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Take a look around town and you can hardly miss the sight of a “Tar Heels” logo on T-shirts, bumper-stickers, and coffee mugs. Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are known as “Tar Heels,” but they are not the only ones. A Tar Heel is really anyone from the entire state of North Carolina, which is also known as the Tar Heel State. Ever wonder how North Carolina got such a nickname?

One version of the nickname's origin has the moniker first being applied to North Carolinians during the Civil War. A record talks of a battle in Virginia, where their supporting column retreated, leaving the North Carolina troops to fight alone. The victorious troops were asked in a condescending tone by some Virginians, who had retreated, “Any more tar down in the Old North State, boys?” The response came quickly: “No, not a bit; old Jeff's bought it all up.” The Virginians asked: “Is that so? What is he going to do with it?” The reply: “He is going to put it on you'ns heels to make you stick better in the next fight.

According to another version of the tale, the name was originally an insult, alluding to the production of turpentine, pitch and tar in the Eastern part of the state. The slur became a badge of honor when Robert E. Lee reportedly said during a battle, “God bless the Tar Heel boys.[10].

The UNC Alumni Association offers the following explanation:

The term “tar heel” dates back to North Carolina’s early history, when the state was a leading producer of supplies for the naval industry. Workers who distilled turpentine from the sticky sap of pine trees and burned pine boughs to produce tar and pitch often went barefoot during hot summer months and undoubtedly collected tar on their heels. To call someone a “rosin heel” or “tar heel” was to imply that they worked in a lowly trade.

During the Civil War, North Carolina soldiers flipped the meaning of the term and turned an epithet into an accolade. They called themselves “tar heels” as an expression of state pride. Others adopted the term, and North Carolina became widely known as the “Tar Heel State.”

In the 1880s, when UNC teams began competing in intercollegiate sports, they needed a nickname. There does not appear to have been any debate over what to call the teams and how to express school spirit. They were then, and have always been, Tar Heels.

More reading:

NCpedia: Tar Heel
Michael W. Taylor, Encyclopedia of North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press. (2006)

“Why North Carolinians Are Tar Heels: A New Explanation”
Bruce Baker,  Southern Cultures (Winter 2015)

What’s in a Name? Why We’re All Called Tar Heels.
William S. Powell, Tar Heel Magazine (March 1982)



The Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill

All Text and Photos © 2004.