Building on Coal

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Coal had been used in ancient times, but Thomas Jefferson was looking toward the future of the young United States. In the summer of 1803, as Meriwether Lewis prepared for his expedition across Upper Louisiana, President Jefferson told him to record mineral resources of every kind; but more particularly metals, limestone, pit coal, & saltpetre.1

Saltpeter was used in ammunition, as well as in explosives that men could use to sculpt the land. Limestone was used for construction, as well as in processing iron ore. The Earth's metals, both base and precious, had become the tools and ornaments of civilization. But coal--that was the basic natural resource of the future! Jefferson had only to look to Great Britain, already fifty years into the Industrial Revolution, to see what was coming.

Ancient Romans heated the waters of their public baths with it, as did the Chinese whom Marco Polo met, although Europeans at the time would laugh at the thirteenth-century Venetian adventurer's tale of "black stones" that burned. The Chinese worked metal into tools over coal's heat, and Native Americans in the Southwest made pottery in coal-fired kilns. In coal-rich Wales, funeral pyres four millenia ago burned with coal. And when Roman armies invaded Brittania 2,000 years ago, soldiers located their campsites beside convenient coal outcroppings.2 From their arrival in the seventeenth century, American colonists similarly took advantage of coal found near the surface, by digging pits in, or adjacent to, convenient veins. Thus the term "pit-coal."

Thomas Jefferson documented the known pit-coal coal resources in the United States in his Notes on the State of Virginia. The vicinity of his home at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, was "replete with mineral coal of a very excellent quality," which before the War for Independence had been worked "to an extent equal to the demand." The whole country between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River was believed to contain coal. "The coal at Pittsburg [sic]," wrote Jefferson, "is of very superior quality." A coal bed nearby had been "afire since 1765."3

A decade after the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a traveler in the "western country" near today's Butler, Pennsylvania, described how locals used bituminous coal along Conequenessing Creek.

Here we saw a coal mine. On examination, we found the incumbent strata to be shale, or clay slate...We observed both yesterday and to day,...that slaty stones appeared in many places where the road was dug, and, doubtless, coal would soon be discovered by exploring. It is sold at the pit's mouth for sixpence a bushel, and is preferred by the inhabitants to wood for fuel,..'the blaze being so brilliant as to supersede the use of candles, even for sewing.4

Eventually, coal deposits would be found in nearly three-fourths of the fifty states, and their product would fuel the Industrial Revolution when the United States joined Europe in that epochal change.

Aware that the Industrial Revolution in the United States was a half-century behind Great Britain's, President Jefferson was eager to know what potentials resided in the real estate Congress had recently okayed, the Louisiana Purchase. Self-sufficiency was one of the cardinal values of Jeffersonian Republicanism.

But the coal-powered country would face many blessings, and a few monumental curses.


1. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783–1854 (2nd ed., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:63.

2. Gail Stewart, Coal Miners (Crestwood House, 1988), p. 10

3. Thomas Jefferson wrote his Notes on the State of Virginia in response to a query from François de Marbois, the secretary of the French legation in Paris, in 1871, and by popular request published a revised and expanded edition of it in 1785. The first American edition appeared in 1788.

4. David Thomas, Travels Through the Western Country in the Summer of 1816. Facsimile of the 1819 edition; Introduction by John W. Wells, Foreword by George W. White. Reprinted in Volume 6 of George W. White, ed., Contributions to the History of Geology (Darien, Connecticut: Hafner Publisher Company, 1970.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.