Joseph Daniel Mitchell, pioneer entomologist and conchologist, was born on October 22, 1848, at Mitchell's Point, Calhoun County, Texas, the son of Mary August (Kerr) and Isaac Newton Mitchell. He attended schools at Galveston, San Antonio, and Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. As a youth he worked as a cowboy; he was a rancher in Calhoun County from 1867 to 1887, during which time he is said to have introduced the first blooded stock in the county, built the first windmill west of the Colorado River to provide water for his stock, and in 1874 was among the first in Texas to begin enclosing his ranch with a wire fence. His ranching interests gave rise to his interest in entomology, for during the mid-1870s he pioneered research on eradication of the cattle tick (see TEXAS FEVER). He married Agnes Martha Ward of Jackson County in 1871; the couple had eleven children, seven of whom lived to adulthood.
In 1887 Mitchell moved to Victoria in Victoria County. Five years later he sold 13,500 acres to a Swedish colony of some fifty families, erected a handsome house that his wife designed, and then retired there to study natural history, especially conchology. He collected specimens extensively, including Indian relics, minerals, bird eggs, insects, reptiles, and mollusks peculiar to Texas. For more than forty years he regularly corresponded with and sent specimens to the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Museum (now the Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C. After 1905 Mitchell was a collaborator with the United States Bureau of Entomology on cotton insects, especially the boll weevil, and on cactus-feeding insects. He researched ways to combat malaria and did research with Leland Ossian Howard, head of the Bureau of Entomology, that demonstrated that the disease was transferred by the Anopheles mosquito. Mitchell was considered the leading authority on reptiles in Texas; his extensive monograph on Texas snakes was published in an early volume of the Texas Academy of Science Transactions. He published in other scientific journals a variety of papers on Texas mollusks, weevils of Victoria County, and ants of Victoria County, and many of his pamphlets and other writings were distributed by the state and federal governments. Mitchell discovered two shells previously unknown to science; they were named in his honor.
Mitchell was a member of the Victoria city council and represented the Eighty-third District in the House of the Twenty-fourth Legislature, where he was one of the authors of the law establishing the office of state fish and oyster commissioner, the precursor of the Texas Game and Fish Commission. He was one of the founders of the Victoria Independent School District, served as a trustee of the district for many years, and donated 500 slides of animal life to the Victoria schools. Mitchell School, named in honor of the naturalist, was built in 1901, the first school in the new district. The building, designed by architect Jules Carl Leffland, served every grade of public education and in 1988 was still in use as an elementary school. J. D. Mitchell died at his daughter's home in San Antonio on February 27, 1922, and was buried in Victoria.