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What is a Tar Heel?

A Tar Heel symbolizes the proud heritage of North Carolina, originally referring to the state's early production of tar from its vast pine forests. Today, it's a term of endearment for residents and the University of North Carolina's spirited athletic teams. Discover how this unique moniker captures the essence of a state's history and identity. Ready to explore the Tar Heel legacy?
Erin J. Hill
Erin J. Hill

Tar Heel is a term used to describe residents of the U.S. state of North Carolina. It is also commonly used to refer to students and alumni of The University of North Carolina (UNC), as this is the school mascot. The name originates from the early North Carolinian imports of tar and turpentine, although it became popular mainly during the Civil War.

During the American Civil War, the term Tar Heel was meant as a derogatory term, although it has sense come to be a source of pride for North Carolina residents, much as Southerners in general call themselves “Rebels” with pride with their Confederate history. Although it is not known precisely how the term came to be, it is derived from the fact that North Carolina was a major producer of tar for the U.S. Navy. Tar was used to seal the bottom of ships to prevent corrosion and to prevent the wood from eaten by worms.

Legends about the term "tar heel" extend all the way back the American Revolutionary War.
Legends about the term "tar heel" extend all the way back the American Revolutionary War.

One legend of how the name Tar Heel came to pass states that General Cornwallis and his men marched across what is now called the Tar River in North Carolina during the Revolutionary War, and came out with their feet covered in black tar that had been dumped at the site. This story has never been confirmed. Walt Whitman also reportedly referred to North Carolinians as “Tar boilers,” offering yet another explanation of how the term may have been coined.

Tar Heel was used as a derogatory term during the American Civil War.
Tar Heel was used as a derogatory term during the American Civil War.

In modern times, Tar Heel is generally used when discussing the University of North Carolina and their associated sports teams. Their team name is the Tar Heels and their school colors are light blue and white. The school also has their own newspaper entitled The Daily Tar Heel.

The Carolina Tar Heels football and baseball teams are nationally recognized and have many achievements to their name. Merchandise and memorabilia can be found statewide and throughout the Southeast for fans to show their support of the team. UNC also has a rich academic history with many accomplished scholarships having graduated from the school.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the origin of the term "Tar Heel"?

The term "Tar Heel" originates from North Carolina's history as a leading producer of tar, pitch, and turpentine from the state's vast pine forests. According to historical accounts, during the Civil War, North Carolina soldiers were referred to as "Tar Heels" as a term of endearment by their fellow Confederates, suggesting that they held their ground in battle as if they had tar on their heels.

How did "Tar Heel" become associated with the University of North Carolina?

The University of North Carolina (UNC) adopted the nickname "Tar Heels" for its sports teams in the late 19th century. The term was already in popular usage to refer to residents of the state, and it became a symbol of pride for the university. The moniker is now synonymous with UNC and its athletic programs, embodying the tenacity and determination of the university's students and athletes.

Is "Tar Heel" used in any official capacity within North Carolina?

Yes, "Tar Heel" is used in several official capacities within North Carolina. It is not only a nickname for the University of North Carolina's sports teams but also a colloquial term for residents of the state. Additionally, "Tar Heel State" is an informal nickname for North Carolina itself, reflecting the state's historical significance in the production of tar and its byproducts.

What is the cultural significance of the "Tar Heel" identity in North Carolina?

The "Tar Heel" identity holds significant cultural importance in North Carolina, symbolizing the state's historical roots in the naval stores industry and its contributions to the Civil War. It represents a sense of shared heritage and state pride among North Carolinians. The term also embodies characteristics such as resilience and steadfastness, which are celebrated in the state's folklore and traditions.

Are there any notable representations of the "Tar Heel" in popular culture or landmarks?

One of the most notable representations of the "Tar Heel" is at the University of North Carolina, where the term is a central part of the school's identity. Additionally, there are landmarks such as the Tar Heel Town in Chapel Hill on game days, and the "Tar Heel" name appears on various products and businesses throughout the state. The term has also been referenced in literature and songs, further embedding it in the cultural fabric of North Carolina.

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    • Legends about the term "tar heel" extend all the way back the American Revolutionary War.
      By: macropixel
      Legends about the term "tar heel" extend all the way back the American Revolutionary War.
    • Tar Heel was used as a derogatory term during the American Civil War.
      By: Robert Young
      Tar Heel was used as a derogatory term during the American Civil War.