John Wilkins Whitfield, Confederate officer and delegate to two Texas constitutional conventions, was born in Williamson County, Tennessee, on March 11, 1818, son of Wilkins and Mary (Sturdivant) Whitfield. In 1838 he married Catherine Charter. He served two terms in the Tennessee state legislature, from 1848 to 1851. He was married a second time, to Sarah B. Dribrell, in April 1853. The couple had two children. Around 1853 Whitfield moved to Independence, Missouri, when he was appointed Indian agent to the Pottawatomie Indians at Westport, Missouri. In 1855–56 he served as an agent for the Arkansas Indians, during which time he also represented the territory of Kansas in the United States Thirty-third and Thirty-fourth congresses. In 1856 Whitfield commanded an unsuccessful invasion of Missouri citizens into Kansas to rid the state of abolitionists. From 1857 to 1861 he was registrar at the land office at Doniphan, Kansas.
Whitfield purchased 1,500 acres on the Navidad River in Lavaca County, Texas, in 1860, following the example of his brothers, who had moved to Texas several years before. On August 24, 1861 he enlisted a company of Confederate cavalry from Lavaca County that became known as Whitfield's Rifles. This unit was mustered into service in the Confederate army on September 29, 1861, as Company D of the Twenty-seventh Texas Cavalry which was in the process being organized at that time. The formation of the Twenty-seventh Texas was completed on November 12, 1861, at which time Whitfield was promoted to the rank of major. The Twenty-seventh Texas was also known as the First Texas Legion and Whitfield's Legion Texas Cavalry. On April 2, 1862, Whitfield received another promotion, this time to the rank of colonel in command of the Twenty-seventh Texas which was reorganized and increased from four companies to thirteen. Whitfield's regiment participated in the Battle of Luka where on September 19, 1862, he was severely wounded. His wounds proved so severe that he was forced to resign his command in late 1863.
After the war Whitfield settled on his estate in Lavaca County. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1866 and to the Constitutional Convention of 1875; in the latter he was chairman of the committee on education, which advocated direct taxes for school purposes and the establishment of a university for Texas with a branch for black students. In 1868 Whitfield became a member of the state executive committee of the Democratic party. He died near Hallettsville on October 27, 1879.