James Henry Daugherty was born June 1, 1889, in Asheville, North Carolina, to Charles M. and Susan Peyton Telfair Daugherty. He spent his early childhood on an Indiana farm and in a small southern Ohio town. When Daugherty was about nine, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where his father took a government job. In addition to his public schooling in Washington, Daugherty attended the Philadelphia Art Academy for one year and studied in London during his father's two-year assignment there as an agent for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As important as his formal education were the lessons in storytelling Daugherty learned from his parents and his grandfather. From his mother, a native of Virginia, he heard songs and stories of the pre-Civil War South. From his father, a graduate of the University of Michigan, he heard the best of English and American literature, from Chaucer to Mark Twain. Daugherty's grandfather, meanwhile, told him tall tales about the frontier that had been handed down for several generations.
During World War I, Daugherty camouflaged ships and designed war posters for the U.S. Navy. He also worked on murals and illustrations for books and magazines. Shortly after the war, he became an illustrator for the Doubleday Page Company, and as his reputation grew, he worked for a number of book publishers, as well as for magazines such as the New Yorker, Forum, and Golden Book. During the 1920s he also painted murals in movie theaters belonging to the Loew chain. Later, as a part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, he painted murals in public buildings, including a high school in Stamford, Connecticut. His biographical novel Daniel Boone, which he both authored and illustrated, won the 1939 Newbery Medal, and his other biographies for young adults consistently garnered high praise. In 1971 a retrospective exhibit of his work was held in New York.
Daugherty's wife, Sonia Medvedeva, was also a well-known author of books for children and young adults. Their son, Charles Michael (Chris), continued the family tradition, writing young adult books that his father illustrated. In the 1920s the family moved to Westport, Connecticut, where Daugherty lived until his death on February 21, 1974.