the election of the charismatic Singson brothers – Luis as governor of Ilocos Sur and the elder Evaristo as Mayor of Vigan.

Towards the new millennium

At present, under the leadership of its first lady Mayor Eva Marie S. Medina, Vigan was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List of Sites and Monuments last December 2, 1999 which now includes 630 cultural and natural properties of exceptional universal value in entire the world and one of the only five heritage sites found in the Philippines. With its inclusion in said prestigious list of world heritage sites, Vigan has become a source of pride, and a national symbol of the Filipinos.

As a sign of its continuing economic boom in the new millennium, Vigan became the first component city of the province of Ilocos Sur known as the City of Vigan through an overwhelming “Yes” votes cast by the Bigueños during the plebiscite last January 22, 2001. Indeed, once a city is always a city.

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