Like many places in Virginia, the city of Roanoke got its name from the original Native American inhabitants of the area. In fact, there are several uses of the name Roanoke in this region. The source of the Roanoke River is near the city. And of course, there is the famous Lost Colony of Roanoke in North Carolina. But where did the name come from? What does Roanoke mean in its native language?
The word “roanoke” originally referred to a type of money made from shells that was used by the Native American tribes in the area as well as by European settlers when they arrived here. This currency consisted of shells rubbed smooth by hand and formed into beads.
Roanoke is a word from the Powhatan language—also known as Virginia Algonquian—spoken by the Powhatan tribe of Tidewater, Virginia. It comes from the word “rawrenock,” which means, “things rubbed smooth by hand” or “to rub, smooth, or polish,” depending on the part of speech. This relates to its use as a term for money as the shells were polished and rubbed smooth for use as currency.
Roanoke was also known as “wampum,” a word that may be more familiar to the modern reader as referring to money. “Wampum” was the term used in the Narragansett language, spoken by the tribe of the same name who lived in the area that is now Rhode Island.
Both Powhatan and Narragansett were members of the Algonquian family of languages. Algonquian languages were spoken across large portions of North America, including the eastern seaboard as far south as North Carolina, the area around the Great Lakes, and a large percentage of what is now Canada.
Both of these languages, along with a number of the other Algonquian languages, are now extinct. Very little is now known of the Powhatan language as the only written record of it consists of two word lists written by English settlers John Smith and William Strachey. The two lists together only contain about 550 words.
Naming of the City
Interestingly, although the Powhatan language became extinct around the end of the 18th century, the city of Roanoke was not given its name until 1882. It is also quite a distance from the Tidewater region where Powhatan was spoken. The tribes in that area, near the Blue Ridge Mountains, spoke Siouan and Cherokee languages. So how did the city get its name?
The town that would become Roanoke was originally named Big Lick and was established in 1852. The town is close to the source of the Roanoke River, which flows southeast to reach the Atlantic Ocean at Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. This is also near the location of Roanoke Island, famous for its “Lost Colony.” The city of Roanoke was named for its proximity to the river, which stretches into the territory where Powhatan was spoken.
Other Powhatan Words
There are a number of other Powhatan loan words still used in English today. Linguist Frank Siebert has suggested that it may be the largest source of English borrowing of any Native American languages. These are some other words borrowed from the Powhatan language that you may recognize.
- Pone (corn pone)
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