Thomas Hill was born in Birmingham, England and immigrated to the United States in about 1834. He grew up in Taunton, Massachusetts, and found his way as a young man to Philadelphia, where he took classes in the early 1850s at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Sometime in the late 1850s or early 1860s, Hill moved to San Francisco, opened a studio and painted portraits.
After a six month stay in Paris, Hill returned to California and focused on painting landscapes. His massive canvases showed the highlights of California scenery. Hill also spent time in New England, where, like his Hudson River School compatriots, he painted scenes from the White Mountains and the Adirondacks. In California, Hill divided his time between San Francisco and the Sierras. He sketched throughout long summer days in Yosemite, often in company with San Francisco artist Virgil Williams, the naturalist John Muir, the artist William Keith, and his student Julian Rix. Hill spent the last years of his life in Wawona, at the entrance to Yosemite Valley.