The history of the City of San Juan begins in a large pre-colonial kingdom ruled by Lacantagean and his wife Bouan. Their main residence was in a settlement named Namayan (in what is now known as Santa Ana, Manila), but their kingdom encompassed several other settlements along the Pasig River and in the nearby hills. The extent of the kingdom is delineated by historian Santiago Artiaga as including the places known as “Pasay, Malate, Paco, Pandacan, Quiapo, Sampaloc, San Miguel, San Juan del Monte, Taytay, Mandaloyon, and San Pedro, Macati.” The native Filipino and Malay communities in these areas were primarily agricultural, growing rice, sugar, and tobacco, as well as fruits and vegetables, and paid tribute to the royal family. Lacantagean’s domain formed part of a federation of kingdoms comprising Maynilad, an extensive settlement in the Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay areas, stretching well into the interior. Lacantagean and his family would have answered to Moslem Malay rajahs such as Soliman, Matanda, and Lakandula, who ruled Maynilad until the founding of the City of Manila in 1571 by Spanish colonizers.

After Manila was established as the capital city under Spanish rule, the surrounding areas were reorganized into barrios, towns, and municipalities. Small portions of land were granted to registered resident farmers, and larger portions were awarded by the Spanish crown to Spaniards for exemplary service. These encomiendas and estancias (or haciendas) functioned as virtual fiefdoms that built upon existing pre-colonial communities and provided further structure to the new city. Several of them were sold to religious orders.

In 1578, the kingdom of Lacantagean became the Parish of Santa Ana, presided over by Franciscan friars. The neighboring communities were renamed and subsumed into this large parish, each one becoming parishes and municipalities over time. It is at this point that an encomienda described as “a hilly, wooded, deserted place, to the East, up the Pasig River, one league from Manila, with some few huts or native houses scattered here and there,” was given the name San Juan del Monte. Its patron saint, John the Baptist, was likely chosen for the area’s proximity to the river and the presence of many natural springs, and its epithet was undoubtedly a reference to its elevated terrain.

The growth and enfranchisement of San Juan can be largely attributed to the settlement of Dominican friars in the area. In 6012, Don Julian Cuenca donated a part of his estancia to the Dominicans for the construction of a chapel and rest home for the religious order. Added to other estancias acquired by the Dominicans, San Juan del Monte was ideal for this purpose, with its cool breezes, rustic setting, and distance from the hubbub of the city. By 1616, the construction had been completed and the religious complex formally accepted by the order.

With the presence of a church and priests, the community in San Juan del Monte grew steadily larger. It suffered a setback in 1639 as a casualty of the second Chinese insurrection in Manila, and the chapel and convent, as well as the surrounding barrio, had to be reconstructed from ashes. After some legal wrangling over the ownership of the property (titles and records having been destroyed during the rebellion), the Dominican friars rebuilt their convent and church.

Once reconstruction was completed, an image of the crucified Christ was transferred in 1641 from Binondo Church to the church in San Juan. The image gave its name to the church, which continues to be known to this day as the Santuario de Santo Cristo. Said to have been commissioned of a Chinese artist by a Dominican friar who scourged himself while the statue was being carved, the Santo Cristo attracted devotees, pilgrims, and settlers from all over Manila and other towns and nearby countries, particularly after miracles began to be attributed to it after its installation. In 1658, a piece of the Lignum Cruces (the True Cross of the Crucifixion) was added to the image, further enhancing its mystique.

The burgeoning barrio of San Juan suffered yet another setback with the British Occupation of Manila from 1762 to 1764. In 1763, British soldiers searched the Santuario for members of the Spanish-Filipino resistance, looted and vandalized the town, and set everything on fire, damaging the beloved Santo Cristo image. The town fell into historical shadow for several years as it struggled to rebuild itself, and it re-emerged in 1781, when a new vicar was appointed to San Juan.

In 1783, San Juan del Monte was reclassified a municipality of the province of Tondo (which encompassed what is today the City of Manila), rendering its civil affairs separate from and independent of Santa Ana, although it continued to be administered in religious matters by that parish until 1863. The decision to elevate the barrio to municipio status may have been related to its growing reputation as a place of peace and rest, its bountiful supply of good drinking water, its popular Santuario, and the construction of a gunpowder depot within its borders. With its civil matters managed by its own municipal government, San Juan del Monte could finally take the reins and control its own destiny.

