A version of this article was published in the Tar Heel magazine in March 1982. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
What’s in a Name?: Why We’re All Called Tar Heels
by William S. Powell ’40
We all have had to deal with the problem at one point 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,” folks respond, before pausing. “But why are you called Tar Heels?”
The why comes easily, but when it all started takes explaining. In fact, history shows that North Carolina residents have taken an albatross from around their necks and pinned it on their chests like a badge of honor.
The moniker is rooted in the state’s earliest history, derived from the production of naval stores – tar, pitch and turpentine – extracted from the vast pine forests of the state. Early explorers from Jamestown pointed out the possibilities for naval stores production along the Chowan River. Eventually Parliament offered a bounty for their production, and North Carolina became an important 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 annually to England.
The distillation process for tar and pitch was messy and smelly. Rich pine logs were stacked, covered with earth and burned. The tar ran out through channels dug on the lower side of the pile. Because of this product, so extensively produced in North Carolina, the people of the state were called “Tarboilers,” according to the first volume of the Cincinnati Miscellany, an Ohio journal published in 1845. Forty‑three years later, the poet Walt Whitman also recorded that the people of North Carolina were called “Tar Boilers.” In both cases the name clearly was applied in derision. In May 1856, Harper’s Magazine mentioned someone who “lost his way among the pine woods that abound in that tar and turpentine State,” while an 1876 book on the Centennial Exposition described someone who ‘spent his youth in the good old ‘Tar and Turpentine State.’ ”
A story that at best must be considered folklore states that when Lord Cornwallis’s troops forded the Tar River in early May 1781 en route to Yorktown, they emerged with tar on their feet. This marked their passage through North Carolina as tar heels. The tar reputedly had been hastily dumped into the river to prevent the British from capturing it. This story cannot be traced beyond the 20th century and may have been made up to suggest the naming of the river.
But when, beyond doubt, did the term Tar Heel begin to be applied to North Carolinians? Clearly during the Civil War. In the third volume of Walter Clark’s Histories of the Several Regiments from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861 to 1865, published in 1901, James M. Ray of Asheville records two incidents in 1863 that suggest the nickname’s original application. In a fierce battle in Virginia, where their supporting column was driven from the field, North Carolina troops stood alone and fought successfully. The victorious troops were asked in a condescending tone by some Virginians who had retreated, “Any more tar down in the Old North State, boys?” The response came quickly: “No; not a bit; old Jeff’s bought it all up.” “Is that so? What is he going to do with it?” the Virginians asked. “He is going to put it on you’ns heels to make you stick 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 fighting line commending his troops. Before the 60th Regiment from North Carolina, Preston praised them for advancing farther than he had anticipated, concluding with: “This is your first battle of any consequence, I believe. Indeed, you Tar Heels have done well.”
Similarly, sometime after North Carolina troops had fought particularly well, Gen. Robert E. Lee is said to have commented: “God bless the Tar Heel boys.” Like the Cornwallis story, however, 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 North State. “A story is related,” 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 laughed at by the Mississippians for having forgotten to tar their heels that morning. Hence originated their cant name ‘Tarheels.’ ”
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 in part would trace in reverse the march of Gen. William T. Sherman at the end of the Civil War. As a part of his report on North Carolina, Powers described the pine woods of the state and the making of turpentine. Having entered South Carolina, he recorded in his 1872 book, Afoot & Alone, that he spent the night “with a young man, whose family were away, leaving him all alone in a great mansion. He had been a cavalry sergeant, wore his hat on the side of his head, and had an exceedingly confidential manner.”
“You see, sir, the Tar‑heels haven’t no sense to spare,” Powers quotes the sergeant as saying. “Down there in the pines the sun don’t more’n half bake their heads. We always had to show ’em whar the Yankees was, or they’d charge to the rear, the wrong way, you see.”
As in this particular case, for a time after the Civil War, the name Tar Heel was derogatory, just as Tar Boilers had been earlier. In Congress on Feb. 10, 1875, a black representative from South Carolina had kind words for many whites, whom he described as “noble-hearted, generous‑hearted people.” Others he spoke of as “the class of men thrown up by the war, that rude class of men I mean, the ‘tar‑heels’ and the ‘sand‑hillers,’ and the ‘dirt eaters’ of the South – it is with that class we have all our trouble….” The name also had a bad connotation in an entry in the 1884 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which reported that the people who lived in the region of pine forests were “far superior to the tar heel, the nickname of the dwellers in barrens.” The New York Tribune further differentiated among North Carolinians on Sept. 20, 1903, when it observed that “the men really like to work, which is all but incomprehensible to the true ‘tar heel.’ ”
At home, however, the name was coming to be accepted with pride. In Pittsboro on Dec. 11, 1879, the Chatham Record informed its readers that Jesse Turner had been named to the Arkansas Supreme Court. The new justice was described as “a younger brother of our respected townsman, David Turner, Esq., and we are pleased to know that a fellow tar‑heel is thought so much of in the state of his adoption.” 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 is an honest man… he is a tar‑heel.”
In 1893, the students of The University of North Carolina founded a newspaper and christened it The 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 commend him for his efforts to obtain pensions for Confederate veterans. This was an action, Hancock wrote, “we Tar Heels, or a large majority of us, do most heartily commend.” And by 1912, it was a term of clear identification‑ recognized outside the state. On August 26 of that year, The New York Evening Post identified Josephus Daniels and Thomas J. Pence as two Tar Heels holding important posts in Woodrow Wilson’s campaign.
So there it was in 1912, the stamp of credibility on Tar Heel. Surely an august institution such as The New York Evening Post would never malign two gentlemen of the stature of Daniels and Pence, no matter how bitter the Presidential election campaign. The badge of honor stuck, and, in a manner of speaking, North Carolina residents have sat back on their heels ever since, happy to be Tar Heels. Who’d want to be a Sandlapper, anyway?
William S. Powell ’40 is a professor emeritus of history at The University of North Carolina.