Her Scottish parents were the shepherd (later station manager) Robert Mackay and his wife, Elizabeth Mackay (née Ormiston). She went to Christchurch to train as a teacher, and taught at small rural schools until 1898. She moved to Dunedin, and worked as a journalist for the Otago Witness.
In 1902, she moved to Christchurch where she lived with her sister Georgina. In 1906, she was lady editor of the Canterbury Times. Her work at this time was published in the short-lived New Zealand literary magazine New Zealand Illustrated Magazine (founded in Auckland in 1899, last publication 1905).
- The Spirit of the Rangatira and other ballads. Melbourne: George Robertson & Company. 1889.
- The Sitter on the Rail and other poems. Christchurch: Simpson and Williams, 1891.
- From the Maori Sea. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1908.
- Land of the Morning. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1909.
- The Bride of the Rivers and other verses. Christchurch: Simpson and Williams, 1926.
- Vigil. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1935
- Smith, Jo-Anne. "Mackay, Elizabeth - Biography". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 18 May 2012.
- Macleod, N. F. H. A Voice on the Wind. Wellington: Reed, 1955.
- Roberts, Heather. "Mackay, Jessie 1864-1938". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 10 April 2011.
- Margaret Chapman, Jessie Mackay: a woman before her time , Kakahu W.D.F.F., 1997, ISBN 978-0-473-04794-8