James Geddes was born on July 22, 1763, near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He worked on his parents' farm and taught school for a few years before moving to Kentucky in the early 1780s. He remained in Kentucky only for a short time due to his opposition to slavery. By the early 1790s, Geddes had moved to western New York, near present-day Syracuse. There, he opened a salt-manufacturing business. Local natives were not receptive to Geddes at first, but they eventually adopted him into their tribe. This was primarily due to gifts that he provided the Native Americans.
Geddes became involved in canal building during the first decade of the 1800s. A self-trained engineer and surveyor, he first helped in the construction of the Erie Canal in New York. In 1822, the Ohio Canal Commission hired Geddes to survey possible canal routes in the state. He eventually determined that only two routes had the necessary water sources to support a canal. These two routes eventually became the Ohio and Erie Canal and the Miami and Erie Canal. While surveying the routes of these two canals, Geddes became famous among locals for his love of buttermilk. He paid farmers' children to bring the drink to the surveying party while the men conducted their work.
Upon completing his work for the Ohio Canal Commission, Geddes helped plot the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. He continued in this position until 1828, when he accepted a job with Pennsylvania in designing that state's canal system. During the late 1820s, Geddes also helped to plot a canal in Canada.
Geddes also actively participated in government. Beginning in 1812, he served as a judge on the Onondaga County, New York, Common Pleas Court. He also represented the county for two terms in the New York legislature beginning in the 1810s. New Yorkers elected him to the United States House of Representatives in 1821. Geddes died on August 17, 1838.