Taking the waters

Long before the basaan ritual became a commonplace of the San Juan festival, San Juan del Monte had already established an association with water in the public mind. The clean, spring-fed waterways of the barrio, several meters above sea level, were uncontaminated by high tide seawater or the sewage of a crowded city. Marshy, low-lying Manila sourced much of its water from the Pasig River or from wells, and it tended to be of very poor quality and left Manileños vulnerable to disease. Water sellers had to travel further and further upstream to find decent water. However, the city’s washerwomen already knew that their clients were happiest when their clothes and linens were cleaned on the banks of San Juan’s waterways, where the water was pure. San Juan quickly became known as the city’s laundry, even as visitors to the barrio lauded not just the breezy climate, but the sweet drinking water as well.

The Dominican friars had already discovered a fresh water spring within the Santuario property, and their rest house and the barrio had benefited from it. Residents swore by the water’s medicinal properties. One of the friars, Father Miguel Peguero, devised a sophisticated aqueduct system, which included a collection tank and conduit canal, to deliver water from the spring to the San Juan River, where water carriers from Manila could collect it for transport to the city. The Peguero Aqueduct, an engineering marvel of its time, supplied San Juan, Manila, and the neighboring districts with high quality water from its completion in 1690 to the mid-19th century. The project was fully financed by the Dominican Order as a service to the community.

Other solutions to the water problem of Manila were proposed. In 1733, a Spanish nobleman named Don Francisco de Carriedo donated seed funds towards raising enough money to devise a more efficient water delivery sytem for the needs of the growing city. The amount grew steadily over a century  and a half as city officials considered and rejected various options involving water from San Pedro, Makati and the San Mateo River. After much revising of proposals and two cholera epidemics that ravaged Manila, a plan was approved.

Water would be obtained from a dam in Santolan, closer to Manila than San Mateo, pumped to a reservoir at the top of San Juan plateau, and delivered via pipeline to the city. Construction began in 1878, with pumps imported from France and iron pipes from England, and the Carriedo water system was inaugurated in 1882. The San Juan reservoir, dubbed El Deposito, added to San Juan’s reputation and became and tourist attraction. The Carriedo system operated until 1929, when a more extensive and modern water system was established, and it was relegated to storing a backup supply of water for the city.

The role of San Juan as the capital’s source of potable water conferred a considerable amount of strategic political importance upon the sleepy town in the hills, and would influence the Katipunan’s plans to overthrow the Spanish colonial regime.

A taste for revolution

Philippine history can be interpreted as a series of struggles for freedom and independence. From this perspective, it seems unlikely that a resort town in the hills, known primarily as a vacation spot and pilgrimage site, would play significant roles in such struggles. However, as San Juan del Monte gained stature and shaped its identity as a town, it found itself caught up in the national history.

San Juan’s sparsely populated environs and proximity to the San Juan River made it suitable for storing large amounts of gunpowder and arms. The Spanish government had originally cached its munitions within the walled city of Manila, in Fort Santiago. The danger posed by the stockpile to the residents of Intramuros forced the government to transfer it outside Manila. Locations such as Malate and Pandacan were tried, but these proved unsuitable. It was finally decided that a fortified magazine with barracks would be built in San Juan, on land owned by the Dominican Order. There the weapons and gunpowder could be stored safely and guarded while remaining within easy reach of the capital via land or waterway. Because of its military importance, the Almacen de Polvora or El Polvorin would be a key target for anyone seeking to overthrow the Spanish government.

The Katipunan (Samahang Kataas-taasan, Kagalang-galang na Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan), founded in 1892, was organizing an armed revolution against the Spanish colonial regime. Many residents of San Juan had already been inducted into the secret society, recruited by founder Andres Bonifacio himself who, with Pio Valenzuela and Emilio Jacinto, visited different parts of San Juan on various Sundays to indoctrinate and recruit members. San Juaneños who were not actual members of the Katipunan supported the organization in other ways such as providing food and other necessities, or providing misleading information to Spanish authorities.

