“[T]he idea occurs to me that it is no wonder we are called ‘Tar Heels.’”
— Lt. William B.A. Lowrance, 4th regiment of the North Carolina Troops, 6 February 1863
Would that Lt. Lowrance come back and explain it to the rest of us.
Although the origin of “Tar Heel” has long been guessed at and legendary explanations shared of how it became associated with North Carolinians specifically, nailing down details about its etymology and discovering how and when the term was first used in the 19th century have not come easily. Recent research, however, may have helped us understand how North Carolinians came to be called by the term.
Historian Bruce Baker has written a remarkable essay on how we arrived at “Tar Heel.” There, he proposes a novel theory for how it became applied to North Carolinians: he carefully offers that the nicknaming of North Carolinians was based in political undercurrents in the antebellum South and in issues of race, with “tar” taking on negative connotations in the 1840s and 1850s. The application of “tar” to North Carolinians resulted from outsiders’ perceptions of the state’s early resistance to secession and its soldiers’ distaste for the Southern cause once the Civil War began. Baker’s “Why North Carolinians Are Tar Heels: A New Explanation”  is a revelation and a must-read.
Baker’s nuanced interpretation of the origin of “Tar Heel” principally hangs on the epithet’s associations with Black Southerners and with issues of race and resistance evident before the war. What follows, however, complements that analysis by demonstrating that “Tar Heel” was at the same time used with respect to white Southerners and sometimes claimed by them. Taken together, these early uses of the epithet reveal that “Tar Heel” was broadly used toward an overall class of Southerners, regardless of race, well before 1861.
I should note at the outset that one of the most astonishing parts of Baker’s paper is that he makes clear the connection between “tar heel” and the presumably older (and previously unknown to me) “rosin heel,” a nickname noted by H.L. Mencken (!) in 1949 . Both Mencken and Baker cite a ca. 1825 usage .
A slightly later “rosin heel” was used with regard not to a Floridian, but to a Mississippian. A correspondent wrote from Natchez, dating his letter to 5 May 1826 .
As Baker aptly writes 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.
These rosin heels are workers, but they are not working terribly hard. Like poor residents of poor lands everywhere, the improvidence of the land is transferred as a personality trait to those who inhabit it. Feckless and drunken, the “rosin heel” was one of many varieties of poor southerners, second cousin to the “sandhiller,” and kin to a “clay-eater.”
As with these early descriptions of rosin heels, the so-far earliest known appearance of “Tar heels”  was used to refer to a class of poor whites living across the South, apparently without specification to North Carolinians.
Writing from Amesbury, Massachusetts on 6 October 1846, abolitionist and Liberty Party member Abner L. Bayley issued an appeal to laborers in Essex County (Massachusetts), whom he urged to consider the issue of slavery and its effect on labor forces elsewhere .
Although it’s not known where he learned the term, Bayley makes clear that he uses “Tar heels” to signify marginalized whites in the South. (It’s also worth noting that “Red shanks” was in place in west Florida by 1840 .)
This use of “Tar heels” suggests that the moniker was not new even by 1846, joining “rosin heels,” “corn-crackers,” “white trash,” “sand-lappers” — and, as Baker points out, “sandhillers” and “clay-eaters” — to identify poor whites living in the antebellum South.
It’s at least possible that there are still earlier (and undiscovered) printed appearances of “tar heels,” co-existing with the similarly patterned “rosin heels” and perhaps used interchangeably. Extant historical texts — newspapers, books, pamphlets, letters, and the like — are crucial to locating early uses of words and phrases, but some informal, folksy, and “backwoods” expressions circulated orally well before they were ever put on paper.
As Baker notes, many surviving antebellum uses of “tar heel” were associated with Black Southerners, which gives the impression that this may have been the preferred “heel”-bearing epithet toward Black Americans. For example, this appearance of “Pompey Tarheel” from 1848 .
And a “Fred[erick] Douglass Tarheel” in 1852 :
An 1858 anecdote recounts a fight that broke out between two Black Southerners and includes this bit of dialogue, which happens to place this particular tar-heel to North Carolina :
As we’ve seen, though, Bayley’s 1846 usage suggests that “tar heel” was not solely reserved for Black Americans in the antebellum South. (In parallel, white writers occasionally used “rosin heel” before the war as a descriptor of Black Southerners , demonstrating that this epithet, like “tar heel,” sometimes was applied to a broad class of poor Southerners.)
In a sense, Bayley’s understanding of “tar heel” is borne out by an observation published in 1888, which offered that not only was “tar-heel” (and “tar-heeler”) applied “in the old days” to South Carolinians working in the Piney Woods, but also that these workers were white .
