History and Origin of the Tar Heels

The Fascinating History and Origin of the the Term Tar Heels

The term Carolina Tar heels doesn't just refer to a basketball team. The whole state is full of Tar heels. Let's uncover the story.
SportsAspire Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
By Earl Hunsinger

If you're a basketball fan, then you've probably heard of the 'Carolina Tar heels.' But if you're from North Carolina, then you probably already know that the phrase doesn't just refer to the basketball team. The truth is that all North Carolinians are known as Tar heels. How did they get such a strange name? When did North Carolina become known as the Tar heel state, and why?

To find out, we first need to know a little about the history of North Carolina. Imagine yourself back in the early days of this nation. North Carolina is a young colony and you have just arrived. You stand in awe among the big trees of the vast forest found in this colony. Picture in your mind the wind stirring through the tops of these giant trees. You can almost smell the fragrant aroma of the pines that surround you. These pines were longleaf pines. In those days, this part of the United States was full of these hearty trees. This created an industry for North Carolina, as these trees were perfect for producing pitch, tar, resin, and turpentine. England needed the pitch and tar for the construction and maintenance of her wooden naval ships. In fact, it has been estimated that at one time, North Carolina shipped 100,000 barrels of tar and pitch per year to England. This new resource was especially handy since over the years Europe had depleted its own sources of pitch and tar. So North Carolina's industry was built in part around these pines and the making of tar and pitch.

But where did the nickname come from? Because of the tar producing industry, many, including Walt Whitman, began to refer to the residents of North Carolina derogatorily as tar boilers. North Carolina itself was nicknamed the tar and turpentine state. These terms make sense. How the tar got on the heels of North Carolinians is another matter entirely. There are many legends and tales to explain this. The earliest comes from the Revolutionary War. According to this story, tar had been dumped into what is now known as the Tar River to impede the crossing of British troops. This caused the soldiers to say that anyone wading through the rivers of North Carolina would get tar heels.

Most of the other legends that purport to explain the term come from the Civil War. According to the book Histories of the Several Regiments from North Carolina in the Great War, the name resulted from a joke, or insult. During a particular battle, North Carolina troops held their ground while other troops retreated. Later, some of the other soldiers asked the troops from North Carolina if there was any more tar down in the old north state. They said, "No, not a bit; old Jeff's bought it all up." When asked what he was going to do with it, they replied, "He is going to put it on you'ns heels to make you stick better in the next fight."

The August 1869 issue of the San Francisco magazine Overland Monthly explained the origin this way: "A story is related," he wrote, "of a brigade of North Carolinians, who, in a battle 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 name 'Tar Heels.'

Another legend says that the name resulted from the fact that North Carolina was one of the last states to secede from the United States. This resulted in the state being nicknamed the reluctant state. Others joked that Jeff Davis had bought up all the tar, "To put on you fellow's heels to make you stick."

One of the most popular theories for the origin is related in a book from 1901, Grandfather Tales of North Carolina History. It says this about it: "During the late unhappy war between the States it [North Carolina] was sometimes called the 'Tar-heel State,' because tar was made in the State, and because in battle the soldiers of North Carolina stuck to their bloody work as if they had tar on their heels, and when General Lee said, 'God bless the Tar-heel boys,' they took the name."