Old North State and Tar Heel State

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Nicknames of Old North State and Tar Heel State

 Old North State and Tar Heel State
Not that life will drastically improve, but when the question arises about the origin of the term Tar Heel, that nerd side will silence the conversation as others wonder how the answer was acquired. Some have heard the phrase Old North State and even seen it spelled, in older documents, as Olde North State. A quick lesson follows explaining some of the words and terms associated with the older of the Carolinas.

13 Colonies Map.jpg

Common questions about the appellations of North Carolina and other namesakes are answered in this brief study. What is the origin of the name Old North State and the term Tar Heel State? If you follow the Tar Heels, live in the State, or attended UNC, you've probably asked that question, as well as what is the nickname of North Carolina? The answers offer an insight into the early history of the State, and this page contains fact based answers for the Tar Heel State meaning, with definition and history, as well as the origin and initial use of the nicknames Tar Heel State and Old North State. The following information will allow the reader to answer other common questions: What is the earliest date and use of Tar Heel State? What was the year that North Carolina officially adopted the name Tar Heel State?
Olde is a Middle English word that has faded from most dictionaries, but originally the spelling was Olde North State, but in American English we also tend to shorten, when possible, all British English words, for instance, by dropping an "L" from travelling to traveling and by shortening programme to program, shop for shoppe, and in the Southern states the word "ya'll" is merely an abbreviation for "you all." But today we also enjoy an entirely new vocabulary, courtesy the Internet, with LOL, ROFL, and BFF, for a few examples. Now let's discuss why North Carolina is known as both the Tar Heel State and the Old North State.
Old North State History
In 1629, King Charles I of England "erected into a province" all the land from Albemarle Sound on the north to the St. John's River on the south, which he directed should be called Carolina. The word Carolina is from the word Carolus, the Latin form of Charles.
When Carolina was divided in 1710, the southern part was referred to as South Carolina and the northern or older settlement, North Carolina. From this came the nickname the "Old North State."
Tar Heel History
Historians have recorded that the principal products during the early history of North Carolina were "tar, pitch, and turpentine."

When Confederate units from various Southern states had retreated during a fiercely contested battle in the American Civil War, it was North Carolina soldiers that had "held the ground during the thick of the fight." After the battle, the North Carolinians, who had successfully fought it alone, were greeted from the regiments that had retreated, with the question: "Any more tar down in the Old North State, boys?" Quick as a flash came the answer: "No, not a bit, old Jeff's bought it all up." "Is that so; what is he going to do with it?" was asked. "He's going to put on you-un's heels to make you stick better in the next fight." Creecy relates that General Lee, upon hearing of the incident, said: "God bless the Tar Heel boys!" And from these series of events the name stuck. A Tar Heel therefore embodies discipline, courage, and determination. 
Some contemporary writers surmise, without applying a single source of course, that the name Tar Heel was initially a disparaging name, but the writer has not located any sources to corroborate their rather disparaging remarks. To the contrary, however, because the term Tar Heel was initially used with accolades and admiration, and since it continues to be associated with gallantry, honor, and commendation, don't despair but be honored if you are numbered among the ranks of those Tar Heels.

Tar Heel and Old North State Map
Tar Heel and Old North State Map.jpg
North Carolina is known also as the Tar Heel State and the Old North State.

The following song known as "The Old North State" was adopted as the official song of the State of North Carolina by the General Assembly of 1927. (Public Laws, 1927, c. 26; G.S. 149-1.)

(William Gaston. Collected and Arranged by Mrs. E. E. Randolph)

Carolina! Carolina! heaven's blessings attend her,
While we live we will cherish, protect and defend her,
Tho' the scorner may sneer at and witlings defame her,
Still our hearts swell with gladness whenever we name her.
Hurrah! Hurrah! the Old North State forever,
Hurrah! Hurrah! the good Old North State.

