Why is north carolina called the tar heels

    A version of this article was published in tar heel magazine in March 1982. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

    by william s. powell ’40

    We’ve all had to deal with the problem at one time or another, particularly when we go abroad (more than two states away) and declare our state of residence.

    “oh, that’s such a beautiful state,” people respond, before pausing. “But why do they call you tar heels?”

    The why is easy, but it is necessary to explain when it all started. In fact, history shows that residents of North Carolina took an albatross from around their necks and pinned it to their chests as a badge of honor.

    The nickname is rooted in the state’s earliest history, derived from the production of naval stores (tar, pitch and turpentine) extracted from the state’s vast pine forests. Early Jamestown explorers noted the possibilities for naval supply production along the Chowan River. Parliament eventually offered a reward for their production, and North Carolina became a major source of tar and pitch for the English navy. For several years before the American Revolution, the colony shipped more than 100,000 barrels of tar and pitch a year to England.

    The tar and pitch distillation process was complicated and smelly. rich pine logs were piled up, covered with earth and burned. the tar trickled down channels dug into the bottom of the pile. Because of this product, so widely produced in North Carolina, the people of the state were called “tarboilers,” according to the first volume of The Cincinnati Miscellany, an Ohio magazine published in 1845. Forty-three years later, the poet Walt Whitman also recorded that the people of North Carolina were called “tar kettles.” in both cases, the name was clearly applied in a mocking way. in May 1856, harper’s magazine mentioned someone who was “lost among the pine woods that abound in that state of tar and turpentine,” while an 1876 book about the centenary exhibition described someone who “spent his youth in the good old ‘state of tar and turpentine’”.

    A story that should be considered folklore at best says that when Lord Cornwallis’s troops forded the River Tar in early May 1781 on their way to Yorktown, they came out with tar on their feet. This marked his time in North Carolina as tar heels. supposedly, the tar had been hastily dumped into the river to prevent the British from capturing it. this story cannot be traced back beyond the 20th century and may have been invented to suggest the river’s name.

    but surely when did the term tar heel begin to apply to north carolinans? clearly during the civil war. In The Third Volume Of Walter Clark’s Histories Of The Various North Carolina Regiments In The Great War, 1861 To 1865, Published 1901, James M. Ray of Asheville records two incidents in 1863 that suggest the original application of the nickname. In a fierce battle in Virginia, where his support column was driven from the field, the North Carolina troops stood alone and fought successfully. the victorious troops were asked in a condescending tone by some Virginians who had retreated, “more tar in the old upstate, boys?” The answer was not long in coming: “no; not a bit; old jeff has bought it all. “Is that so? What is he going to do with it?” The Virginians asked. “He is going to put it on his heels so he will stay better in the next fight.”

    After the Battle of Murfreesboro in Tennessee in early January 1863, John S. Preston of Columbia, S.C., the commanding general, rode along the battle line praising his troops. Facing the 60th North Carolina Regiment, Preston praised them for going further than he had anticipated, concluding with, “I think this is his first battle of any consequence. in fact, you did well, fools.”

    Similarly, some time after North Carolina troops had fought particularly well, Gen. Robert E. Lee is reported to have commented, “god bless the tar heel boys.” however, like the cornwallis story, the exact occasion has not been noted.

    A San Francisco magazine, Overland Monthly, in its August 1869 issue, published an article on slang and nicknames. the author cited a number of terms used in the old northern state. “A story is told,” he wrote, “of a brigade of North Carolinians, who, in one of the great battles (Chancellorsville, if I remember correctly) failed to hold a certain hill, and were mocked by the Mississippi for forgetting to tar your heels that morning. thus, their false name ‘tarheels’ originated.”

    a piece of sheet music, wearin’ of the grey, identified as “written by tar heel” and published in baltimore in 1866, is probably the earliest printed use of tar heel.

    on new year’s day 1868, stephen powers set out from raleigh on a walking tour that would, in part, reverse the march of gen. william t. sherman at the end of the civil war. As part of their report on North Carolina, the powers that be described the state’s pine forests and turpentine manufacturing. Having entered South Carolina, he recorded in his 1872 book, Afoot & alone, that he spent the night “with a young man, whose family was away, leaving him alone in a large mansion. he had been a cavalry sergeant, wore his hat on the side of his head, and had an extremely confidential demeanor.”

    “You see, sir, tar heels don’t make much sense,” powers says, quoting Sgt. down there, in the pines, the sun does not bake more than half of their heads. we always had to show them where the yankees were, or they would charge from the rear, the wrong way, you know?”

    As in this particular case, for a time after the civil war, the name tar heel was derogatory, much like tar kettles before it. at congress on feb. On October 10, 1875, a black representative from South Carolina had kind words for many whites, whom he described as “people of noble and generous hearts.” others he referred to as “the kind of men thrown out by war, that kind of rude men I mean, the ‘tar heels’ and the ‘sand hillmen’, and the ‘garbage eaters’ of the south – it is with that class we have all our troubles…” The name was also given a bad connotation in an entry in the 1884 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which reported that the people who lived in the pine-woods region were “far superior to the tar heels, the nickname of the inhabitants of the wastelands”. the new york tribune further differentiated north carolinans on september 10th. 20, 1903, when he observed that “men are very fond of work, which is almost incomprehensible to the true ‘tar heel.'”

    at home, however, the name was beginning to be accepted with pride. in pittsboro on dec. On January 11, 1879, the Chatham Register informed its readers that Jesse Turner had been appointed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. The new judge was described as “a younger brother of our respected citizen, David Turner, Esq., and we are pleased to learn that he thinks so highly of a fellow tar-heel in the state of adopting him.” in Congress in 1878, Rep. david b. vance, trying to persuade the government to pay one of his constituents, j.c. clendenin, for building a road, described clendenin in glowing phrases, concluding with: “he’s an honest man… he’s a tar-heel.”

    In 1893, students at the University of North Carolina founded a newspaper and named it Tar Heel. By the end of the century, Tar Heel, at least within the state, had been rehabilitated. John R. hancock of raleigh wrote sen. marion butler on jan. 20, 1899, to congratulate him on his efforts to obtain pensions for Confederate veterans. This was an action, Hancock wrote, “we Tar Heels, or the vast majority of us, wholeheartedly recommend it.” and by 1912, it was a clearly identified term recognized outside the state. On August 26 of that year, the New York Evening Paper identified Josephus Daniels and Thomas J. pennies like two tar heels holding important positions in woodrow wilson’s campaign.

    so there it was in 1912, the credible stamp on the tar heel. surely an august institution like the new york evening post would never smear two gentlemen of the caliber of daniels and pence, no matter how bitter the presidential election campaign was. The badge of honor stuck and, so to speak, North Carolina residents have sat on its heels ever since, happy to be tar heels. who would want to be a sandlapper, anyway?

    william s. powell ’40 is professor emeritus of history at the university of north carolina.

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