Discovery of the Aores islands. Rooster Camisa

Discovery of the Aҫores islands.

The Aҫores islands are often described as enchanting, magical, a place that time forgot and even theorized to be part of the lost Atlantis.   They’re the beloved birthplace of those of us who dream of the day we return to them.  They’re the magnet for those who grew up listening to their family’s Aҫorean immigration stories.  And for those who hadn’t heard of them until recently, they’re a desired vacation destination.  Part of the magic of these nine islands is the variety of their offerings for all.  No matter what the reason is for visiting for them, the Aҫores islands will be everything you’d hoped for and probably more.  

Because there’s so much to be said about each island, today I’ll write about their colonization and revisit each of them each in future blogs.    

But first, a bit about the general geography of the islands. The Aҫores are an archipelago made up of three groups defined as eastern, central and western. They’re located 930 miles from the coast Lisbon and 2,400 miles for the east coast of North America.  Geographically speaking, they weren’t convenient to reach at the time of the great discoveries. 

Santa Maria  

The exact date the Aҫores islands were discovered is unclear. While there’s the agreement that Santa Maria was the first island to be discovered, there’s a lack of agreement about who first had contact with it.   Some believe it was Goncalo Velho Cabral, a friar for the Order of Christ and a gifted navigator.  Others say it was Diogo de Silves, of whom almost nothing is known other than his name was found in a reference chart on one of the original maps of the Aҫores.  What seems to be undebatable is that Santa Maria was the first of the nine islands to be settled in approximately 1439. Whether there first or not, it was Velho and a group of colonizers who moored their boats at Praia dos Lobos to settle Santa Maria. Soon new families arrived from Portugal’s Algarve and Alentejo regions.  Santa Maria is named after the feast day of the Virgin Mary.  Its original economy was based on the dye (indigo) yielding plant called woad and the extraction of clay used to produce pottery and roof tiles.     

Santa Maria’s size is roughly 37 square miles and is the seventh-largest of the islands. During the 2011 census, there were 5,552 people living on Santa Maria. It’s one of two islands that form the eastern group of the Aҫores. 

São Miguel

Between 1427 and 1431, the next Aҫores island to be discovered was São Miguel.  It was originally settled by people who arrived from the Portuguese regions of Estremadura, Algarve and later by Moors, Jews, and the French.  It was named after Archangel Michael.   São Miguel’s original economy was sustained mainly by the production and export of wheat and woad.

São Miguel’s size is approximately 493 square miles as the largest of the Aҫores islands. During the 2011 census, there were 137,856 people living on São Miguel. It’s one of the two islands that form the eastern group of the Aҫores.


What was originally called the island of Jesus Christ and is better known as Terceira, was the third Aҫores island to be discovered and its name later changed to reflect that order.  Historians estimate it was discovered sometime in the early 1430s.  While discovered not long after Santa Maria and Sao Miguel, there wasn’t an effective settlement of Terceira until 1470. Much like the previously settled Aҫorean islands, Terceira’s original economy was based on wheat and woad. Terceira quickly became an asset in other ways because of its accessible bays.  It wasn’t only used for the distribution of regional products produced in other Aҫores islands, it became an inter-continental stopover for  ships sailing between Europe, America, and India.  But as the saying goes, heavy is the crown and with much good comes much responsibility. Terceira’s role as a political, economic and religious center of the Aҫores also meant it was a continuous target for the Flemish, English and French privateers.  For the next four centuries, many a battle was fought and won on Terceira’s soil.  

Terceira is approximately 154 square miles in size and is the third largest of the islands. During the 2011 census, there were 56,437 people living on Terceira. It’s one of the five islands that form the central group of the Aҫores.


Historians are uncertain of the year Graciosa was discovered but estimate it to be sometime between 1449 and 1451.  Its settlement started around 1470 and drew people from France, Portugal and some who moved from Terceira.  Graciosa’s name translates to “graceful” in Portuguese.  Its interior area contained very rich soil which eventually led to a local economy based on wheat and barley.  Additionally, Graciosa was able to produce wine and spirits which distinguished it among the other islands at the time.  But much like others, it was occasionally attacked and pillaged by pirates during later centuries.  

Graciosa is 24 square miles in size and is the eighth largest of the islands. During the 2011 census, there were 4,391 people living on Graciosa.  It’s one of the five islands forming the central group of the Aҫores.

