Born in Connecticut in 1802, Sturges moved to New York in 1821 and entered the business offices of Reed & Lee, coffee merchants. That firm later became Reed, Hemstead Sturges, with Jonathan Sturges as its head from 1836 until his retirement in 1868. One of the firm's founders, Luman Reed, was a generous picture-buyer whose early death was greatly lamented in New York art circles. Sturges replaced Reed as an important art patron in the decades preceding the Civil War, and he acquired a large collection of American canvases as well as investing considerable sums in artists' organizations, for which he sometimes served as a financial advisor or trustee. Sturges was also actively involved in the development of the Illinois Central Railroad, remaining one of its Directors until his death from pneumonia in 1874 at age 72. He was a staunch supporter of Republican institutions, a leader in the anti-slavery movement, and a member of the Union League Club, for which he acted as President in 1863. Sturges was married to Mary Cady Sturges; they had a son, Henry Cady Sturges (1846-1922), and a daughter, the future Mrs. Osborn.