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What is a Tar Heel?

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  • Written By: Erin J. Hill
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 September 2016
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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.

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.

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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.

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