Tho' she envies not others, their merited glory,
Say whose name stands the foremost, in liberty's story,
Tho' too true to herself e'er to crouch to oppression,
Who can yield to just rule a more loyal submission.
Hurrah! Hurrah! the Old North State forever,
Hurrah! Hurrah! the good Old North State.
Then let all those who love us, love the land that we live in,
As happy a region as on this side of heaven,
Where plenty and peace, love and joy smile before us,
Raise aloud, raise together the heart thrilling chorus.
Hurrah! Hurrah! the Old North State forever,
Hurrah! Hurrah! the good Old North State.

Tar Heel Collection

Earliest surviving document shows "Tar Heels"

Diary of William B. A. Lowrance, Nov. 2, 1862 - Feb. 6, 1863.

The last narrative entry of this Civil War diary, on February 6, 1863, contains a phrase using the nickname "Tar Heels" for soldiers of North Carolina. While encamped in what is now Pender County in the southeastern part of the state, 2nd Lieutenant William B. A. Lowrance 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.'" This diary entry is considered the earliest surviving written use of the term.

The writer, Lieutenant Lowrance, was at the time in Company B, Forty-sixth North Carolina Regiment. Initially, he entered as a private in Company G, First North Carolina Infantry Regiment, enlisting at Salisbury on March 19, 1862. Lowrance was appointed Adjutant of the Thirty-fourth Regiment on December 11, 1863. Promoted to Captain on October 14, 1864, he was transferred to Company K. Lowrance was part of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, April 9, 1865.

Civil War letter from Major Jos[eph] A. Engelhard, dated August 28, 1864.

The letter is signed by Major Jos[eph] A. Engelhard and addressed to "Friend Ruf." In the letter, Major Engelhard describes the successful Battle of Ream's Station (Dinwiddie County, Virginia) as a "'Tar Heel' fight," with the result that "we got Genl. Lee to thanking God, which you know means something brilliant." Certainly the letter seems to give credence to the tradition that General Lee had given thanks to the Almighty for the Tar Heel boys.

Born in Mississippi in 1832, Joseph Adolphus Engelhard attended the University of North Carolina and was graduated in 1854. Thereafter, he attended Harvard Law School and subsequently read law under noted judges in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Engelhard left his growing law practice at Tarboro in May 1861 to serve as assistant quarter master (captain) of the Thirty-third Regiment under Colonel, later Brigadier General, Lawrence O'B. Branch. Reportedly, Branch collapsed into Engelhard's arms as he fell mortally wounded at Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862. Rising to the rank of major, Engelhard was made assistant adjutant general and transferred to General William D. Pender's Brigade. From May 1863 until the close of the war, Engelhard served as division adjutant. He served with General Pender at Gettysburg when General Lee formed the Third Corps and placed Pender in charge of one of its divisions. Following Pender's fall at Gettysburg on 2 July 1863, Engelhard served with General Cadmus M. Wilcox. After the loss and wounding of many soldiers during battle, Engelhard assumed command of the right flank of his division. According to various accounts, Engelhard's horse was "shot out from under him upon reaching the enemy's lines." Following the request of General Lee, Engelhard later wrote the official performance report of Pender's Division during its three days at the Battle at Gettysburg. Engelhard continued to serve with Wilcox, whose stubborn defense at Petersburg on 2 April 1865, made it possible for General Lee's army to cover its withdrawal and to move westward toward Appomattox.

At the close of hostilities, Engelhard was selected as clerk of the North Carolina Senate. He served again during 1866-1867 session, representing Edgecombe County. During 1866, Engelhard acquired substantial interest in the Wilmington Journal and served as the paper's editor for the next ten years. In that position, Engelhard became the voice of the Cape Fear region in protesting the policies and acts of Reconstruction. A Democrat, Engelhard attended his party's national convention in Baltimore as a delegate. In 1875 he called for a state convention to revise the State Constitution, particularly the provisions relating to local governments. During the following year, voters approved a variety of constitutional amendments, many of which were championed by Democrats as minimizing the more unreasonable aspects of Reconstruction. By a large majority, Engelhard was elected secretary of state in 1876. He served in that capacity until his death 15 February 1879, in Raleigh. Engelhard's funeral service was held at Christ Church (Episcopal) and he was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.

