According to the local historians of Davao, 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: the aboriginal Obos who inhabit the hinterlands of the region called the river, "Davoh", which 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.; the Clatta or Guiangans called it "Duhwow", or "Davau", refering to a trading settlement where they barter their forest goods in exchange for salt or other commodities; and the Tagabawa Bagobos, "Dabu".
In 1848, Don Jose Uyanguren led a Spanish expedition to Davao and established a Christian settlement in an area of mangrove swamps that is now Bolton Riverside. Davao was then ruled by a chieftain, Datu Bago, who held his settlement at the banks of Davao River which was once called Tagloc River by the Bagobos. After Uyanguren defeated Datu Bago, he renamed the region Nueva Guipúzcoa, in honor of his home in Spain, and became its first governor. Uyanguren’s efforts to develop the area, however, did not prosper.
A few years after the American forces landed in 1900, private farm ownership flourished 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 develop extensive territories around the shores of Davao Gulf and cultivated the land into abacá and coconut plantations. Large-scale commercial interests such as copra, timber, fishing and import-export trading flourished in the area The first wave of Japanese plantation workers set foot in 1903. They had built their own school, hospitals and road networks, published their own newspapers, erected an embassy, and a Shinto Shrine. Over time, the locals learned from the Japanese the modern techniques of cultivation, and agriculture became the lifeblood of the province’s economic growth and prosperity.
During this period, the then undivided province of Davao became the biggest producer of abaca in the world, with the Japanese practically controlling the entire industry. Despite laws restricting foreign ownership of land, the Japanese managed to become the largest plantation owners in Davao. They were able to achieve this by using dummies to buy land from local landowners and marrying local women, particularly with datu lineage.
By the 1930’s, Davao was completely under the control of the Japanese. Their economic clout made them politically influential. The biggest concentration of the Japanese was in Guianga Municipal District, centered around Mintal, and their population grew to 17, 900 by 1939.
As Japan was becoming a world power, having defeated Russia in 1904, and annexed Korea in 1910 and Manchuria in 1931, doubts as to the real intentions of the Japanese haunted the entire country. In the 1934 Constitutional Convention, Davao delegate, Pantaleon Pelayo Sr., strongly denounced total control of Davao by the Japanese and their unlimited acquisition of land.
Due to the increasing influence of the Japanese in the trade and economy of the region, and as a move to break the control of the Japanese, on March 16, 1936, Romualdo C. Quimpo, then congressman of Davao, filed House Bill no. 609 calling for the creation of Davao as a chartered city. The bill was subsequently passed and signed into law by President Manuel L. Quezon as Commonwealth Act No. 51, formally creating the City of Davao from the Town of Davao (Mayo) and the Guianga District. The City of Davao then became the provincial capital of the then undivided Davao Province. This move made Davao City the largest city in the world with a territory of 2,244 square kilometers or 244,400 hectares.
The Act stipulated for the appointment of its local officials by the President of the Philippines, instead of being elected, thus entrenching Japanese power in Davao.
On December 8, 1941, the Japanese planes bombed the city, and eventually occupied Davao in 1942. However, in 1945, the American troops and the Philippine Commonwealth forces liberated Davao City from Japanese occupation.
Thirty years later, in 1967, the Province of Davao was subdivided into three independent provinces, namely Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, and Davao Oriental. The City of Davao was grouped with Davao del Sur and was no longer the capital. However, Davao City became the center of trade for Southern Mindanao.
In 1970's, Davao became the Regional Capital of Southern Mindanao and with the recent reorganization, became the regional capital of the Davao Region (Region XI).
Over the years, Davao has become an ethnic melting pot as it continues to draw migrants from all over the country, lured by the impressive economic progress in the country’s third largest city. Today, Davao City is the most progressive city in Mindanao and is considered the most livable city in the country.