The earliest settlers in the Marianas chain are thought to have descended from the Malay race and to have migrated from the Malay peninsula via Indonesia or the Philippines. Early Chamorros were farmers, fishermen, hunters, and built their houses on large stone pillars known today as "latte stones" a few of which still exist on Tinian and Rota.
The first European in these waters was Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, who landed on nearby Guam and claimed the islands for Spain. Not content to claim the land, the Spanish also helped themselves to whatever else happened to be lying around. The natives responded in kind, helping themselves to tools and other items from Magellan's ships. Angry at this, Magellan first dubbed the islands "Las Islas de los Ladrones", The Islands of the Thieves, but in 1668 their name was changed to Las Marianas after Maria Anna of Austria, widow of Spain's Philip IV.
Nearly all of the islands' native population died out during Spanish rule, but new settlers from modern-day Micronesia repopulated them to some extent. Sold to Germany from 1899, the Japanese took over in 1914 and turned the island into a military garrison. During World War II, the Marines landed on June 15, 1944 and eventually won the bitterly fought three-week Battle of Saipan.
Under U.S. administration as part of the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific, the people of the Northern Mariana Islands decided in the 1970s not to seek independence but instead to forge closer links with the U.S. Negotiations for territorial status began in 1972. A covenant to establish a commonwealth in political union with the U.S. was approved in 1975. A new government and constitution went into effect in 1978. The Marianas are self-governing with locally elected governor, lieutenant governor, and legislature, but the United States government handles defense and foreign relations. Local residents are U.S. citizens by birth but do not pay federal taxes or vote in the presidential elections, instead they elect a non-voting representative to the U.S. government.
The economy benefits substantially from financial assistance from the US. The rate of funding has declined as locally generated government revenues have grown. The key tourist industry employs about 50% of the work force and accounts for roughly one-fourth of GDP. Japanese and Korean tourists predominate. Annual tourist entries have exceeded one-half million in recent years, but financial difficulties in Japan have caused a temporary slowdown. Currently, more Korean tourists go to the CNMI than Guam, while more Japanese tourists go to Guam than the CNMI. This change is reflected by a shift in airlines servicing the islands, with Korean Air and Asiana Airlines offering direct service to Saipan from Seoul, South Korea, while JAL and ANA offer direct service from Japan to Guam. Air service is now offered from most major Chinese cities as well including Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou.
The agricultural sector is made up of cattle ranches and small farms producing coconuts, breadfruit, tomatoes, and melons. Garment production used to be the largest industry, but the last garment factory closed in early 2009.
The northern islands of the CNMI are mainly populated by Caroline Islanders a Polynesian group with origins in Kiribati, while the southern islands are populated by Chamorros. In recent years, the CNMI has allowed many migrant workers.