As Baker has observed in support of “tar” developing negative connotations (as opposed to the lighter “rosin”), the expression “tar on the heel” and related forms (especially racist ones, repeated in anecdotes involving Black Americans) were prominent in the decade or two before the Civil War and often appeared in political contexts. For example, he notes of its use in the fall of 1848 with respect to then-candidate Martin Van Buren :
In October 1848, a newspaper article in Joliet, Illinois, criticized Martin Van Buren’s position on race, using a hayseed sort of dialect. At the time, Van Buren was running for president as the candidate of the Free Soil Party after breaking from the Democrats. Contrasting his current antislavery position to his earlier loyalty to the South and the Democratic party, the author wrote, “He stuck to the South then like tar to a nigger’s heel.” The phrase focuses on race; it is derogatory in tone; and it is applied to someone who has betrayed their earlier position on racial issues. This usage is significant because we will see elements of it resurface when “tar heel” comes to be applied to North Carolinians.
It’s worth noting that “tar on the heel” imagery was associated with Van Buren and the Democratic Party as early as 1840 [15, 16]. On 21 July 1840, a newspaper in Bennington, Vermont printed a letter from one “Tim’y Brown,” who had on 17 June returned from “the log-cabin convention at Burlington,” which supported Whig candidate William Henry Harrison. There, he reported,
Two months later a letter to the editor of The Mississippian declared hope for Democratic chances in the upcoming Presidential election and this time seemed to proudly embrace tarry heels.
(In the end, Van Buren lost Mississippi to William Henry Harrison by not much.)
In the summer of 1844, “tar on his heel” was again associated with Van Buren, though in a somewhat roundabout fashion, and even, circuitously, with North Carolinians . Whether the following use of “tar on his heel” is a sly reference to the possible support of slavery (in Texas’s case) or to shady politics is unclear, but here a North Carolinian is considered symbolic of someone who would have either literal or metaphoric tar on his heel.
It’s hard to say whether “tar on our heels” and similar were embraced by Democrats specifically and whether it’s even a close relative of “tar heel,” but it certainly appears that some white Southerners (and even a symbolic North Carolinian) were — in addition to some Black Southerners — linked to tarred-soled imagery by the early 1840s.
Some seem to have enthusiastically adopted it. For example, just as some who had written letters to the editors of Southern newspapers had signed off as “Rosin Heels” as early as 1831, two letter-writers in the 1850s chose to end their missives with the nickname “Tar Heel” . Perhaps it served as indicating an identification with “tar heels” or signaled a nod to backwoods Southerners.
That “rosin heels” and “tar heels” were applied to a class of Southerners, regardless of race, before the Civil War may have implications for how the latter became attached to North Carolinians at least by the early days of the conflict. It opens the door again to an old theory.
Before Baker’s essay appeared, how “Tar Heel” became favored by outsiders for use toward North Carolinians specifically had generally been presumed to hinge on the state’s prodigious production of tar since the 18th century [e.g., see 19]. For example, the citizens of the state had been called “Tar Boilers” (as in, a person who makes tar) since at least 1845 . Further, North Carolina itself had been known as the “Tar, Pitch, and Turpentine State” since 1842  and the “Old Tar State” since 1855 . The long-held belief that Americans’ association of tar with the state by at least 1850 contributed to the nicknaming of North Carolinians may still hold, especially given that the nickname doesn’t seem to have been race-based.
Given the use of “tar heels” with regard to some antebellum whites, I have no doubt that there were actual tar heels living in North Carolina, as there were elsewhere, before the war began. It may be that “tar heel,” having been applied to marginalized whites in the antebellum South, became the favored epithet used toward North Carolinians precisely because it was felt to best describe the state’s poorest whites, some of whom were involved in tar production and some of whom made their homes in the state’s vast pine forests. Some of these North Carolina tar heels ended up as Confederate soldiers, too, however unwillingly.
An early usage of “Tar Heels” with specific application to North Carolinians appears in the diary of Lt. William B.A. Lowrance . 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.
It’s difficult to know whether Lowrance’s use of “Tar Heels” refers to the labeling of North Carolina troops with that moniker at least by very early 1863  or whether it signifies that he was aware of an older meaning of “Tar Heels” to denote poor residents of Southern pine forests, perhaps without regard to race. What’s certain is that he felt the people he observed as representative of “Tar Heels” and, further, recognized that he was also called such.
Lowrance’s description is reminiscent of that ca. 1825 description of “rosin heels” in the pine forests of the Florida panhandle and Bayley’s 1846 reference to “Tar heels” then living across the South. In underscoring the hardscrabble existence of the marginalized in the Piney Woods of North Carolina, Lowrance’s diary entry evokes images of tar heels who lived in the great pine-bearing regions of the lower South a generation before.
By 1863 its specific application to North Carolina troops was fixed in place when Governor Zebulon Vance embraced the term by referring to gathered soldiers as “Fellow Tar-Heels” . Over the following decades, it was just another step to civilian North Carolinians accepting ownership of the epithet and rehabilitating it with legends of unflinching Confederate soldiers who held their ground in the midst of fierce battles (and jokes about cowards who failed to).
