This island municipality is said to have derived its name from an Ibanag word "calayaan" which means "full of ginger."
Midway between Aparri and Batanes lies Calayan. It is one of the islands dotting the China Sea on the northern coast of Luzon. Built up with white sand and sharp rocks that jut out of the sea.
This 29th town of Cagayan consists of four islands located in the Babuyan Channel, namely, Calayan, Camiguin, Dalupiri and Babuyan Claro.
The island group was first visited by two Dominican Fathers, Fray Andres Sanchez and Fray Geronimo Morer, in 1916. An answer to their query as to what the island was called, the natives said "calayan," an Ybanag word meaning "where laya (ginger) abounded." Indeed the missionaries' sense of smell was assailed by the pungent aroma of the root crop. The good fathers applied the word "Calayan" to the island group.
Father Sanchez and Morer did not stay long in the islands. They were followed by other Dominicans: Fray Francisco Capillas as the first parish priest in 1639 and Fray Martin Real dela Cruz, who later became the first Rector of the University of Sto. Tomas. Both also did not stay long in Calayan, leaving a word of faith among the islanders who had readily embraced the Catholic faith.
A more dedicated missionary was assigned as parish priest of Calayan immediately upon his arrival to the Philippines in 1684: Fray Diego Pinero O.P. He stayed in the island laboring with the natives, doing his best to elevate their economic status and at the same time noted in writing the activities and progress of the people in their Christian life.
The difficulties of the life of the people was compounded by frequent raids by Muslims from Mindanao and Sulu. However, it was also known that Chinese junks visited them and traded ceramics and cloth for the native products and beautiful sea shells.
Up to 1902, the Calayan island remained part of the Batanes group. The last three gobernadorcillos under the Spanish regime were Don Licerio Duerme, 1896; Don Pedro Abad, 1897; and Don Angel Escalante, 1898-1902. From that year, Calayan was under Cagayan, with Don Angel Escalante as town executive.
A change for the better came to the people of Calayan on January 10, 1940 when American Forces, brought in by the USS Princetown took formal possession of the islands. The soldiers brought with them medicines, bales of cloth and other goods which they distributed to the islanders. In return the Calayanos presented the Americans ancient Chinese jars, beautiful sea shells and various handcrafted articles. The American occupation soldiers put up schools, with themselves acting as teachers with English as the medium of instruction. They not only taught beginner pupils but also conducted a class teacher training course to adults who had some schoolings before.
The Japanese Imperial Forces invaded the Calayan group in December 8, 1941. According to some Calayanos, the Japanese soldiers practically despoiled the islands of the improvements achieved during the American regime. However, the American Forces easily subdued the Japanese garrison during the early liberation period in 1944 and brought the Japanese prisoners to concentration camps in Luzon.
Although Calayan became more integrated to the provincial government of Cagayan as its 29th municipality, the people were practically left to themselves due to lack of means of transportation. The first group of government officials, led by Governor Jose P. Carag, visited Calayan in 1954.
In 1981, Governor Justiniano P. Cortez organized a big Mobile Government in Action Caravan that visited the islands. The Caravan dubbed "Mission of Love" was headed by Sangguniang Panlalawigan Members Atty. Dante L. Acorda and Mrs. Rosario K. Pablo. The caravan includes representative from national bureaus and agencies, provincial chiefs of offices and government and private medical practicioners. They visited the four islands, held dialogues with the people, performed medical/dental consultation and treatments and distributed rice, canned goods, vegetable seed and medicines.
The "Mission of Love" was repeated in 1982, led by Governor and Dra. Cortez. Mrs. Cortez offered her services to assist in the medical project. A touching episode happened when a woman septuagenarian to whom the Governor was pointed, approached him, took his hand in hers and said: "Bendisionannaka ti Dios, Apo Governador, 'Tatta ta nakakitaakon iti governador, maragsakanakon a maisina iti daytoy a biag."
When the third Caravan visited Calayan, the Calayanos met the group with the same joy and welcome as they did the previous ones. But the people had only few problems to tell, instead they expressed proposed thanks to Governor Cortez and party. Governor Cortez and the other officials in the caravan expressed sense of self-reliance and a greatly mitigated feeling of isolation among the people.