Why We’re All Called Tar Heels
Reprinted by permission of the author William S. Powell
Part 2 of 2 – [from December, 2008 FPHPS Newsletter]
Read: Part 1
[Editor’s Note: Harry Warren, Director of the North Carolina Forestry Museum in Whiteville, NC, passed this article along to us during his presentation at our August meeting. We thought it was so good that we wanted to share it with all the membership.]
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 this 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 this 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 what 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 fine 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.”
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 is 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.L. Pence as two Tar Heels holding important posts in Woodrow Wilson’s campaign.
So there it was in 1922, 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 who have sat back on their heels ever since, happy to be Tar Heels. Who’d want to be a Sandlapper, anyway?
|We are Tar Heels – not “Tarheels”
Always write our name as two words, even when using
it as an adjective (e.g., “The Tar Heel tradition”
Tar [space] Heels