Gilchrist was born in 1831 in Pennsylvania, but grew up on a farm in Ohio. His educational background included studies at Antioch College under the famous educator Horace Mann, and an honorary M. A. degree from Allegheny College. He held a number of positions in educational administration. He was Superintendent of Schools in Mason City, Iowa, and principal at a private normal school in Algona, Iowa. He also served as Dean of the Department of Didactics at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. In addition, he was trained as a Methodist Episcopal minister. James Gilchrist and his wife, Hannah, had nine children, six of whom grew to maturity. He died in 1897 at the age of 66.
When Principal Gilchrist was hired as principal of the Iowa State Normal School (later UNI) in 1876, the campus consisted of forty acres of land and one main building. His annual salary was $1500. He was allowed free housing in the main building. He resigned in 1886.
There have been two UNI buildings named for Principal Gilchrist. The first Gilchrist Hall was completed in 1882; it burned in 1972. The building now known as Gilchrist Hall, UNI's main administration building, was dedicated to Principal Gilchrist in 1975, ten years after its construction.
Gilchrist was succeeded by Homer Horatio Seerley.
Compiled by Library Assistant Susan Witthoft; edited by University Archivist Gerald L. Peterson, January 1996; last updated, January 12, 2016 (GP).