Scholars have long been attentive to the relationship between legal regimes and agrarian dispossession in the resource frontiers of the postcolonial world. The analytical problem of identifying how private firms use legal regimes to take control of land—whether for mining, plantations, or Special Economic Zones—now animates a new body of research seeking the historical antecedents for contemporary land grabs. In the case of colonial South Asia, existing scholarship has often tended to suggest that the law precedes processes of capital accumulation, and that colonial capital operated within the confines of definable, even if legally plural, institutional regimes, such as property rights and commercial law. This perspective suggests, if only implicitly, that capitalist firms prefer to work within formal frameworks of legality. In this article, I outline a different understanding of the place of law in colonial South Asia, which follows the formation of property law for coal at the end of the nineteenth century. I argue that the discursive framing of coal's status as property emerged out of, rather than preceded, social and ecological displacements caused by a coal commodity boom after 1894. Reconstructing conflicts over coal-bearing agrarian land through civil court records and mining company property deeds, I demonstrate how the absence of coal property within the colonial legal archive was reassembled through a recursive conception of legality. This genealogy of law recovers the historical context for contemporary struggles over mining claims in India's coal region today.