Carter was born into an English family with commercial and kinship connections to members of the Virginia Company of London. He was probably the son of John Carter, a London vintner, and his second wife, Bridget Benion Carter. Historians once described Carter as an unhappy royalist who fled England after the execution of Charles I in 1649, but he had traveled to Virginia as early as 1635, when he gave his age as twenty-two on boarding the Safety on August 10. He may have been the John Carter, of London, age about twenty-three, who sailed to Virginia in 1637 but whose ship was captured by the Spanish. Literate in English and probably in Latin, Carter was better prepared to succeed than some of his contemporaries. Like many other young men with commercial connections, he may have made multiple crossings of the Atlantic while learning thetrade. Carter’s familial relationship to (d. 1682), who served with him in the House of Burgesses and on the governor’s Council, was probably close but is unknown.
Carter almost certainly decided to settle permanently in Virginia sometime before he wasa burgess from Upper Norfolk County (later Nansemond County) for the assembly that met in January and June 1642. He also sat in the assembly that met on March 2, 1643, when for the first time the burgesses convened as a separate house. He represented Nansemond County again in the 1649 assembly. In 1642 Carter obtained the first of several grants of land on the north bank of the Rappahannock River in what became Lancaster County nine years later. There he established Corotoman, which became the family seat, and during the next quarter century amassed several thousand acres by patents and purchases. He received his largest single grant, for 4,000 acres, in 1665 for transporting to Virginia eighty people, including or descent.
By 1652 Carter was a major in the county militia and soon thereafter became a colonel. Representing Lancaster County in the assemblies of 1654–1655 and 1658, Carter in the spring session of 1658 chaired committees that presented proposed revisions of the colony’s laws to Governor Samuel Mathews (d. 1660) and that defended the burgesses’ rights when the House got into a dispute with the governor and Council. On March 13, 1658, the burgesses elected Carter to the governor’s Council, a selection the House confirmed on April 3 of that year, but on March 15, 1659, the assembly postponed a decision whether to reelect him. Carter served in the House of Burgesses again in the spring of 1659 and was present inwhen news arrived of the death of Oliver Cromwell and the succession of his son, Richard Cromwell, as lord protector. A royalist, Carter objected so sternly that on April 8, 1659, the governor issued a warrant for his arrest. How long Carter remained in custody and the result of the arrest are not known. He returned to Jamestown again as a burgess for the March 1660 assembly, which elected Sir William Berkeley governor pending receipt of a commission from the restored king Charles II.
After Berkeley’s reelection, Carter won reappointment to the Council. Records of the governor’s Council are scarce, a consequence of the destruction of most of the official documents, and the date of his appointment is not known. Carter joined other Council members and Berkeley in March 1663 in complaints after the king granted the Northern Neck to several court favorites, and that same spring he took part in negotiating an agreement that the Virginia and Maryland Councils concluded to reduce tobacco production in hopes of raising the crop’s price. Carter was busy with his own affairs and could not attend all the recorded Council meetings in Jamestown, but he was present in June 1667 when the governor and Council wrote the king concerning the colony’s defense during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667) and remained a member until his death.
Carter exemplified the success that young men of urban backgrounds could attain in the middle third of the seventeenth century by entering the tobacco trade and becoming Virginia landowners and planters. The inventory of his estate, taken in July 1670, listed more than thirty, with the amount of time left in each of their terms of service, and more than forty persons of African origin or descent, none of whom had a stated limit on future service. The distinction suggests that Carter, like other leading planters of his time, was shifting to a greater reliance on black laborers held in lifetime service.
Carter’s success in business and in acquiring land, together with his political prominence, made him an increasingly attractive marriage partner in a society in whichwere still in short supply. He founded one of the greatest of the colonial Virginia families. Carter married Jane Glyn, perhaps before settling in Virginia. The date and place of their marriage and the time of her death are not known. They had a daughter, who married a member of the Maryland governor’s Council, and two sons. One of them died young, and the other, John Carter (d. 1690), served in the assembly during the summer of 1676. Carter married Eleanor Eltonhead Brocas, the recent widow of the Council member William Brocas, in 1655. They are not known to have had any children before her death not long thereafter. On a trip to England in 1656 Carter married Anne Carter, who soon died, also without having any recorded children. By early in the 1660s Carter had married Sarah Ludlow. They had one daughter, who died in infancy, and one son, (ca. 1664–1732), before her death. On October 24, 1668, Carter executed a marriage agreement and then or very soon afterward married Elizabeth Sherley. Their son died probably early in the 1690s.