James Henry French, mayor of San Antonio, was born on March 26, 1835, in Warrenton, Virginia, to James and Sarah Butler (Henry) French. He attended Columbia College in Washington, D.C., before he moved to San Antonio, Texas, in October 1851. On October 15, 1856, he married Sarah L. Webb; they eventually had five children. French and his wife moved in 1856 to Atascosa County, where he served two terms as sheriff and managed a ranch. He returned to San Antonio in 1859 and in May 1861 enlisted in the Confederate Army. He served in the adjutant general's office until October 1861, then was appointed captain and assigned to the commissary department under Gen. Paul O. Hébert. He served this assignment on the Rio Grande under Gen. Hamilton P. Bee. In January 1863 French was transferred to the purchasing department at San Diego, Texas, and in March 1865 took charge of the reserve department of supplies for the forces operating under Col. John S. Port.
After the war he made his home in San Antonio, where he instituted many reforms in city government during his period as mayor (1875–1885) and alderman (1885–89). These reforms included a system of street names and house numbering, increased city control of public schools, and an increase in the school tax by 10 percent. In addition, during his tenure the International-Great Northern Railroad was built into San Antonio. French died on September 6, 1893, and was buried in the City Cemetery in San Antonio.