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

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 7 21:51:59 UTC 2020

I have not explored this topic before; hence, this citation may
already be known, or it may be irrelevant.
In 1840 a rally was held in Burlington, Vermont supporting the
political ticket of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too. The incumbent U.S.
President Martin Van Buren was criticized with the phrase "Tar on your

Date: July 21, 1840
Newspaper: Vermont Gazette
Newspaper Location: Burlington, Vermont
Article: (Description of log-cabin convention at Burlington, Vermont
on June 27, 1840)
Quote Page 2, Column 3
Database: Newspapers.com

[Begin excerpt - please double check]
. . . there issued from the throat of
that noble young man such hoarse
cries as these--"hurrah for Gen. Tip!
hurrah for Old Canoe! Go it, you
Cider! Yi-i-ip you long tails! D--n
Van Buren! Tar on your heel! hur-
rah!" and other such patriotic and
inspiring cries.
[End excerpt]


On Tue, Jan 7, 2020 at 12:39 PM Bonnie Taylor-Blake
<b.taylorblake at gmail.com> wrote:
> 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.
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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

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