According to Wikipedia, commercial coal production occurred in North America for the first time in 1701.

To meet early colonial (pre-1701) needs for coal (blacksmithing and gunpowder for instance), was coal imported from England and elsewhere?

I know colliers were shipping coal from Durham and Northumberland to London and other ports, and from there were exporting it to other ports in Europe, but I cannot find a record of them making crossings to America.

I think it's possible as colliers were very sturdy (the HMS Endevour and other research/royal yachts colliers prove that).

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    Any mention of colonial era coal imports is noticably absent here: www2.census.gov/library/publications/1960/compendia/… Like other sources I've read about early American iron, the only fuel it mentions is charcoal. In fact I've read that the word "coal" generally referred to wood charcoal in the earl colonies.
    – Brian Z
    Dec 5, 2023 at 0:38
  • @BrianZ Thanks! I'd happily accept that as an answer. Dec 5, 2023 at 10:58
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    @JessieKirk - that's a good point about Endeavour, but Wikipedia does say it was extensively refitted before its voyages. Perhaps the average collier wouldn't have been able to cross the Atlantic without similar modifications? In any case, my suspicion is that using domestically produced charcoal would be cheaper than importing coal from Europe, but I don't have any evidence either way
    – JayFor
    Dec 5, 2023 at 11:23

1 Answer 1


I suspect that no imports of coal were made anywhere near that early. I see a few sources showing minor coal imports by the American colonies beginning c. 1770 (1 Series Z 87-107, 2, p.20), but nothing earlier so far.

"With abundant supplies of wood, water, and animal fuel, there was little need to use mineral fuel in seventeenth and eighteenth-century America (3)." The early iron industry in colonial America was powered—without exception as far as I can find—by wood-based charcoal. In fact, the word "coal" was generally synonymous with wood-based charcoal in the early colonies (4, p. 105).

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    You might check the website for the Saugus Ironworks, a major late-1600s iron production site in Massachusetts.
    – Mark Olson
    Dec 6, 2023 at 2:58
  • @MarkOlson Saugus is widely mentioned as the oldest significant ironworks in the American colonies, but I see no reason to think they could have used mineral coal there. Even in the British Isles (where wood was scarce) I don't think they began to use it for coke/iron until about 1720.
    – Brian Z
    Dec 6, 2023 at 3:33
  • @MarkOlson Wikipedia specifically states that Scots indentured servants were forced to chop wood and make charcoal. There is no mention of coal. Mining took place for bog ore, but apparently no coal. Dec 7, 2023 at 0:10

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