[Ads-l] On "Tar Heels" in general and North Carolinians as "Tar Heels"

Bonnie Taylor-Blake b.taylorblake at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 7 17:39:29 UTC 2020

We've discussed the origin of "Tar Heel" several times here, including
antebellum instances of its use in various parts of the South. That the
term existed before the Civil War permits us to discard a few legendary
etymologies tied to the Civil War.

Several years ago historian Bruce Baker wrote a remarkable essay on how the
epithet "Tar Heel" came to be applied to North Carolinians specifically. I
found it soon after it was published and, while I find flaws in the latter
part of his argument, I see a lot of value in his "Why North Carolinians
Are Tar Heels: A New Explanation" [1].

The most astonishing part (to me, at least) is that Baker makes clear the
connection to the presumably older (and previously unknown to me, am I
alone?) "Rosin Heel," a nickname even noted by Mencken (!) in 1949 [2].

Here's an early example from ca. 1825, from a source [3] both Mencken and
Baker cite.

"[West Florida] possesses in its swamps a considerable quantity of live
oak, and masts and spars enough for all the navies in the world. It is
capable of furnishing inexhaustible supplies of pitch, tar, &c. The high
grass, which grows every where among the pine trees, opens an immense range
for cattle. There are some tolerable tracts of land along the rivers; but
generally the land is low, swampy, and extremely poor. The people, too, are
poor and indolent, devoted to raising cattle, hunting, and drinking
whiskey. They are a wild race, with but little order or morals among them;
they are generally denominated 'Bogues,' and call themselves 'rosin heels.'"

Baker shares other examples of antebellum "Rosin Heels" used to denote
marginalized whites of the Piney Woods across the South. As he suspects of
"Rosin Heels,"

"Poor workers in the hot climates of the Piney Woods probably went barefoot
during the warm months when rosin was being collected, and thus very likely
collected a fair amount of it on their heels. [...] The rosin heels are
workers, but they are not working terribly hard. Like the poor residents of
poor lands everywhere, the improvidence of the land is transferred as a
personality trait to those who inhabit it."

For me, then, the existence of "Rosin Heels" perfectly helps buttress an
old proposed etymology "Tar Heels," which suggests tar accumulating on bare
feet. I should stop there, but ...

Trickier for Baker is how North Carolinians specifically became known as
"Tar Heels." I think he forces a more complicated (though interesting)
explanation where a simpler one is perfectly adequate. (What follows is
long and likely not new to most of you.)

As we list-members know, the so-far earliest known appearance of "Tar Heel"
dates to 1846 [4]. At the time of writing Baker presumably was unaware of
this very early "Tar Heel" used with reference to a class of poor whites
across the South, apparently without specificity to North Carolinians:

"There are at this moment at least as many poor whites in the slave states
as there are slaves, who are hardly less miserable than the slaves
themselves. They have no weight in society, grow up in ignorance, are not
permitted to vote and are tolerated as an evil, of which the slaveholder
would gladly be rid.  They are never spoken of without some contemptuous
epithet.  "Red shanks," "Tar heels," &c., are the names by which they are
commonly known. The slaveholders look with infinite contempt upon these
poor men -- a feeling which they cherish for poor men every where."

("Red shanks," it turns out, was in place in west Florida by 1840 [5].)

It's possible that there are still earlier instances of "Tar Heels,"
perhaps in place in the Piney Woods of the lower South and co-existing with
"Rosin Heels," and that we just haven't yet found them.

Baker acknowledges North Carolina's role in turpentine production in the
1840s, that the state was known as "the Tar, Pitch, and Turpentine State"
before the war, and mentions a September, 1861 passage that includes a
mention of "tar boiler" (as an occupation) among North Carolina prisoners,
but he hasn't presented that residents of the state were called "Tar
Boilers" by 1845. (Further, North Carolina was called simply "the Old Tar
State" by 1853.)

