The minor Marianas, lying to the north of Saipan, are rocky islands rising abruptly from the sea. Because of small areal extent, thin soils, and deficiency of level land, the islands offer few opportunities for occupancy. The area was first explored by Spanish missionaries, who reported making conversions but left no records of total population.
The economic development of the minor Marianas is largely a history of copra production. Beginning about 1870, Carolinian laborers were sent to the islands to harvest coconuts, and a few remained as settlers. Further settlement occurred as a part of the German copra program. The first German census ( 1902) listed a total of 185 persons on Pagan, Agrihan, Alamagan, and Sarigan. The other islands had no permanent inhabitants, but were leased for mining guano and catching sea birds.
Japan's interest in the minor Marianas was both commercial and strategic. Copra was developed to its fullest extent, but required only a transitory population.
Alamagan and Agrihan were resettled by Carolinian groups in 1948. Alamagan, a 2441-foot inactive volcanic cone, forms an almost circular island, 4½ miles in area. Agrihan, double-peaked, 6 miles long and 3 miles wide, has an elevation of 3166 feet, the highest in the Marianas. The more gentle lower slopes and a few higher plateaus offer level land for farming, but most of the island is steep and cut by deep ravines. Small areas on both islands have been brought under subsistence cultivation, but settlement is chiefly based on copra drying. The coconuts of the northern islands have not been infested by the coconut beetle and, besides serving as an economic resource for the new communities, have supplied plantings for Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.
Maug consists of three islands, remnants of a partially submerged caldera. The enclosed harbor area is 1½ miles in diameter.
Pagan, the largest of the northern Marianas, consists of two rugged volcanic areas connected by a narrow isthmus. The northern portion of the island, Mt. Pagan, is an active volcano, 1670 feet in elevation, its head usually shrouded in smoke and clouds. The southern portion consists of several smaller cones, two of which are active. Communication is difficult between the two sections of the island because of intervening cliffs.