Joseph Alexander Altsheler attended Liberty College in Glasgow, Kentucky, before entering Vanderbilt University.
In 1885, Joseph Alexander Altsheler took a job at the Louisville Courier-Journal as a reporter and later worked as an editor. He started working for the New York World in 1892, first as the paper's Hawaiian correspondent and then as the editor of the World's tri-weekly magazine. Due to a lack of suitable stories, he began writing children's stories for the magazine. A prolific author of children’s fiction, Joseph A. Altsheler wrote dozens of historical adventure novels that were immensely popular during the first decades of the century.
His novels, set during turbulent periods of American history such as the French and Indian War and the Civil War, feature heroic young men struggling against formidable enemies. According to George Kelley in Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers, Altsheler’s best series was the "Young Trailer" series, focusing on pioneers in the Ohio Valley. Kelley considered "The Young Trailers: A Story of Early Kentucky", in which settlers struggle against Indian enemies and white traitors, the best volume in the series. Kelley acknowledged Altsheler’s enthusiasm for American history, but pointed out that the author sometimes “overdid the historical facts in his books,” making some volumes tedious and overly detailed. He also noted that Altsheler’s portrayal of Indians reveals outdated stereotypes that might be considered racist by today’s standards.
When Kentucky Frontiersman was reprinted in 1989, reviewer Katharine Bruner in the School Library Journal found some elements in the book dated, but appreciated its exciting plot and dramatic tension. Bruner likened its appeal to that of works by Howard Pyle, James Fenimore Cooper, and Jane Porter. Altsheler was traveling with his family in Europe when World War I broke out in 1914. After being trapped in Germany, they finally managed to escape back to the United States, but the ordeal took its toll on the writer. Kelley noted that the dark elements in "The Forest of Swords" and "The Guns of Europe" can be attributed to Altsheler’s traumatic experiences during the war, which also affected the writer’s health.
The hardships the Altshelers endured in returning to the U.S. damaged Altsheler's health and rendered him a semi-invalid until his death.Upon returning to the U.S., he wrote "The World War Series" of books based on his ordeal. Altsheler died in New York City on June 5, 1919, aged 57; his obituary appeared in The Evening World, on June 6, 1919. His widow, Sarah, died 30 years later. Both are buried at the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.
Altsheler married Sarah Boles on May 30, 1888; they had one son, Sidney.