According to nautical records, São Nicolau was discovered on December 6, 1461, by Diogo Afonso. However, the island only began to be populated in the 17th century. Its settlement, initiated with Portuguese people from Madeira and Algarve and some slaves, was based mainly on the exploitation the island’s agricultural aptitude, particularly cattle raising.

The island's first settlement was Porto da Lapa, in São Jorge Bay. It was abandoned shortly afterwards because it was vulnerable to attacks by pirates and privateers, as well as due to the scarcity of drinking water that characterizes this area. The population took refuge, then, in the green valley of Ribeira Brava and started spreading from there, giving rise to several population centers, especially in the humid and narrow valleys between high mountains and coastal regions.

Over the years, the population centers have dispersed and increased, mostly around the Tarrafal area, thanks to the proximity with with the sea and the resources it provides. Tarrafal as thus become, together with Vila da Ribeira Brava, the main population center of the island of São Nicolau.