Contacting the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we found that we were far from the first to wonder about Tar Heels. But to our surprise, UNC historians aren’t positive about the origins of the term either. Two legends predominate.
The first story revolves around British general Cornwallis’s troops during the Revolutionary War. After fording a river in North Carolina, the British soldiers found their feed encased in tar. Crafty North Carolinians supposedly dumped tar to slow the progress of the British troops: “The British were said to have observed that if you waded in North Carolina rivers you would get tar on your heels.”
The second theory is that the nickname dates back to the Civil War. The legend states that some North Carolina boys chastised other Confederate troops for abandoning the battlefield in the heat of battle: “The soldiers threatened to stick tar on the heels of the retreating soldiers to help them stay in the battle next time. General Lee is said to have commented, ‘God bless the Tar Heel boys.’”
UNC’s other most-often-asked question about their nickname can be answered more emphatically: “It is Tar Heel, not Tarheel.”
(Submitted by Larry Walker of Marietta, Georgia)