Son of early colonist James McAlpine senior, McAlpine was born in 1840 in the Gardiners Creek district, where his parents had a dairy farm. McAlpine moved with his family to Gipps Land in 1845. McAlpine senior died, aged 70, in 1861 and was buried at Alberton cemetery. James appears to have continued working on the farm, as well as selling supplies. As with many settlers, McAlpine and his family employed Gunaikurnai men and women to work on the farm. McAlpine died in 1924.