Baker has given us a meticulous and inspired analysis of how “tar” took on negative connotations before the war and how this was transferred to North Carolina troops in the earliest days of the war (and subsequently transferred to the state’s civilian population).
With regard to the appearance of antebellum “Tar Heels” used with reference to both marginalized Black Southerners and white Southerners, we may also have to consider (again) that we North Carolinians ultimately inherited the old epithet because of outsiders’ familiarity with the tar-producing state and the perceived qualities of its marginalized poor (of both races) who inhabited it before 1861.
I am indebted to Sarah Koonts and William Brown of the State Archives of North Carolina for permission to use images from the Lowrance diary. I am also most grateful to Fred Shapiro, who made me aware of the Lowrance diary, to Garson O’Toole and Peter Reitan for contributing two texts relating to Van Buren, and to Bruce Baker for his remarkable paper. Finally, I thank Sarah Blake for her helpful critique.
References & Notes
1. Bruce E. Baker, 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, at http://www.southerncultures.org/article/why-north-carolinians-are-tar-heels-a-new-explanation/.
2. “Some Opprobrious 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. From The Ariel (Natchez, Mississippi), 23 May 1826, p. 6. (The untitled piece to which this text belongs begins on page 5.)
5. Baker, p. 83.
7. From “To the Workingmen of Essex,” The Emancipator (Boston, Massachusetts), 21 October 1846, p. 1.
8. “Florida,” The Democrat and Herald (Wilmington, Ohio), 10 April 1840, p. 2.
9. From “Drawing,” The Litchfield (Connecticut) Republican, 10 February 1848, p. 1.
10. http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2013-September/128557.html. From “A Funny Man,” The (Huntington) Indiana Herald, 24 November 1852, p. 2. (The Herald’s editor notes that he is reproducing a column penned by “[t]he witty editor of the Emporium, published in Germantown, Ohio.”)
11. From “Carrying the War into Africa,” The San Andreas (California) Independent, 6 February 1858, p. 4.
12. Two texts of dialogue between Black Southerners as perceived by whites:
“How am you Bob?”
“Sweet as butter.”
“How is you, old rosin heel?”
“Ah, nigger, I’s in love — I feel as if I war up in the clouds between two hot buckwheat cakes, and all de leetle angels were pourin’ down ‘lasses upon me. By golly!”
From The Easton (Maryland) Star, 22 July 1845, p. 1.
“[I]t’s like honey low down the mouf, and better dan de banjo clip ter de rosin heel nigger, o’ Chrismus.”
From, “The Lunatic; A Story of the South,” The Louisville (Kentucky) Daily Courier, 28 August 1858, p. 4, column 3.
13. From “The Life of the Tar-Heeler in the Piney Woods,” The Macon (Georgia) Telegraph, 17 September 1888, p. 1.
14. Baker, p. 85.
15. From “Description of log-cabin convention at Burlington, Vermont on June 27, 1840,” The Vermont Gazette (Burlington), 21 July 1840, p. 2. (Via Garson O’Toole.)
16. From The Mississippian (Jackson), 9 October 1840, page 1, column 2.
17. From “A Voice from Texas,” The Democrat (Huntsville, Alabama), 3 July 1844, p. 3. (Via Peter Reitan.)
18. A letter-writer in Philadelphia, clearly a transplant, wrote back home to the editor of a Baton Rouge newspaper on 12 August 1855, referring to Livingston Parish (Louisiana) and “the primitive state of society in the Piney-Woods,” and signed off as “TAR-HEEL” (The Daily Comet, 12 August 1855, p. 3.). 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). “ROSIN HEELS,” whose letter to the editor of The Mississippi (Natchez) Free Trader appeared on 24 August 1848 (p. 3), ended with, “In conclusion I will only add that the democrats of Franklin county are all right.”
19. William S. Powell, “What’s in a Name? Why We’re All Called Tar Heels,” https://alumni.unc.edu/whats-in-a-name-why-were-all-called-tar-heels/
20. See, for example, The Baltimore Sun, 10 June 1845, p. 1.
21. Baker, p. 88.
22. Louisville (Kentucky) Courier 6 August 1855, p. 4.
23. Diary Of William Lowrance, November 2, 1862-February 6, 1863, http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p15012coll11/id/144, pp. 17-18.
24. A very minor point on pinning down when North Carolina troops 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” (pp. 89-90). Although a dating of first use of the epithet to North Carolina troops to 1862 is certainly possible, I note that his example comes from an anecdote published in 1867, several years after the first known uses of “Tar Heel,” with respect to the state’s soldiers had appeared in print.
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 wrote his diary entry on 6 February 1863. 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.
For what it’s worth, 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.
25. Baker, pp. 92-93.