Roanoke Avenue’s origins might be a surprise

This undated postcard shows Roanoke Avenue with Grace Episcopal Church on the left.

This is the first installment in an occasional series on the history behind the names of some Riverhead streets.

When colonial settlers first came to the North Fork, money didn’t grow on trees. It washed up on shore — and the Indians called it “rawenoch.”

That’s right. According to historical records, the name “Roanoke” has its roots 400 years in the past, when Native American tribes harvested an abundance of rawenoch seashells that washed up along Long Island Sound.

The shells were useful for fashioning “wampum,” which was the primary means of exchange between Native Americans. Taken literally, “Roanoke” means “shell money,” though many have mistakenly assumed it means “red oak” or some other such phonetically similar translation.

According to Riverhead Town historian Georgette Case, Roanoke Avenue was officially named in 1899 after undergoing several name changes, including Center Street in 1837, Suffolk Street in 1847, and Abnor Street in 1850. (Riverhead resident Abnor Howell, Ms. Case said, paid out of his own pocket to have his name written on the street sign.) More than likely, according to Suffolk County Historical Society records, the street originated as a path trod first by the Native Americans and later by English settlers farming the countryside.