São Jorge

Like the other islands in Aҫores central group, it’s estimated that this island was discovered sometime between 1449 to 1451.  São Jorge is believed to be the second island to be inhabited in the central group around 1460 and is named after the feast day of Saint Jorge. Less is known about the original settlers of Sao Jorge although historians theorize that they were the same settlers who originally inhabited its neighboring islands. Sao Jorge quickly became known for the quality of its pastures and its original economy was based on wheat and wine.  Because of its unsafe ports, Sao Jorge was an isolated island and unfortunately lost its economic influence. Despite its isolation and scarcity of tradeable resources, the people of Sao Jorge historically held out against centuries of hardship including attacks by Algerian and Turkish pirates as well as French and English privateers. 

Sao Jorge is approximately 94 square miles in size and is the fourth largest of the islands. During the 2011 census, there were 9,171 people living on Sao Jorge.  It’s one of the five islands forming the central group of the Aҫores.


Pico’s discovery took place sometime between 1449 and 1451 and was originally known as King Dinis Island. The name was eventually changed to Pico because it’s the home of the largest Portuguese mountain. The word Pico means peak in Portuguese. Its majestic mountain is the third largest volcano in the Atlantic Ocean.  Historians believe Pico was the last island in the central group to be settled. Pico was settled by people from the North of Portugal around 1480.

Pico’s original economy was based on the production of wheat and woad.  But its economy soon expanded to include vineyards which produced an abundance of the famous Verdelho grapes. This prosperous commodity was eventually exported to America and Europe reaching international fame until a time when a natural disaster destroyed Pico’s grapevines.  But despite the daunting loss, those who stayed on the island persevered to witness to better times. 

Pico is 172 square miles in size and is the second-largest of the islands. During the 2011 census, there were 14,148 people living on Pico. It’s one of the five islands forming the central group of the Aҫores.  


Faial, another of the central group of the Aҫores, was discovered around 1450 as part of an expedition looking for tin and silver ores. Faial’s first settlers moved onto the island in 1465.  They were made up of Portuguese, Moors, Jews and the French.  It’s believed that they named the island Faial (means beech wood)  was named after what was believed to be beech wood by the early discoverers.    Woad and wheat were the main basis for Faial’s original economy and like other Aҫores islands, Faial was attacked by the privateers and pirates. Faial’s sheltered, natural harbor, Horta, became an important navigational stopover between Europe and America where wine and spirits from its neighboring islands were exported to mainland Portugal, the British colonies and Europe.  Eventually, Faial also produced and exported oranges and for a while, became the main financial resource for the island.  

Faial is 67 square miles in size and is the fifth-largest island. During the 2011 census, there were 14,994 people living on Faial.  It’s one of the five islands forming the central group of the Aҫores.    


Flores (means “flowers”) and it is believed that it was named that because of its beautiful flowers growing in abundance all over the island. Historians say it was discovered sometime after 1452.  Due to its distance from the other islands and from the coast of Europe, original attempts at settling it were not easy.  It wasn’t until 1508 that its settlement took hold. Flores’ original economy was based on wheat, sheep breeding, and the production of cloth.  Despite its remote location, it presented a strategically helpful location for pirates and privateers watching ships carrying precious metals and other valuables.  Like other Aҫorean islands, the residents of Flores prevailed against adversity for centuries following its colonization.

Flores is approximately 55 square miles in size and is the sixth-largest of the islands.  During the 2011 census, there were 3,793 people living on Flores.  It’s one of two islands forming the western group of the Aҫores.


Corvo was discovered in 1452 at the same time as Flores.  The name Corvo means “crow” and historians speculate that was because of the many dark birds on the island at the time of its discovery.  In 1580, settlers from the neighboring Flores, and slaves from Cape Verde, moved to Corvo to breed cattle and work the land. The population of Corvo remained small in comparison to the population of the other Aҫores islands from the start. Despite its size and geographical isolation, Corvo wasn’t completely ignored by privateers and pirates and the residents of Corvo became known for their bravery fighting against them despite its small population. 

Corvo is 6.5 square miles in size and is the smallest of the islands.  During the 2011 census, there were 430 people living on Corvo. It’s one of the two islands forming the western group of the Aҫores.

Whether visiting the smallest or largest, busiest or quietest of these islands, all offer something unique and welcoming to all who make their way to the magical, beautiful and enchanting Aҫores.  I look forward to writing future blogs about each of these beautiful islands. 


From your friends at Rooster Camisa, happy visiting!



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