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  • Why North Carolinians Are Tar HeelsA New Explanation
  • Bruce E. Baker (bio)

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The very embodiment of the modern nickname: Michael Jordan and Dean Smith, seen here at a UNC men’s basketball game honoring the 1957 and 1982 men’s basketball teams, February 10, 2007, by Zeke Smith, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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North Carolinians have long called themselves Tar Heels, and “Tar Heel” is a badge of pride—and, indeed, preeminence—in a variety of fields from scholarship to basketball. “Tar Heel” is but one of many nicknames for the residents of specific states. Tar Heels’ southern neighbors are “Sandlappers,” residents of Indiana are “Hoosiers,” and Oklahomans are “Sooners.” Some of these nicknames have simple explanations, while the origins of others are more obscure; very little is known about just why North Carolinians are called “Tar Heels.” Common sense links it to the naval stores industry that dominated the eastern part of the state in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but there has been surprisingly little scholarship on the question. An analysis of printed material from the nineteenth century, however, reveals a complicated story that hinges on region and class, race and identity. What follows is a tentative but hopefully plausible account of how “Tar Heel” emerged in the decades before the Civil War, how eastern North Carolina’s experience in the war led to other southerners applying the disparaging term “Tar Heel” to North Carolina soldiers, and how during the course of the war North Carolinians came to embrace the term with pride.1

We begin with the second half of the name: “heels.” An 1859 newspaper article noted that North Carolina citizens (which, in that era, meant only whites) were generally known as “Rosin heels,” but the term “rosin heel” was much older and more widespread. Figuring out where and why some southerners were called “rosin heels” provides a foundation for figuring out “Tar Heel” and shows the relationship between class and economic activity and regional identity. The earliest use I have found of the term “rosin heel” comes not from North Carolina but from West Florida around 1820. In his 1826 book Recollections of the Last Ten Years, Timothy Flint described a landscape untamed by agriculture where men could extract valuable products. Live oaks in the swamps would provide masts and spars for ships, pine trees could produce pitch and tar, and the high grass growing among the pines was perfect grazing for cattle. In this Edenic place where people could live without farming, “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.’” A few years later, someone described a spectator at a horse race near Natchez as “a raw-boned rosin-heel.” In the 1850s, a New Orleans journal explicitly placed the “rosin heels” in the Piney Woods: “the ‘Rosin Heels,’ as our Piney Woods fellow citizens are quaintly called.”2

“Rosin heel” was a derogatory occupational term analogous to “hayseed” for farmers or “linthead” for cotton mill workers, terms aimed at those whose work made them dirty with the substance they produce or process. Typically coined by those whose work keeps them clean (or at least cleaner than others lower down the class ladder), the epithets also dehumanize those designated by collapsing the difference [End Page 82] between the workers and the materials they work with. To collect the rosin that made turpentine from pine trees, workers chipped off some of the outer bark of longleaf pine trees with axes and placed wooden boxes at the bottom, a little ways off the ground, to collect the rosin as it flowed out of the wounded tree. Then, workers dipped the rosin from each box with a sort of paddle and transferred it to a large barrel. “Although dipping was a light task requiring little physical strength,” explains historian Robert B. Outland III, “it was a dirty operation that smeared the workers’ hands and clothing with gum [rosin].” Poor workers in the hot climates...