James Wyer spent his early life at sea, working his way up the ranks aboard whalers in the Pacific. On his fourth voyage he was given command of the Spartan (1851–53). He and his men extracted 630 barrels of sperm oil but then Wyer was able to purchase 1,570 barrels of whale oil at the Navigator Islands from the ship York, filling his hold and giving him a profitable reason to return home.
Wyer married Harriet N. Thompson in 1851 but she died after a long illness in 1860. Following her death, Wyer left Nantucket for California. He worked there as a carpenter for four years before returning to Nantucket, where he married Lois N. (Pease) Starbuck, widow of Charles E. Starbuck, in 1866. He also became one of the original purchasers of the Pacific Club, where retired island captains gathered.
There is no record of how Wyer became interested in rattan baskets. He made baskets between the 1870s and 1890s, exhibiting his work at the annual island agricultural fair, even winning first prize in 1879.