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Why Is North Carolina Called the Tar Heel State?

By Rebecca Mecomber
Updated May 17, 2024
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The U.S. state North Carolina's nickname, "Tar Heel State," most likely originates from the state's most prosperous industry from 1720 to 1870: the manufacture of tar for naval vessels. North Carolina's abundant pine forests provided a seemingly endless supply of pine pitch. When the logs were buried with soil and burned, sticky resin oozed from the wood, which was then collected and sold to the English navy. Before the American War for Independence, North Carolina supplied much of the naval tar necessary for English ships. Since then, other legends and anecdotes have arisen to explain the "Tar Heel State" nickname, including a Civil War story regarding Robert E. Lee.

Before North Carolina was recognized as the "Tar Heel State," it was called the "Turpentine State." The turpentine, another word for the tar or pitch produced in great quantities, referred to North Carolina's most important industry before the 20th century. The tar heel connotation carries a derogatory slant, later taken by North Carolinians as a source of defensive pride. Various wartime stories abound, crediting the tar heel name to the American War for Independence and several Civil War battles. Historians cannot verify the stories enough, however, to pinpoint a precise origin.

In one story set during the Civil War, in 1863, North Carolina soldiers tenaciously held their ground during a battle even after a Virginia regiment had retreated. A spat arose between the two regiments, with Virginians taunting the North Carolinians about the less noble employment of tar manufacturing. The North Carolinians were quick-witted in their retort, remarking that perhaps the Virginians would do well to slick tar on their heels to endure the next battle. General Robert Lee, hearing of the spat, was said to remark, "God bless the tar heel boys!" After that, the name stuck, so to speak.

Other mentions of the tar heel boys sprouted up in records following that story. General John Preston of South Carolina commended the "tar heels" for their dogged determination in another Civil War battle. In yet another battle, the North Carolina regiment was mocked for losing a battle and forgetting to tar their heels. The North Carolinians seemed to epitomize their state motto, "To be, rather than to seem," later adopted in 1893.

Consequently, the name tar heel appeared in various printed publications, including a piece of music written by a "Tar Heel" as well as a University of North Carolina student publication entitled The Daily Tar Heel. By the 1900s, politicians, writers and businessmen were proudly calling themselves tar heels, and thus the "Tar Heel State" was born.

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Discussion Comments
By Animandel — On Mar 06, 2014

When I visited North Carolina, one of the first questions I asked was why people from North Carolina were called tar heels. You wouldn't believe some of the answers I received, but mostly people didn't know.

Many of them did mention that the teams from the state college (UNC) were called tar heels.

By Sporkasia — On Mar 05, 2014

I have heard several of the stories about the tar heel boys from older residents of North Carolina. However, I think those stories are no longer widely told or widely remembered. What keeps the tar heel moniker vibrant in large part is the University of North Carolina sports teams.

The university adopted the tar heel name for all of its sports teams and the success of the basketball team over the years has exposed the name to a large number of people outside the state.

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