James Hall was born in Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1811. He was a paleontologist and geologist, educated at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he studied under Amos Eaton and Ebenezer Emmons. He graduated in 1832, completed a master's degree the next year, and remained to teach chemistry and geology. He was a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences and first president of the Geological Society of America, of which Charles Hitchcock, the youngest son of Edward and Orra Hitchcock, was also a founder.
Hall participated in a survey of the geology and natural history of New York, which set him on his career path. He was the state's first official State Geologist and served as director for the New York State Museum of Natural History in Albany. Among his geological works is The Geology of New York, Part 4. His laboratory in Albany served as a training place for a number of paleontologists and geologists. In order to extend the geological work he had done in New York to other states, he traveled through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Iowa, and worked for a time in Canada. While participating in a survey of Wisconsin and Northern Michigan, Hall discovered the first North American fossil reefs.
When Charles Lyell was on his first American tour in 1841, Hall spent six weeks in Boston comparing Lyell's European fossils with his own collection from New York. Later, he traveled with the Lyells by train, wagon, and stagecoach as a geological guide on a loop from Albany to Niagara Falls and back. The trip was an exciting and informative experience for them all, and the young Hall, only 29 years old at the time, made a favorable impression on the Lyells. The good feelings suffered some damage the following year when Hall anonymously published an accusation that Lyell was planning to plagiarize the work of American geologists. When Lyell directly asked him who had made the charges, Hall was evasive, but Lyell eventually discovered the truth. Hall apologized abjectly, and the ever-gracious Lyell accepted, especially when he learned that Hall had been maneuvered into the accusation by someone in a more powerful position (whose identity remains unknown today). Lyell and Hall continued to correspond and take field trips together during Lyell's later visits to America.
James Hall's wife Sarah Aikin Hall, created some of his illustrations and in 1849, under the G. P. Putnam imprint, published a book of her own poems, which were later translated into German.