São Miguel is the biggest island of the archipelago, with 62.1 km in length and 15.8 km at its maximum width. More than half of the Azorean population (133.816 inhabitants in 2008) occupies an area of 744.7 sq. km. Together with Santa Maria, located 81 km away, São Miguel is part of the Eastern Group of the Azores Archipelago. With an altitude of 1,105 m, Pico da Vara is the island’s highest point located at 37°48’34’’ latitude north and 25°12’40’’ longitude west.
Sometime between 1427 and 1431, the Portuguese navigators discovered the island of São Miguel, right after the island of Santa Maria. The initial settlement, dating from 1440 with the arrival of Gonçalo Velho Cabral, was carried out by people who came from the Portuguese regions of Estremadura, Algarve and Alentejo. Later, other communities made up of Moors, Jews and foreigners, namely French, also settled on the island. The fertile soils and the existence of some safe bays quickly transformed the island into a trading post. The economic growth was sustained mainly by the production and export of wheat and woad which boosted the island’s settlement.
Until the devastation left by the earthquake of 1522, the capital of the island was the town of Vila Franca do Campo. Then, Ponta Delgada started to play the most important role and became the capital in 1546. The end of the 16th century was marked by the attacks of privateers, and São Miguel was occupied by the Spanish army in 1582 during the Azorean resistance to the military forces of the new King of Portugal, Filipe II of Spain. After the Restoration of the Portuguese throne in 1640, the commercial development was given a new life by its connection with Brazil.
Throughout the 18th century and mid 19th century, the export of oranges, mainly to Great Britain, became the main source of wealth. Most churches, decorated with rich woodcarvings, and manor houses, built with refined stoneworks that are the delight of visitors, date from this period. From 1870 onwards, the orange groves were attacked by infectious diseases, and given the drastic reduction in production, many locals emigrated to Brazil and to the United States.
The introduction of new cultures – pineapple, tea, tobacco, hemp– contributed to the economic development of the 19th century following the turbulent Liberal Wars. The economy of the island kept growing during the 20th century given the expansion of agriculture and cattle breeding, which supplied part of the dairy industry. However, since the 1980s, the progress of the services sector has been increasingly noticeable, and it now employs most of the local population. Part of this sector, tourism is the latest investment of São Miguel, the island where the seat of the Regional Government of the Azores is located.