The untimely discovery of the secret society and its plans compelled the revolutionaries to take action. Bonifacio sounded the Cry of Balintawak on 26 August 1896, declaring the start of the revolution. He then commenced a plan to take Manila by force from three directions – Marikina, Guadalupe and Pateros, and San Juan. On August 29, groups of Katipuneros converged on these locations, awaiting Bonifacio’s signal to begin the siege at midnight. Bonifacio and Jacinto led the regiment that would first take San Juan and secure El Deposito and El Polvorin, thereby crippling the city. Bonifacio’s troops arrived in San Juan around midnight, and in the early hours of August 30, the Battle of San Juan del Monte began.

The present-day Pinaglabanan Street in San Juan marks the progress of the battle, which began at the intersection of the Marikina Road (now N. Domingo Street) and the Santolan Road (now Pinaglabanan), near which El Polvorin was located. Bonifacio’s troops outnumbered the Spanish forces guarding the munitions warehouse, but the Katipuneros were poorly armed with spears and machetes, and had little to no knowledge of military strategy. They succeeded at taking El Polvorin, driving the Spanish soldiers to retreat to El Deposito, which by then had been heavily fortified. The battle moved up Santolan Road towards the plateau, past the Franciscan rest house Vista Alegre, past the newly built San Juan Bautista Parish Church , to the top of the hill, with the Katipunan losing more and more soldiers along the way. By dawn, it became clear that the revolutionaries would not win this battle, particularly since Spanish reinforcements had arrived from Manila. Bonifacio and his troops retreated to Balara, and the planned siege of Manila was aborted. By afternoon, martial law had been declared in Manila and the seven other provinces that had risen up against Spain.

The Battle of San Juan, although unsuccessful, was the first armed encounter between Filipinos and Spaniards in the Philippine Revolution of 1896. San Juaneos continued to participate in the efforts of the Katipunan, directly and indirectly, until the Spanish government was successfully overthrown and Philippine independence from Spain was declared in 1898.

San Juan played another, albeit disputed, role in the next armed struggled that followed close on the heels of the Revolution – the Philippine-American War. For over a century it was widely believed that the San Juan del Monte Bridge at the western end of N. Domingo Street was the site of the first shot fired in the war, which raged from 1898 to 1902. It was said that on the night of 4 February 1898, a pair of American sentries challenged a group of three Filipinos on the bridge, and a verbal altercation in the darkness escalated into the sentries shooting and killing Corporal Anastacio Felix and his companions, thereby triggering the war.

San Juaneños proudly held this up as yet another example of their town’s significance in the Philippine narrative, but this historical claim has been under dispute since 2003, when research by the National Historical Institute revealed that the location of this encounter may have occurred across the river in Santa Mesa, Manila. The San Juan del Monte Bridge was subsequently destroyed by retreating American troops in 1941, and completely rebuilt after World War II with funds from the War Damage Commission.

In the years following World War II, San Juan busied itself with its own growth and development. Its population grew as more and more of Manila’s elite made the vacation homes they had built in San Juan into primary residences as Manila and its surrounding districts grew more congested. The years from the late 1960s to the early 1980s saw a period of phenomenal development, enabled by the paving of roads, making traveling to and within the municipio more efficient. Public services were improved and schools and hospitals established to serve the growing number of residents. The borders of San Juan changed over the years, as portions of land were ceded to Quezon City and Mandaluyong. The construction of Greenhills Shopping Center and Virra Mall on the eastern, more modern side of San Juan turned the municipality into a destination for outsiders and attracted entrepreneurs to set up shop there. By the 1980’s, San Juan had become a thriving residential and commercial hub of the city.

While San Juan played no significant role during the People Power Revolution of 1896, its proximity to the uprising’s rallying point – the intersection of Epifanio de los Santos and Ortigas Avenues – allowed one of its landmarks to become the site of an event who repercussions were felt around the world.

Club Filipino began as an exclusive gentlemen’s country club called Club Filipino Independiente established in 1898, after the Philippines had declared its independence from Spain. It later changed its name to Club Internationale, and later reverted to the shorter Club Filipino. The iconic clubhouse beside Greenhills Shopping Center was inaugurated in 1970 and shot into the public consciousness when it was chosen as the venue for President Corazon Aquino’s inauguration on February 25, 1986. The event is memorialized in mural displayed at the entrance to the Club.

These stories, sometimes violent intersections between the history of San Juan and the history of the Philippines are crucial aspects of San Juan’s heritage, helping to define the identity of the city. Together, they help form a solid base for the peace and prosperity that has come to define the city today.