O’Donnell was born in Norwalk, Connecticut and moved to Jackson, Michigan with his parents in 1848. He pursued preparatory studies and learned the printing trade. During the Civil War, he enlisted as a private in the First Regiment, Michigan Volunteer Infantry, and served two years. He served as recorder of the city of Jackson from 1863 to 1866 and established the Jackson Daily Citizen in 1865. He was a Presidential elector in 1872 and served as mayor of Jackson in 1876 and 1877. He was appointed in 1878 aide-de-camp on the staff of GovernorCharles Croswell, with the rank of colonel.
James O’Donnell returned to Jackson and devoted his time to the publication of the Jackson Daily Citizen, and retired in 1910. He was considered the father of the beet-sugar industry of Michigan. He died in Jackson just eight days before his 75th birthday and was interred there in Mount Evergreen Cemetery.