James Green McDonald, Sr., Texas legislator, judge, and Civil War general, was born in Carthage, Smith County, Tennessee, on September 20, 1824, the son of Henry Brown and Mary (Crowder) McDonald. He studied law in Lebanon, Tennessee, and after graduating established a practice there. About that same time he married Julia T. Davis, a graduate of the National Female College in Nashville, Tennessee; this couple had ten children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. In 1851 the family moved to Anderson, Texas, and McDonald quickly became one of Grimes County's most prominent citizens. He established an apparently lucrative law practice and also became a leading member of the local Democratic party. During the 1850s he was elected to serve as a district attorney and in 1860 was elected to the state legislature. By 1860, according to the U.S. census, he owned $4,825 in real property and $5,170 in personal property, including four slaves. He supported secession in 1861, and after the Civil War began, he was appointed as a brigadier general of the Seventeenth District, Texas State Troops. An "impaired physique," however, prevented him from serving in the field, and in 1863 he was elected again to the state legislature.
The Civil War and its aftermath dealt severe blows to Grimes County's slaveholding elite; the emancipation of the slaves evaporated much of their wealth, and by 1870 land there was worth about a third of its 1860 value. General McDonald also saw his fortunes decline precipitously in the late 1860s. In 1870 the census reported that he owned only $700 in real estate and just $400 in personal property. By that year the McDonald family also appears to have moved to another home in Anderson. In 1860 their neighbors included other lawyers, county officials, and a chief justice; in 1870 the McDonald's neighbors included a lawyer but also a black barber, a schoolteacher, a carpenter, and a mulatto store clerk. General McDonald continued to practice law and stayed active in politics. In 1872 he was elected district attorney and served for four years; in 1882 he was elected to the Texas Senate. But his financial fortunes never recovered from his postwar losses. In 1891 he owned four town lots in Anderson (together worth $1,200 that year), a horse or mule worth $50, and $160 in cash. His fortunes continued to decline; in 1901, two years before his death, he owned only $500 in real property, and his personal property was assessed at only $15. Gen. James McDonald, Sr. died at his son's home in Anderson on March 11,1903, and is buried in Anderson's Odd Fellow Cemetery.