John Henry Ford was the seventh child of James Edward Ford and his wife Frances, born Stransham, who arrived in the Eastern Cape with their family in 1820 as British settlers. James Edward had made a living as a "wool stapler" in England, but in his spare time practised miniature painting. After farming at Cuylerville (a settlement near present Uitenhage) for a few years the family moved to Grahamstown in 1824 and to Cape Town the next year, where James Edward attempted to make a living as a miniature painter. An older brother of John, George Henry Ford*, was the zoological illustrator on Dr Andrew Smith's* expedition into the interior in 1834-1836.
John Henry was admitted to practise as a land surveyor in the Cape of Good Hope in 1838 and settled at George. In May 1850 he was contracted by Major Warden to become the superintending land surveyor of the Orange River Sovereignty (now the Free State) and to supervise all cadastral surveys in the territory and approve the resulting maps. His position was officially confirmed by a government notice dated 7 March 1851. The surveyor Robert Moffat junior*, who had also aspired towards the post, was so unhappy about Ford's appointment that he left the sovereignty.
Upon his arrival in Bloemfontein Ford compiled extensive regulations to be followed by surveyors and insisted on work of high quality. He was keen to compile a topographical map of the territory and therefore required surveyors to include topographical features on their property maps, and to determine the latitude and longitude of two suitable beacons in each survey. For the determination of longitudes he recommended the observation of lunar occultations. Unfortunately the work was unfinished when Britain withdrew from the territory at the end of 1853 and the map he envisaged only became a reality half a century later. During his few years in office Ford had personally surveyed some 39 farms. His reputation received a setback in 1853 through his involvement in the survey and registration of a farm, the title deed of which became the subject of legal action. Nonetheless he was offered a post as landdrost of Smithfield by President Hoffman of the Orange Free State, which he gladly accepted. He lost this position three years later as a result of his refusal to accept the jury's verdict in a sensational murder trial. The surveyor and landdrost of Winburg, J.M. Orpen*, supported Ford and resigned from his own post in protest.
Ford returned to the Cape Colony and set himself up as a surveyor in Grahamstown. He bought the nearby farm Oakwell in 1865 and died there nineteen years later. He was married to Wilhelmina, born Johnstone.