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

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 7 19:46:45 UTC 2020

Great work, Bonnie!

"Rosin-heel" would have appeared in HDAS III with the Mencken cite and a
few others - from Mississippi, Louisiana, and West Florida.

Here's the second earliest ex.:

1828 in  _Phenix Gazette_ (Alexandria, Va.) (Jan. 16, 1829) 2:
Natchez...I'll be d----d, shouted a raw-boned rosin heel, if your Mr. Adams
Rover an't laid as cold as a tater.


On Tue, Jan 7, 2020 at 12:39 PM Bonnie Taylor-Blake <b.taylorblake at gmail.com>

> 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 [?]
> appearance."
> 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
> http://www.southerncultures.org/article/why-north-carolinians-are-tar-heels-a-new-explanation/
> (contact
> me off list if you'd like the references).
> 2. "Some Opprobrius Nicknames," American Speech 24(1): 25-30 (February,
> 1949).
> 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
> https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433081813309&view=1up&seq=327
> .)
> 4. http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2009-April/089441.html
> 5. "Florida," The Democrat and Herald [Wilmington, Ohio], 10 April 1840, p.
> 2.
> 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:
> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2009-April/089445.html.
> 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
> 1863.
> 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:
> https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hn48hq&view=2up&seq=566.)
> 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.
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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