North Carolina is known by numerous nicknames, one of which is the “Tar Heel State.” The origin of the nickname remains a mystery, and many theories have come up over the years attempting to solve the mystery. Most of the theories are based on North Carolina’s participation during the Civil War while one theory links the nickname to the state’s historic prominence in tar production.
Theories on the Nickname
Some sources have it that the name was first used about North Carolina due to the state’s abundance of tar and turpentine. North Carolina was indeed the primary source of these commodities for the British Navy which was used as sealants to protect the wooden naval ships from the destructive effects of the shipworm. As much as 0.1 million barrels of tar and pitch from North Carolina was shipped to England each year. Burning logs of pine trees produced the tar and turpentine. The state had vast forests made up of pine trees making it the chief producer of the items. More than two-thirds of the nation’s turpentine production was sourced from the state. As a result of the high production of these commodities, the state earned the nickname “tar and turpentine state” while the state’s residents were known as “tar boilers”.
Civil War Allegiance
One theory behind the origin of the name revolves around the state’s allegiance during the Civil War. North Carolina chose to secede from the United States and was the last state to make such a declaration. The reluctance of the state to secede made the other Southern States to coin the name “Tar Heel State” to refer to North Carolina, albeit as a joke.
Resilience of Troops
Another theory has it that the term was coined to describe the resilience of North Carolina’s troops during the Civil War in Virginia who were said to stick to their ranks as if their heels were covered in tar. However, the term was used in a derogatory way to describe North Carolinians. Historian Walter Clark is one of the people who brought forward this theory and listed numerous statements from the Civil War to support their claims. Proponents of this theory also base their argument on a letter written by Colonel Joseph Engelhard in 1864. In the letter, Colonel Engelhard spoke of the Battle of Ream’s Station as a “Tar Heel Fight.”
History of Usage
The earliest usage of the name goes back to the late 19th century during the Civil War when the nickname enjoyed widespread use. The earliest documented use of the nickname goes back to 1863 and is attributed to Lieutenant Jackson B.A. Lowrance in his diary. The name also appears on other letters and diaries written around this period (the 1860s). A music sheet written in Baltimore in 1866 has the earliest printed use of the name. The popularity of the term in reference to North Carolina was boosted by the publication of a newspaper written by the University of North Carolina’s students known as “The Daily Tar Heel,” a popular paper which was founded in 1893.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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