James Wilson McDill was the son of Frances (Wilson) and John McDill, who was a graduate of Miami University and a United Presbyterian minister. He was born on March 4, 1834 in Monroe, Ohio. He was taken by his parents to Hanover, Indiana, where his father died in 1840. In 1845 the family moved to South Salem, Ross County, Ohio, where they lived with Fanny’s father, Rev. R. G. Wilson, a Quaker and abolitionist.