Pinkerton was born in the Gorbals, Glasgow, Scotland, to William Pinkerton and his wife, Isobel McQueen, on August 25, 1819. The location of the house where he was born is now occupied by the Glasgow Central Mosque. A cooper by trade, he was active in the British Chartist movement as a young man. Pinkerton married Joan Carfrae (a singer) in Glasgow on 13 March 1842  secretly before moving to America. Disillusioned by the failure to win suffrage, Pinkerton emigrated to the United States in 1842. In 1843, Pinkerton heard of Dundee, Illinois, fifty miles northwest of Chicago on the Fox River. He built a cabin and started a cooperage there, sending for his wife in Chicago after the cabin was complete. As early as 1844, Pinkerton worked for Chicago Abolitionist leaders, and his Dundee home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.