With 16.6 km of length, 9.1 km at its maximum width and a total area of 97 km2, the island of Santa Maria has 5,574 inhabitants (2008 data). Together with the island of São Miguel, it forms the Eastern Group of the Azores Archipelago, with the two islands distancing 81 km from each other. Pico Alto, the island’s highest point, reaches an altitude of 587 m and is located at 36º58’59’’ latitude north and 25º05’26’’ longitude west.
Some say that Diogo de Silves was the first Portuguese who had contact with this island, probably in 1427. Others defend the name of Gonçalo Velho Cabral, navigator and a friar of the Order of Christ, as the first to see this island in 1431. What is almost certain is that Santa Maria was the first point of contact with the Azores Archipelago, and the first effort to settle it in approximately 1439, at a time when the Donatory Captain Gonçalo Velho and a group of colonisers moored their boats at Praia dos Lobos. The arrival of new families from mainland Portugal, mainly from the Algarve and Alentejo, largely contributed for its development. Actually, they did it in such a manner that the locality of Porto was the first to receive a town charter. The local economy was then based on the woad, a dye plant from which is extracted a blue dye used to color textiles in the distant Flanders; on the production of wheat, a staple food at the time; and on the extraction of clay, used for the production of pottery and roof tiles.
In 1493, the ships of Christopher Colombo arrived in Santa Maria, on the return trip of their first voyage to discover America. During the 16th and 17th centuries, there were more ferocious landings, since the island was successively pillaged by privateers from England, France, Turkey and by Arabs from North Africa. In 1616, the island was occupied by the Moors for almost a week. According to the legend, part of the population took refuge in the Santana Cave to escape the pillage, fires, kidnappings and torture. In 1675, Moorish pirates returned in force to the Bay of Anjos. And when they left, they took prisoners to be sold as slaves.
After the peak of exports for the textile industry, the 18th and 19th centuries were marked by the spread of the culture of vineyards, wheat, corn, fruit orchards, potatoes and taro root, simultaneously with cattle breeding and dairies. Although this was a calmer period, part of the population decided to emigrate. The 20th century brought another progress and dynamism due to the construction of the airport. The work began in 1944, and it required thousands of American and Azorean labouring hands. The infrastructure was considered strategic for anti-submarine strategy during World War II, by the United States. After the war, the airport was no longer a military but a civil airport crucial for airplanes crossing the Atlantic Ocean. At the end of the sixties, jet planes, now with more range, stopped landing at Santa Maria. However, the airport has kept its role as the main centre of air traffic control over the Atlantic. Nowadays, the service sector is the basis of the economy, followed by agricultural, cattle breeding and fishing activities.