Carhart, John Wesley (1834–1914)

By: H. Allen Anderson

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: December 1, 1994

John Wesley Carhart, minister, physician, inventor, and writer, son of Daniel Sutton and Margaret (Martin) Carhart, was born on June 26, 1834, near Couymans, Albany County, New York. As a boy he possessed an inventive nature and once floated his own homemade miniature steam yacht on the Hudson River. He was ordained a Methodist minister at seventeen and received his D.D. degree from Union Seminary in Charlottesville, New York, in 1861. He was pastoring at Richmond, New York, when he met and married Theresa A. Mumford. They became the parents of eight children, one of whom died in infancy. Carhart pastored churches in Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York and published two books of poems, Sunny Hours (1859) and Poets and Poetry of the Hebrews (1865). In Troy he perfected an oscillating valve for steam engines, which he patented and for which he was paid several thousand dollars. In 1871 he was transferred to a pastorate in Racine, Wisconsin. There he invented a buggy powered by a two-cylinder steam engine called the Spark. Aided by his uncle, former Michigan State University professor H. S. Carhart, and financed by George W. Slausen, a wealthy lumberman, Carhart's Spark proved successful. However, he was pressured by townspeople to dismantle the machine after it caused the death of a valuable horse that had been frightened by the noise. Nevertheless, Carhart's invention was recognized years later by the American Manufacturers' Association as a forerunner of the automobile.

He subsequently used his plant to supply power for a job printer. After his move to a new pastorate at Oshkosh in 1874, the Carhart children began publishing a weekly newsletter, the Early Dawn, from a print shop set up in the church basement. This press printed the first issue of the Clarendon News from the proofs sent by Carhart's cousin, Lewis H. Carhart, who had founded the Clarendon colony in Texas in 1878. The success of that issue prompted Lewis to send for John Wesley's son, Edward Elmer Carhart, to come and set up the settlement's first local press. In 1880 Carhart resigned from the ministry after some dissensions with members of his conference. Believing his life's work at an end, he published an autobiography, Four Years on Wheels (1880). Subsequently, his earlier interest in medicine was renewed, and while pastoring in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he studied for a semester at Berkshire Medical College. He received an M.D. Degree in 1883 with the first graduating class of the Chicago College of Physicians and practiced for a short time in Oshkosh.

In 1885 Carhart and the rest of his family followed Ed to Texas. They stayed briefly in Clarendon before moving to Lampasas. There Carhart started a weekly newspaper, the Lampasas Teacher, and also wrote a serial, "The Sign Rider," for the other Lampasas paper, the Leader. He then turned full-time to medicine and established himself in Lampasas and later in La Grange, Austin, and San Antonio as an outstanding skin and nerve specialist. He became a spokesman for better public sanitation practices. In 1893 he served as one of ten assistant secretaries general of the first Pan American Medical Congress in Washington, D.C.

Carhart continued turning out newspaper stories and professional medical articles. His novel Norma Trist, published in 1895, was one of the earliest fictional treatments of homosexuality. The book was highly moralistic in tone, but critics as well as the reading public were horrified by such a work, and the author was arrested for "sending obscene literature through the mails." The case against him was later dismissed. In 1899 Carhart published his last work, Under Palmetto and Pine, a sensitive treatment of African Americans in Texas and their struggles against poverty and racial discrimination. He was recognized as the "father of the automobile" by the magazine the Horseless Age in 1903. Two years later he went to Paris as a guest of the French government at the International Automobile Exposition. There he received a cash award and certificate of honor for his pioneer invention. Carhart died at San Antonio on December 21, 1914, and was buried in Austin.

Violet M. Baird, "John Wesley Carhart," Texana 9 (Spring 1971). Willie Newbury Lewis, Between Sun and Sod (Clarendon, Texas: Clarendon Press, 1938; rev. ed., College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976). Jo Stewart Randel, ed., A Time to Purpose: A Chronicle of Carson County (4 vols., Hereford, Texas: Pioneer, 1966–72).
  • Health and Medicine
  • Physicians and Surgeons
  • General Practitioners
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Dramatists and Novelists
  • Fiction
  • Poets
  • Religion
  • Methodist

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

H. Allen Anderson, “Carhart, John Wesley,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 23, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1994

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