Discover Why North Carolina Is Called the “Tar Heel State”

Written by Jennifer Hollohan
Updated: June 19, 2023
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Have you ever wondered how or why some states got their nicknames? We often assume that there is some piece of rich history behind the story, and sometimes that’s accurate. One of the instances is North Carolina‘s nickname: the “Tar Heel State.” This intriguing nickname has deep historical roots and holds significance for the state’s identity and culture. Below, we will explore the origins of North Carolina’s nickname and take a glimpse into the state’s official animals, birds, plants, and flowers.

Why Is North Carolina Named “The Tar Heel State?”

North Carolina has a deep and rich history in the naval industry. The state played a prominent role in producing tar and other naval supplies starting in the pre-colonial period. Early Jamestown residents helped the English navy source turpentine, pitch, and tar from the surrounding pine forests. They sent as many as 100,000 barrels to England every year up until the Revolutionary War.

Tar, derived from the resinous sap of pine trees, was a valuable commodity used to waterproof and preserve the wooden ships that sailed the seas during that time. Workers extracted the tar through a process called “dipping.” The pine logs got heated before collecting the sap. The workers that produced the tar often got covered in the sticky substance. It even caked the bottoms of their boots.

The state remained a vital player in the tar industry throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. During the Civil War, North Carolina troops performed particularly well. In 1863, the commanding general, John S. Preston, praised their bravery. Preston called them “the Tar Heels.” The moniker officially stuck in 1912 after The New York Evening Post used it about two North Carolina men.

Trees and houses reflecting in Lake Sequoyah, Highlands, North Carolina.

The Tar Heel state has thick pine forests that made it the perfect spot to source and produce the tar needed for ships.

©ESB Professional/Shutterstock.com

North Carolina’s Official State Animals

Even though North Carolina is most well-known as the Tar Heel state, the region has other official designations too. A whopping 42, in fact! These include several official state animals, each representing different aspects of its diverse wildlife. 

The state mammal is the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). This energetic creature, famous for its bushy tail and acrobatic agility, lives throughout North Carolina’s forests and urban areas. The Eastern Gray Squirrel became the official state mammal in 1969.

In addition to the gray squirrel, the state also recognizes the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) as its official reptile. The Eastern Box Turtle is a charming and resilient species. It lives in woodlands, forests, and meadows across the state. Its slow and steady nature symbolizes the enduring spirit of North Carolina. The Eastern box turtle received the honor in 1979.

Then in 1989, North Carolina added an official state dog: the Plott Hound. But the state’s animal admiration doesn’t stop there.

In 2010, they named the Colonial Spanish Mustang as the official state horse. And in 2013, the Tar Heel State got two new animal additions: the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) as the official marsupial and the Marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum) as the official state salamander.

North Carolina’s Official State Birds

North Carolina also boasts two official state birds. And each holds a unique significance. 

The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is the primary state bird. Its vibrant red plumage and melodious song make it a beloved and recognizable sight in North Carolina’s gardens and woodlands. The cardinal’s presence brings a touch of color and beauty to the state’s natural landscapes.

The state’s second official bird is the Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis). With its distinctive black cap and cheery song, the Carolina Chickadee adds a touch of charm to the state’s forests and backyards. Its energetic and sociable nature reflects the warm and welcoming spirit of North Carolina.

North Carolina’s Official State Flower and Tree

North Carolina’s official state flower is the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida). The flowering dogwood features elegant white or pink bracts and small clusters of yellow flowers. It is a symbol of beauty and grace in the state. It is abundant throughout North Carolina’s forests and landscapes. The Flowering Dogwood holds cultural significance, often associated with springtime festivals and representing renewal and hope.

Additionally, the state recognizes the Pine (genus Pinus) as its official state tree. Pines are a common sight across North Carolina. Species like the Longleaf Pine and Loblolly Pine dominate its woodlands. These majestic trees contribute to the state’s natural beauty and play a vital role in its ecosystems. 

flowering dogwood

The flowering dogwood is known for its elegant white or pink bracts and small clusters of yellow flowers.

©iStock.com/JillLang

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Wildnerdpix


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About the Author

Jennifer Hollohan is a writer at A-Z Animals, where her primary focus is on gardening, mammals, and travel. Jennifer has over twenty years of writing experience. She holds a Master of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Colorado at Boulder, which she earned in 2005, and is a Herbalist. Jennifer lives in Colorado with her family. She loves hiking, admiring wildflowers, gardening, and making herbal tea.

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