Why We’re All Called Tar Heels – Part 1

Reprinted by permission of the author William S. Powell

Part 1 of 2     [first published in the November, 2008 FPHPS Newsletter]

Read: Part 2

[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 we wanted to share it with all the membership.]

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 and 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 abounded 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, 1861-1865, 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 your heels to make you stick better in the next fight.”  

After the Battle of Murfeesboro 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, your 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.