For me, then, the blending of a generalized form of "Tar Heels" to denote
poor white Southerners (likely influenced by "Rosin Heels") and "Tar-"
bearing epithets with specific reference to North Carolina and its
inhabitants is sufficient for the branding of North Carolinians as "Tar
Heels" by, say, the early days of the war, when North Carolina soldiers
encountered the epithet directed against them (specifically). Of course,
it's possible that North Carolina civilians were inclined to be dubbed "Tar
Heels" before the 1860s simply because of the state's connection to tar.
(By the way, the earliest "tar-heel" used as a qualifier for a North
Carolinian that I've found appeared in a California newspaper in 1858 [7].
This time it's for a black North Carolinian.)

Part of Baker's thesis for how North Carolinians became "Tar Heels" hinges,
in fact, on early associations of "tar" with blacks and with expressions
involving blacks, with a later tinge of meaning signaling "deceit and
treachery" and evilness. (This is where we part.) Consequently, he argues,
"Tar Heels" may have been used by citizens/soldiers from other (Southern)
states toward citizens/soldiers of North Carolina as an allusion to the
state's sympathies for the Union cause.

In support of this theory, he gives us the earliest examples he had found
of "Tar Heel": the antebellum "Tar Heels" he discovered involved
descriptions of southern blacks (not living in North Carolina). He also has
instances of (white) North Carolinians described in terms of swarthy,
smokey, and dirty appearances. And yet, while many of the antebellum uses
of "Tar Heel" certainly are applied to blacks (including some he doesn't
mention), we have examples from immediately before the Civil War of whites
(presumably) not from North Carolina who chose to sign off as "Tar-heel" on
letters to the editors of Southern newspapers, just as other letter writers
had signed off as "Rosin Heels" nearly three decades earlier [8].

Moreover, Baker points out that "[f]rom the early 1840s (if not earlier)
white Americans, in the North and the South, began to use the expression
'tar on a nigger's heel' or some close variation, often in connection to
politics" and offers examples for why "tar" may have applied to North
Carolinians in political contexts. But we have an 1840 usage [9],
presumably by a white writer, of "we wear tar on our heels" with reference
to white Democrats in Franklin County, Mississippi. I assume Baker didn't
see this.

A very early usage (presumably also not seen by Baker) with application to
North Carolinians specifically appears in the diary of Lt. William B.A.
Lowrance [10]. (We've discussed this before, too.) On 6 February 1863
Lowrance, then a Second Lieutenant in North Carolina's 46th Regiment,
recorded coming to an area of the state now identified as somewhere in
Onslow or Pender Counties. (Lowrance was from Rowan County, in the rolling
foothills of the western North Carolina Piedmont, so this very eastern
region of the state may have been new to him.)

"Great deal of rains which make the water rise all over the country nearby.
This is a low sandy country. The land is poor and the inhabitants gineraly
they farm [?]. The country is interspersed with cypress swamps and duck
Ponds. I know now what is meant by the Piney woods region of N.C. and the
idea occurs to me that it is no wonder we are called "Tar Heels." Very
little wheat raised about here the inhabitants live on corn meal sweet
Potatoe Cabage &c. Game is plenty. Although this is among the first parts
of the state settled by the colonists yet it presents a wild western [?]

Lowrance's description reminds me of that ca. 1825 description of "Rosin
Heels" in the Piney Woods of the Florida panhandle (above) and the 1846
reference to "Tar Heels" then living across the South (above). In
underscoring the hardscrabble existence of the marginalized in the Piney
Woods of North Carolina, he is clearly aware of an old meaning of "Tar
Heels" to denote poor residents of Southern pine forests.

(BTW, Baker pushes the earliest use of "Tar Heels" toward North Carolina
soldiers to June, 1862, but I have a thought about that, too [11].)

On balance, despite my argument with parts of it, Baker's essay was a
revelation:  it introduced me to "Rosin Heels," nailed down for me at least
how "Tar Heels" got their "Heels," and allowed me to agree with the
long-held theory that "Tar" simply refers to a product of the North
Carolina Piney Woods, and for all that I'm grateful.

