Because of its many salt ponds, Amerindians called the island Sint Maarten shares with St Martin 'Soualiga,' meaning 'Land of Salt.' According to popular belief, Columbus 'discovered' the island in November 1493 and named it in honor of Bishop St Martin of Tours. However, some historians now think the island Columbus chanced upon that day was the more southerly Nevis and that he never actually sighted St Martin. At any rate, it wasn't until 1631 that the first colonization attempts were made, with the Dutch settling at Little Bay and the French in the Orleans area.
In 1633 the Spanish (who had claimed but not colonized the island) invaded the island, deporting all 128 inhabitants. The Spanish reinforced a fort that the Dutch had started and then built a second fort. In 1644 an attempt to retake the island was led by the renowned Dutch colonizer Peter Stuyvesant, who lost a leg to a cannonball in the fighting. Although the Dutch assault was unsuccessful, four years later the Spanish reassessed their interests in the region and simply left on their own.
Both the Dutch and French hastily moved back and agreed to share the island, signing a partition agreement in 1648 that was to be repeatedly violated. During the period from 1670 to 1702 the French controlled the entire island. In 1703 the Dutch invaded from St Eustatius and then deported any French settlers who refused to leave.
In 1713, the Utrecht Peace Treaty returned half of the island to France. Nevertheless, the Dutch and the French continued battling, each having complete control of the island for years at a time. The English also got involved, taking control in 1784 for 10 years and in 1810 for six years. In 1817, the conflict was peacefully resolved and the current boundary was established.
In the meantime, trade thrived on a slavery-based plantation economy. The Dutch harvested huge amounts of salt, most of which was shipped to Holland for the herring industry. After Sint Maarten abolished slavery in 1863, the plantations went into decline and economic activity dropped off sharply.
When the Netherlands fell to the Nazis in 1940, the French took 'protective control' of the Dutch side of the island, but within two weeks France itself was under German control. An Allied occupation of the island followed and in 1943 the USA built a military airfield, now Juliana Airport. After the war the new airport, the region's largest, spurred the island's growth as a regional hub and brought on an early advent of tourism.