Origin Of Name "Tar Heel"

By William Powell

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.

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 "tar boilers", according to the 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.

A story that must be considered folklore

states that when Lord Cornwallis' troops forded the Tar River in early May of 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 Webster Clark's "Histories of the Several Regiments from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861-1865," 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 supportive 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 your heels to make you stick better in the next fight."

After the battle of Murfreesboro in Tennessee in early January of 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."

For a time after the Civil War, the name Tar Heel was derogatory. In Congress on Feb. 10th, 1875, a black representative from South Carolina had kind words for many whites which 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 that we have all our trouble."

At home, the name was coming to be accepted with pride. In 1893, the students at the University of North Carolina founded a newspaper and christened it "The Tar Heels." By the end of the century, Tar Heel-at least within the state-had been rehabilitated.

RamFanatic note:

Occasionally people who move into North Carolina from other parts of the country ask the question, "Why is North Carolina known as the Tar Heel state and more specifically "Why are UNC athletic teams called the Tar Heels.

Those of us who were raised in North Carolina have heard explanations of how it came about but few can remember it to the extent that we can satisfactorily explain it to others. When it is explained, like on message boards, it quickly disappears and in a short while we go through the process all over again.

I found this explanation recently by historian William Powell, a retired professor of History at UNC. It has to be the most complete explanation of where and how the moniker originated I have ever seen. In the future when the question is asked, I plan to refer questioners to this web site for Mr. Powell's explanation since it will remain posted. Those who think they know all there is to know about this subject might do well to read it also. I know that facts are contained with which I was unfamiliar and maybe it will put to rest the notion that Tar Heel originated with the "four corners offense" where the point guard would dribble around and the other four players would stand in a fixed location like they had tar on their heels. One questioner on a message board said he had been told this and I couldn't determine whether he was serious or not.