-- Bonnie


1. Southern Cultures 21(4): 81-94, Winter 2015. Link to PDF at
https://muse.jhu.edu/article/608417/pdf (subscription may be required).
Free HTML version, without references, is at
me off list if you'd like the references).

2. "Some Opprobrius Nicknames," American Speech 24(1): 25-30 (February,

3. From _Recollections of the last ten years, passed in occasional
residences and journeyings in the valley of the Mississippi : from
Pittsburg and the Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico, and from Florida to the
Spanish frontier, in a series of letters to the Rev. James Flint, of Salem,
Massachusetts_. Boston: Cummings, Hilliard, 1826. (Full text available at

4. http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2009-April/089441.html

5. "Florida," The Democrat and Herald [Wilmington, Ohio], 10 April 1840, p.

6. "Another Carolina Joke," The Times-Picayune [New Orleans], 11 November
1842, p. 2.

7. An anecdote recounts a fight that breaks out between two blacks and
includes this bit of dialogue:

"'Dont yah call dis er'n a Down-easter,' said Scip, 'yah mis'ble dirt-eatin
Norf C'lina tar-heel.'"

>From "Carrying the War into Africa," The San Andreas [California]
Independent, 6 February 1858, p. 4.

8. For example, a presumably white letter-writer in Philadelphia, clearly a
transplant, wrote back home to the editor of The [Baton Rouge] Daily Comet
on 12 August 1855 (p. 3), referring to Livingston Parish (Louisiana) and
"the primitive state of society in the Piney-Woods," and signing off as
"TAR-HEEL." Further, a writer to The Cassville [Georgia] Standard used the
name "TAR HEEL DEMOCRAT" on his letter to the editor published on 1 August
1860 (p. 2). ("OLD ROSIN HEELS" is how a writer of a letter to the editor
of The Natchez [Mississippi] Weekly Courier had signed off on 30 September
1831, p. 3.)

9. http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2009-August/092451.html

10. http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p15012coll11/id/144 [pp.
17-18]. See also Fred Shapiro's ADS-L message:

11. A minor point on pinning down when North Carolinians were first called
"Tar Heels."

Baker mentions that "[t]he earliest usage I have found of North Carolina
soldiers being called 'Tar Heels' comes from the Seven Days' Battle in late
June, 1862 near Manchester, Virginia." Although a dating of first use of
the epithet to North Carolinians to 1862 is certainly possible, I note that
his example comes from an anecdote published in 1867. (And it's unclear to
me, at least, whether in this instance the "Tar-Heel" was a Virginian or a
North Carolinian.)

We have evidence that "Tar Heels," at least as applied to North Carolina
troops, was in place in Virginia a mere 18 days after Lowrance's 6 February
1863 usage (above). On 24 February 1963 an unnamed correspondent wrote from
the camp of the 6th North Carolina, then settled near Port Royal, Virginia,
and documented the outcome of a skirmish between Union and Confederate
troops on the Rappahannock.  He mentioned that Lawton’s Georgia Brigade
taunted North Carolina troops as "being 'Tar Heels' till the next big
snow'; the account was published in The North Carolina Standard on 18 March

FWIW, Lt. Col. James M. Ray, writing in April 1901 on North Carolina's 60th
Regiment's  participation in the Battle of Murfreesboro, recalls General
William Preston, a Kentuckian, on January 1, 1863 referring to members of
the regiment as "you Tar Heels," though this is obviously merely an
instance remembered nearly 40 years after the fact. (From Histories of the
Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina, in the Great War
1861-'65, Vol. 3, ed. Walter Clark, Published by the State of North
Carolina, 1901:

I suspect 1863 is a bit late, so Baker's suggestion of 1862 or earlier is
plausible, though it would be nice to have a contemporaneous cite.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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