Romantic notions about our state’s nickname abound, many tied to tales of Civil War glory. If you take particular pride in the story that North Carolina earned its nickname from a group of brave soldiers who held off the enemy by refusing to retreat, fighting “as if they had tar on their heels,” then you might want to stop reading now.
The North Carolina Collection has just published online William S. Powell’s excellent piece, “What’s in A Name? Why We’re All Called Tar Heels.” Powell, author of the recent Encyclopedia of North Carolina and scores of other works of state and local history, examines the earliest uses of “Tar Heel” to refer to North Carolinians. His research led to the curious, but rather prosaic, explanation that in the early days of our state when tar was being produced from native pine trees for use in the shipping industry, a lot of folks simply couldn’t avoid getting it stuck to their feet.