Donalson was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, on January 12, 1797. His parents moved to Ohio soon after his birth, but he returned to Kentucky at the age of 16. In 1835 was elected to the legislature as a Democrat. In 1839 he moved to Pike County, Illinois, where he was elected probate judge and took part in the “Mormon War.”
In 1847, he raised a company for service in the Mexican-American War, was made a major of his regiment, and was given a sword by the Illinois legislature for his services. Upon the discovery of gold in California, he traveled westward, where he remained for two years.
In 1854 he was appointed United States Marshal for Kansas by President Franklin Pierce. This was a turbulent time in Kansas Territory, as Free-State advocates fought with pro-slavery men during the days called Bleeding Kansas.
In March 1855, when Territorial Governor Andrew Reeder held the first elections for the legislature, thousands of Missourians crossed the border to vote, resulting in almost all of the elected politicians favoring Kansas becoming a slave state. Free State activists objected and organized their own constitutional convention in Topeka, Kansas, in October 1855. On January 15, 1856, Free State leaders held another election for their territorial legislature.
However, the pro-slavery forces were still officially in control, and President Franklin Pierce sent Federal troops to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In the meantime, the officially recognized territorial government continued in its efforts to restrict the free-state movement in Kansas, and Judge Samuel D. Lecompte issued indictments against the free state officials.
On April 23, 1856, pro-slavery advocate and Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones arrested several Free-State men and was shot by an unknown person. Jones would survive the shooting, and on May 11, Federal Marshal J.B. Donaldson proclaimed that the citizenry of Lawrence had interfered with the execution of warrants.
This eventually led to the Sacking of Lawrence on May 21, 1856, when Donaldson took a posse of men, including Sheriff Sam Jones, to Lawrence to execute the court orders. After the leaders said they would comply with the court’s orders, Donaldson made his arrests and released the posse. These men then began to disarm Lawrence citizens, destroy two free state newspapers, and bring down the Free State Hotel with a cannon and incendiary devices. Only one person died during the melee – ironically, it was a pro-slavery proponent who was killed by falling masonry.
This event was considered by some as the actual first battle of the Civil War that would not officially begin for five more years, further inflamed both parties fighting over Kansas, and led to more skirmishes in what is known as the Kansas-Missouri Border War.
Donaldson continued to serve through the administrations of the first four territorial governors when he resigned and moved to Canton, Missouri. He was a strong pro-slavery man, and at the beginning of the Civil War, he moved to Hays County, Texas. He died in San Marcos, Texas, on October 27, 1895.