If you ever find yourself in a tar heel fight, you best be ready for a fight you won’t get out of anytime soon. There’s a certain stick-to-it attitude that’s part of a tar heel fight that you don’t get from other kinds of fights. To understand how a tar heel fight differs from other fights, you first have to understand what tar heel means.
On May 7, 2008 the Montreal Gazette published a news article that had to do with the Democratic primary in North Carolina. After weeks of controversy over his former pastor, Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the primary held in that state, which helped him tremendously by giving some momentum to his campaign. The story was entitled, “Obama Bests Clinton In Tar Heel State.”
When you hear tar heel, it almost always has something to do with North Carolina. There’s no two ways about it. Wherever you hear talk of North Carolina, talk of tar heels is never far behind. In fact, the Spokane Daily Chronicle of March 12, 1957 carried an Associated Press story that talked about the North Carolina Tar Heels, a basketball team that seemed to specialize in winning close games. The title of the article was, “Winning Close Ones A Tar Heel Specialty.”
It was the Lewiston Daily Sun of October 12, 1928 published an article on Governor Smith’s train campaign along a route that took him through Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The article entitled, “Smith In Virginia and North Carolina: First Democratic Nominee To Make Personal Appeal For Southern Vote In Years” also reported on other nominees making similar train campaigns, and included this passage in the report:
Sen. Carter Glass, of Virginia, joined the train early in the morning at Washington. At Norlina and Henderson, the Governor received his first ovations in North Carolina, going to the rear platform to exchange greetings with well-wishers. At Norlina his train was boarded by Democratic leaders from the tar heel State who accompanied him to Raleigh.
Steuben Farmers’ Advocate newspaper reported on Chairman Daniel’s speech on July 15, 1896 — a speech that paid tribute to Senator Hill and made an eloquent plea for majority rule. He claimed that the Democratic party was ‘co-evil with the birth of sovereignty of the people‘ and said it could never die until the Declaration of American Independence was forgotten and sovereignty was crushed out. As he gave his speech, there were loud rounds of applause throughout, and more than a few when he was quoted as having said:
It sends forth pioneers from Plymouth Rock and waves over the golden wheat fields of Dakota. It has its strongholds in Alabama and Mississippi and its outposts in Minnesota, Florida and Oregon. It sticks like a tar heel down in the old north State and it writes sixteen to one on the saddle bags of the Arkansaw traveler.
In the diary of William B. A. Lawrence, the last narrative entry of February 6, 1863 also referred to tar heels, but as it pertained to soldiers from North Carolina. In this entry, the author wrote:
I know now what is meant by the Piney Woods of North Carolina and the idea occurs to me that it is no wonder we are called Tar Heels.
The manner in which William Lawrence used tar heels reflected respect, praise, and commendation for the soldiers from North Carolina. But he wasn’t the only one who felt this way about North Carolina’s soldiers. In fact, at the Battle of Murfreesboro in Tennessee in January 1863, North Carolina’s soldiers made an impression on the commanding General John S. Preston who, in addressing the troops, said:
This is your first battle of any consequence, I believe. Indeed, you Tar Heels have done well.
So how is it that residents of North Carolina came to be known as tar heels? North Carolina was the leader producer of naval stores (a category of building and maintenance supplies for sailing ships that included cordage, mask, turpentine, rosin, pitch and tar) from 1720 through to 1870. It makes sense then that the tar, pitch and turpentine for which they were known in particular would identify them.
In the end, tar heels can be tagged as being used in writing in early 1863 and because it was expected that soldiers would understand what General Preston meant when he used the expression when addressing his troops, the expression can be traced back another generation to sometime in the late 1830s or early 1840s.