Now that you know the origin of the Old North and Tar Heel states, I hope that you will share it with a friend. Did you know that during the Civil War, General Sherman, by way of his March to the Sea, arrived in North Carolina and stole the State's original copy of the Bill of Rights? Did you also know that the State just recently recovered its copy, but only after a struggle with the US Courts and US Marshals Service became involved. As one of the Thirteen Colonies, each colony, including North Carolina, received an original copy of the Bill of Rights. Here is the complex but short journey of North Carolina's "Bill of Rights" Confiscated During Sherman's March.

Sources: State Archives of North Carolina, The Tar Heel Collection; R. B. Creecy, Grandfather Tales of North Carolina; Walter Clark, Histories of North Carolina Regiments, Vol. III; and State Library of North Carolina.

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Recommended Reading: The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Hardcover). Description: The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina constitutes the most comprehensive and inclusive single-volume chronicle of the state’s storied past to date, culminating with an attentive look at recent events that have transformed North Carolina into a southern megastate. Integrating tales of famous pioneers, statesmen, soldiers, farmers, captains of industry, activists, and community leaders with more marginalized voices, including those of Native Americans, African Americans, and women, Milton Ready gives readers a view of North Carolina that encompasses perspectives and personalities from the coast, "tobacco road," the Piedmont, and the mountains in this sweeping history of the Tar Heel State. The first such volume in more than two decades, Ready’s work offers a distinctive view of the state’s history built from myriad stories and episodes. The Tar Heel State is enhanced by one hundred and ninety illustrations and five maps. Continued below...

Ready begins with a study of the state’s geography and then invites readers to revisit dramatic struggles of the American Revolution and Civil War, the early history of Cherokees, the impact of slavery as an institution, the rise of industrial mills, and the changes wrought by modern information-based technologies since 1970. Mixing spirited anecdotes and illustrative statistics, Ready describes the rich Native American culture found by John White in 1585, the chartered chaos of North Carolina’s proprietary settlement, and the chronic distrust of government that grew out of settlement patterns and the colony’s early political economy. He challenges the perception of relaxed intellectualism attributed to the "Rip van Winkle" state, the notion that slavery was a relatively benign institution in North Carolina, and the commonly accepted interpretation of Reconstruction in the state. Ready also discusses how the woman suffrage movement pushed North Carolina into a hesitant twentieth-century progressivism. In perhaps his most significant contribution to North Carolina’s historical record, Ready continues his narrative past the benchmark of World War II and into the twenty-first century. From the civil rights struggle to the building of research triangles, triads, and parks, Ready recounts the events that have fueled North Carolina’s accelerated development in recent years and the many challenges that have accompanied such rapid growth, especially those of population change and environmental degradation.


Recommended Reading: Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Hardcover: 1328 pages) (The University of North Carolina Press), Description: The first single-volume reference to the events, institutions, and cultural forces that have defined the state, the Encyclopedia of North Carolina is a landmark publication that will serve those who love and live in North Carolina for generations to come. Editor William S. Powell, whom the Raleigh News & Observer described as a "living repository of information on all things North Carolinian," spent fifteen years developing this volume. With contributions by more than 550 volunteer writers—including scholars, librarians, journalists, and many others—it is a true "people's encyclopedia" of North Carolina. Continued below...

The volume includes more than 2,000 entries, presented alphabetically, consisting of longer essays on major subjects, briefer entries, and short summaries and definitions. Most entries include suggestions for further reading. Centered on history and the humanities, topics covered include agriculture; arts and architecture; business and industry; the Civil War; culture and customs; education; geography; geology, mining, and archaeology; government, politics, and law; media; medicine, science, and technology; military history; natural environment; organizations, clubs, and foundations; people, languages, and immigration; places and historic preservation; precolonial and colonial history; recreation and tourism; religion; and transportation. An informative and engaging compendium, the Encyclopedia of North Carolina is abundantly illustrated with 400 photographs and maps. It is both a celebration and a gift—from the citizens of North Carolina, to the citizens of North Carolina. "Truly an exhaustive and exciting view of every aspect of the Old North State!”

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