John V. Farwell, wholesale dry goods merchant and member of the Capitol Syndicate, was born at Painted Post in Steuben County, New York, on July 29, 1825. He was the third of five children born to Henry and Nancy (Jackson) Farwell, who made their living by farming and shipping lumber. In 1838, when John was thirteen, the family moved to Ogle County, Illinois, and settled in the Rock River valley near the town of Oregon. There John spent the remainder of his youth; he and his brothers helped build the family home, which often served as a local meeting house on Sundays. In 1845, after graduating from Mount Morris Seminary, John went to Chicago, where his older brother had moved the year before. After working briefly for the city, he became a bookkeeper for the Hamilton and Day dry goods firm, with which he remained for four years. On April 16, 1849, he married Abigail Gates Taylor. She died on May 9, 1851, a month after giving birth to their daughter. In the meantime, Farwell had joined the firm of Wadsworth and Phelps (later Cooley, Wadsworth, and Company), of which he was made general manager. In 1854 he married Emeret Cooley, a sister of a business associate; they had three sons and a daughter. In 1862 the firm became known as Cooley, Farwell, and Company, then in 1865, after he took it over, John V. Farwell and Company. Marshall Field, Potter Palmer, Levi Z. Leiter, and S. N. Kellogg were numbered among Farwell's partners at one time or another, and the Farwell Company was for many years Chicago's leading dry goods store.
Unlike his brother and partner Charles, who helped form the Republican party and later served in both houses of Congress, John Farwell rarely participated in politics; however, he was an elector for Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In 1869 he was appointed a commissioner for Indian Affairs by President Ulysses S. Grant. He was a devout Methodist who headed the Chicago branch of the United States Christian Commission during the Civil War and was a leading friend and supporter of Dwight L. Moody's ministry. Farwell helped build the First Methodist Church in Chicago and was also a zealous supporter of the Young Men's Christian Association; he donated land in downtown Chicago for the first YMCA building.
Farwell entered the Texas cattle-ranching scene in 1882, when, as a leading member of the Capitol Syndicate, he helped finance the building of the new Capitol in Austin. Both he and Charles were directors of the Capitol Freehold Land and Investment Company, organized in London in 1885 to handle the land that became the XIT Ranch. In addition, he was for a time managing director of the XIT. In that position, Farwell spent some time at the ranch, where he occasionally held church services for the employees; his nephew Walter erected a summer residence near Channing that served as the new XIT headquarters.
Farwell died on August 20, 1908, and was interred in Chicago. Even after ceasing cattle operations in 1912, the Farwell estate continued ownership of XIT properties in the form of a trust known as the Capitol Reservation Lands, organized in 1915. This trust remained in existence until the last of the Panhandle properties was sold. The family also maintained the dry goods business in Chicago until 1926, when it was sold to Carson, Pirie, and Company. Two towns in Texas were named for Farwell.