James Eights was born 1798 to Dr. Jonathan Eights and Alida Wynkoop. He one of three children, being the only son. The family resided in the Dutch-style family home in at 92 North Pearl Street located on the corner of Columbia Street. His father held a private practice and worked at the Albany County Almshouse.
His maternal grandfather, Jacobus Wynkoop, originally from New York City, moved to Kingston, operating the family’s merchant vessel, Espous, which traded with the West Indies. During the American Revolution, Wynkoop lied about his age to serve in the war. In 1776 he was commissioned as Captain of the 4th New York Regiment and commanded a vessel on the inland lakes, directed by General Philip Schuyler and the Continental Congress. Benedict Arnold received the same command. Upon refusal to surrender Wynkopp was arrested and sent to prison though the charges were later dismissed. He reentered the the war in Kingston, and by the end his family relocated to Albany near the Eights family. Wynkoop became boat builder.
James paternal grandfather, Abraham Eights, moved to Albany and was a successful sailmaker. He was one of the signers of the Albany Son’s of Liberty 1766, a direct result of the Stamp Act Riots. He briefly served on the Albany Committee, before supporting the revolution. After the war, he was granted land and set up a business along the Hudson River. He continued to make sails and held a business which imported foreign goods. He served as Dockmaster for the city of Albany with the locals referring to him as “Father Eights.”
As a boy, James had an interest in art, natural science, biology, and natural medicine. His knowledge became beneficial in his early 20s when he was appointed by Stephen Van Rensselaer III to serve as a draftsman for a geological survey of the Erie Canal. He worked under Amos Eaton and Ebenezer Emmons, co-founders of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute along with Van Rensselaer.
His work on the Erie Canal led to the founding the Albany Lyceum of Natural History in 1823 with Van Rensselaer, which later merged into the Albany Institute of History and Art. James wrote their newsletter Transactions, and would continue for the next 30 years. He worked with Amos Eaton on the Traveling School of Science on the Erie Canal where he was a mentor. In 1827 he worked briefly for RPI as an examiner.
In 1828, James was appointed to serve in Edmund Fanning’s “Exploring Expedition of 1830” which traveled to Antarctica. The expedition was originally slated to take place 18 years prior but delayed due to the War of 1812. Known as the “Voyage of Discovery,” James was brought on to write reports to Congress and recognize unusual plants and animals, illustrating his findings. He also served as surgeon and naturalist, though he had never practiced medicine. Eights was the first to describe Antarctica, one of his papers of the expedition made its way into the Journal of the Boston Society of Natural History where he described a 10-legged sea spider, the first of its kind. However, further research suggests that James may have drawn “one too many pairs of legs.” The Eights Coast located between Cape Waite and Pfrogner Point named in his honor.
In 1837 as Congress planned for a second trip to the Antarctic James was not be asked back. There is speculation on whether it was professional jealousy, alcohol, or substance abuse. He returned to Albany and lived with his parents and writing anonymous articles for the Zodiak, and Albany magazine. Through the assistance of his close friend, Ebenezer Emmons who served as New York State Geologist, help appoint James as Assistant State Geologist in the Central New York District. By 1838 he was a confirmed bachelor.
In the 1840s and 50s Albany was experiencing a boom due to the Industrial Revolution, and the skyline changed to reflect the changing economy and lifestyle of the city. During this time James started composing watercolors of his recollections of the city which included cityscapes of the city’s Dutch and Colonial-era architecture. Titles of his sketches were given names such as “Old Albany as it appeared in 1805,” with some having the names of the homeowners. He never became famous as an artist; however, his images are used by historians as the earliest artistic renderings of the City of Albany. By the end of the 1840s, both of his parents passed away and was a confirmed bachelor
James worked as a contractor in New England and North Carolina where he worked as a geologist and mining surveyor. He continued to publish papers for Transactions and write historical essays published under assumed names. An account in 1852 mentioned that he shared rooms with a Mr. Lawtenslager, who owned a business on State Street.
By the end of his life he became destitute and moved in with one of his sisters in Greenfield Center. He outlived both siblings and died in Ballston Spa on June 1882 at the age of 84 of Bright’s disease, chronic inflammation of the kidneys. He is buried in the family plot at Albany Rural Cemetery.