Why are North Carolinians called ‘Tar Heels’?

Published: Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 11:39 AM.


The director of the North Carolina Museum of Forestry answered that very question during his well-received presentation to the Topsail Island Historical Society at its March luncheon.

The nickname evolved, Harry Warren explained, from the state’s earliest history of the production of naval stores. The vast pine forests of the state were used to produce tar, pitch and turpentine for the British navy to use in ship building. The tar and pitch were used to paint the bottom of wooden British ships to seal the ship and to prevent shipworms from damaging the hull. The long leaf pines were chopped and used to make wood piles which were then burned. The heat produces resin for tar, pitch and turpentine. For several years the state shipped more than 100,000 barrels of tar and pitch annually to England , making it one of North Carolina ’s most important exports early in the state’s history. By the time of the Civil War, North Carolina had more than 1600 distilleries. These pine forests were located mainly in Coastal North Carolina, including Onslow, Pender, Bladen, New Hanover and Sampson counties.

There are numerous stories and legends about the meaning of the term Tar Heels. It is a nickname applied to North Carolina residents, as well as the nickname for the University of North Carolina athletic teams, students, alumni and fans. It gained popularity during the Civil War. At one time the term Tar Heel was quite derogatory, but eventually, at least within the state, the term became a badge of honor. North Carolina residents have sat back on their heels ever since, happy to be Tar Heels.

The Historical Society of Topsail Island welcomes guests and new members. Contact topsailislandhistoricalsociety.org for more information. For information about the Missiles and More Museum , or to volunteer as a docent, contact Director Rose Peters at 910-328-2488.

The next luncheon meeting will be held on April 11 at 11:30 a.m.

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