James Kerr, soldier, attorney, surveyor, and physician, was born near Danville, Kentucky, on September 24, 1790. In 1808 his Baptist minister father moved the family to Missouri. Kerr fought in the War of 1812 under Nathaniel Boone and achieved the rank of lieutenant. Thereafter he was sheriff of St. Charles County, Missouri. In 1819 he married Angela Caldwell and moved with his bride to Sainte Genevieve, Missouri. He served two terms in the House and one in the Senate as a representative of the Sainte Genevieve district.
In January 1825 Kerr was appointed surveyor general of the Texas colony of Green DeWitt. In April or May he took his family and about eight slaves to Brazoria, where he joined the colony of his close friend, Stephen F. Austin. Later that year his wife and two of his children died of cholera at their camp on the San Bernard River. Leaving his surviving three-year-old daughter with friends in San Felipe, he set out with Erastus (Deaf) Smith and five other men to select a site for the capital of the DeWitt colony. In August 1825 the men built cabins on Kerr's Creek near the junction of the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers and made plans for the establishment of Gonzales. The next year the makeshift huts were destroyed by Indian raiders. In January 1827 Kerr acted as attorney and surveyor for Benjamin Rush Milam. The same year Austin dispatched Kerr, James Cummins, and Richard Ellis to Nacogdoches to attempt to persuade Haden Edwards to abandon his Fredonian Rebellion. In May 1827 Kerr signed a treaty with the Karankawa Indians. The same month, as one of the Old Three Hundred, he received title to a league now in Jackson County. He settled this holding and reportedly brought in the first crop in the county. The Kerr cabin became a center where new settlers were routinely greeted and entertained. On December 15, 1830, the ayuntamiento of San Felipe de Austin ordered a favorable report on Kerr's petition for additional land because of services he had rendered for the public good.
Kerr was the Lavaca delegate at the Convention of 1832. The next year, as a member of the Convention of 1833, he made a memorandum of the full list of representatives; he also took enough time from public service to marry Sarah Fulton, a foster daughter of John J. Linn. In June 1835 Kerr reported the political news in Mexico and the rise of Antonio López de Santa Anna to Gail Borden, Jr. In October 1835 Austin wrote Kerr requesting that he and John Alley sign a letter to the American colonists of Texas confirming the advance of Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos and his Centralist army. Kerr was elected a delegate to the Consultation of 1835 but did not serve because he was involved in a campaign against the Lipan Apaches. He later won appointment to the Consultation as a member of the General Council, in which capacity he was author of the decree appointing Sam Houston, John Forbes, and John Cameron to negotiate a treaty with the Cherokees. Kerr was elected a delegate to the Convention of 1836, but there is no record of his attendance.
During the period of the republic Kerr represented Jackson County in the House of the Third Congress and introduced antidueling legislation and a bill to make Austin the capital. Though he was admired and respected by his associates, even his family members admitted that he was not much for looks. One day when he was visiting a saloon, a homely stranger approached him and announced, "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to kill you." Kerr calmly asked the man why such drastic action was necessary, whereupon the visitor explained, "I have always said if I ever saw a man uglier than I am, that I was going to shoot him." Kerr invited the man over to the window and, after inspecting the man in the daylight, wryly commented: "Shoot away, stranger, if I'm any uglier than you I don't care to live!" Kerr spent his last years practicing medicine. On December 25, 1850, he died in his Jackson County home. In 1856 Kerr County was named in his honor.