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

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Thu Jan 9 14:47:25 UTC 2020

Thanks, Bonnie, for another thoughtful and informative post. I've read Bruce E. Baker's article (with the footnotes).
These two partially differing takes on the name, both by UNC-Chapel Hillians, each have something to offer. And I can be impartial, since I'm at the library at Duke. 🙂

I'm no expert on the name, but it may be that Bruce E. B. somewhat exaggerates the "opprobrious" associations of the name and that Bonnie T.-B. somewhat downplays them. But let each reader decide.

(who, years ago, was an instructor at UNC-CH and whose Mother was from eastern, piney, NC)
From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of Andy Bach <afbach at GMAIL.COM>
Sent: Tuesday, January 7, 2020 5:19 PM
Subject: Re: [ADS-L] On "Tar Heels" in general and North Carolinians as "Tar Heels"

I'm just guessing, but from that NY ballroom entry denied (if he had tar on
his heel) and the Britishism "touch of the tar brush"; is it, as with Van
Buren, an implication of mixed race heritage?


has a number of interesting stories, alas all the references are not
included in the on-line article.

On Tue, Jan 7, 2020 at 3:52 PM ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com>

> 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
> heel!"
> 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]
> Garson
> 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   [...]

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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list