Carter was born around 1664 probably at Corotoman, his father’s Lancaster County estate on the Rappahannock River. He was the son of John Carter (ca. 1613–1670) and the fourth of his five wives, Sarah Ludlow Carter. His immigrant father, a member of the governor’s Council, had prospered in Virginia, and when Carter was orphaned, his elder half brother, John Carter (ca. 1653–1690), was able to educate him as their father’s will directed by sending him to London about 1673 to live for six years with Arthur Bailey, a merchant and family friend. Carter gained a lifelong appreciation for the classics and a thorough knowledge of the English end of the Virginia trade.
After his return to Virginia, Carter most likely lived at Corotoman and enjoyed society. In 1688 he married Judith Armistead, of Gloucester County. Before her death eleven years later they had four daughters and one son, John Carter (d. 1742), for whom Carter later purchased the lucrative office of secretary of the colony. About 1701 Carter married Elizabeth Landon Willis, a wealthy widow who died in July 1719. Their five daughters and five sons included Charles Carter (ca. 1707–1764), who represented King George County in the House of Burgesses for many years, and Landon Carter, who represented Richmond County in the assembly. Carter inherited most of his half brother’s estate following the latter’s death in 1690, and he also managed his niece’s estates and about the same time inherited a younger half brother’s portion.
Carter began his public career not long after his elder half brother’s death. He became a vestryman of Christ Church Parish in November 1690 and on June 10, 1691, took his seat as a justice of the peace in Lancaster County. Other influential positions, including commander of the militia of Lancaster and Northumberland counties and naval officer of the Rappahannock River in charge of a customs office, added to his political and financial power. He represented Lancaster County in the House of Burgesses in the spring sessions of 1691 and 1692 and then continuously from 1695 through 1699. Carter quickly assumed a leading role in the assembly. In 1692 he became a member of the Committees for Elections and Privileges and for Examination of Propositions and Grievances, and in 1695 he may have been nominated for Speaker. During that session he chaired the Committee for Propositions and Grievances and presided over the committee of the whole; and in May the assembly appointed him to the committee to revise the laws of the colony. When the assembly convened on September 25, 1696, Carter defeated four other aspirants to win election as Speaker. He presided over the House of Burgesses during that session and the assembly session of October 1697. When the House met next, on September 29, 1698, Carter was almost certainly one of the five candidates for Speaker but was not reelected. The following year the House of Burgesses appointed him treasurer of the colony, with responsibility for the money raised by taxes that the assembly levied and expended under its authority. Carter remained treasurer until 1705.
On December 14, 1699, the Privy Council approved Governor Francis Nicholson’s recommendation that Carter be appointed to the governor’s Council. Carter took the oaths of office on July 10, 1700, and served on the Council until his death. He was as influential as a member of the Council as he had been in the House of Burgesses. With a majority of the councillors Carter opposed Nicholson in 1704, action that led indirectly to the governor’s dismissal; and a decade later, when Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood posed a political threat to the great planters who dominated the General Assembly, Carter joined his fellow Virginians in opposing Spotswood.
After Lieutenant Governor Hugh Drysdale died in the summer of 1726, Carter, who had succeeded the aged and ailing Edmund Jenings as the senior member of the Council, served as president (in effect, acting governor) from August 1 of that year until Lieutenant Governor William Gooch took office in Williamsburg on September 11, 1727. Carter was in poor health for much of that time but regularly presided over Council meetings in Williamsburg. He continued to attend through the adjournment of the General Assembly on July 1, 1732, five weeks before his death.
Accumulation of land was a lifelong passion for Carter. He purchased many properties and acquired others by foreclosing mortgages, but he obtained most of his vast landholdings by taking patents on unsettled lands in the Northern Neck Proprietary, the area between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers extending to their headwaters. As Virginia agent for the proprietors from about 1702 until 1711 and from 1722 until 1732, Carter used his position to have his surveyors find the best land for him to patent in his own or his children’s names. At the time of his death, Carter held at least 295,000 acres of land and many other tracts of unknown size. Slaves working under the supervision of overseers provided the labor on his plantations, and senior overseers with responsibility for several farms managed those overseers. Carter was a capable and diligent administrator. He visited his properties frequently and forcefully communicated his directions to his overseers and managers. The chief cash crop was tobacco, but he also produced beans, cattle, corn, fruits, hogs, and wheat to sustain his family, servants, and slaves and occasionally for sale. Carter also earned money from such enterprises as rental of the sloops and flatboats that he owned and for acting as an agent for slave traders. He invested his earnings shrewdly both in England and Virginia and became the richest man in the colony.
Later YearsChurch of England and late in life began construction of a splendid new brick church for Christ Church Parish. Carter’s political power, great wealth, large ambitions, and imperious bearing earned him the nickname of “King” from his contemporaries. Many of his ten children who lived to adulthood married into other wealthy and distinguished Virginia families, adding to the family’s wealth as well as to its political importance.
Suffering from poor health, Carter prepared his will in August 1726 and added four long codicils during the next four years. The final text contained more than 18,000 words and filled forty sheets of paper. Carter provided large landed estates for his sons and generous bequests for his daughters and grandchildren. So wealthy had he been that even after the legacies were paid and the estate settled, the division of his estate among his surviving sons made all of them among the wealthiest men in Virginia. Carter died at Corotoman on August 4, 1732, and was buried at Christ Church in Lancaster County.