James Coutts Crawford, generally known as Coutts, was born at Overton, Strathaven, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on 19 January 1817, the only son of Captain James Coutts Crawford, RN, and his second wife, Jane Inglis. Educated at the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, he received the gold medal before joining the Prince Regent in June 1831. He served on several ships on both coasts of South America and in the Mediterranean as a midshipman. In 1836 he qualified as a sub-lieutenant, but through lack of promotional prospects took his discharge the following year. He was awarded the Royal Humane Society's honorary medallion in 1836 for rescuing two seamen from drowning.
In 1838 Crawford sailed on the Coromandel to Sydney where, accompanied by an overseer, he drove a herd of cattle to Adelaide, one of the first to make the overland journey. He sailed from Australia in November1839 on the Success, landing at Korohiwa, Titahi Bay, New Zealand, and after visiting Kapiti and Mana islands walked to Port Nicholson (Wellington). He visited Queen Charlotte Sound and French Pass, returning to Port Nicholson just after the arrival of the first immigrant ships. Early in March 1840 he returned to Sydney to purchase horses and cattle for a property he had bought from the New Zealand Company. On Watts Peninsula, later named Miramar, he established the Glendavar cattle farm. He also acquired land in Auckland.
Crawford was active in local affairs in Wellington. He seconded the motion asking for Governor William Hobson's recall in 1841, and promoted the formation of a cattle company and an association to consider ways of dressing flax for export. In 1841 he returned to England, and on 29 November 1843 married Sophia Whitley Deans Dundas at Kintbury, Berkshire. Returning to New Zealand in 1846, he developed his farm near Wellington and constructed a tunnel, apparently the first in New Zealand, to drain Burnham Water into Evans Bay. He explored Wairarapa with Charles Clifford and Edward Stafford, and was present when Governor George Grey arrested Te Rauparaha.
Crawford later returned to England, where Sophia Crawford died in 1852, leaving two children. On 28 July 1857 he married Jessie Cruickshank McBarnet, at Forres, Elgin, Scotland, and returned once more to New Zealand. He settled permanently in Wellington, where he and Jessie Crawford raised three sons. He expanded his cattle farm, bought land at Ahuriri, Wairarapa and the Hutt Valley, invested in mining companies in New Zealand and Australia and was active in local affairs. Interested in geology, he was appointed provincial geologist in 1861, and from 1862 to 1864, in a search for mining potential and routes for road and rail communication, explored the Wanganui and Rangitikei rivers, the central plateau as far as Tokaanu, Northern Wairarapa and crossed the Tararua Range. His reports made a significant contribution to the knowledge of the province.
Crawford held many official positions. He was a member of the Legislative Council from 1859 to 1867, and was appointed resident magistrate in 1864 and sheriff of Wellington in 1866, holding both posts until his resignation in 1878. In 1864 he established and presided over the Resident Magistrate and Warden's Court at Havelock in Pelorus Sound for some months.
Keenly interested in scientific studies, Crawford was a member of the Geological Society of London, a corresponding member of the Geological Society of Edinburgh and the Imperial and Royal Geological Society of Vienna, president of the Wellington Philosophical Society and a governor of the New Zealand Institute. The numerous papers published in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute illustrate the breadth of his interests, ranging through botany, geology, engineering, language and agriculture. He also published pamphlets on such diverse topics as free trade, federation with Australia, reform of English spelling and the introduction of railways. In 1880 he published Recollections of travel in New Zealand and Australia, based on the diaries kept during his expeditions. He served as a captain in the 1st Lanark Militia and in 1864 was appointed captain on the unattached list, Wellington Militia. A member of various cultural organisations, he was also a foundation member of the Wakefield and Pickwick clubs. He travelled widely and his large collection of sketches and watercolours are of great historic interest.
Crawford was a handsome, talented and energetic man, whose practical approach, particularly to engineering problems, was advanced for his time. Although he did not reach the highest positions, his ability and personality made an impact on the community and he was held in high esteem. Mt Crawford bears his name. He died in London on 8 April 1889.