John Carter was born in Davidson County, Tennessee, on November 6, 1814, to James Carter II and Susannah Allison (Dickey) Carter of Virginia. He was the tenth of a family of twelve children and a descendent of Capt. Thomas Carter, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and captain of a local volunteer militia. He was also a first cousin once removed from Robert Leftwich who helped in the founding of Robertson's colony in Texas. The family moved to Henry County, Tennessee, where James Carter II died on September 30, 1832.
John Calvin Carter married Parthena Alexander of Davidson County, Tennessee, on December 25, 1832, and they settled in Henry County, Tennessee. The family included five children: Thomas Alexander, Virgil James, Robert Henry, Rudolphus S., and Mary William. The marriage, which was arranged by their parents, appeared to be a loveless one. In September 1845 the family and their three slaves relocated to Texas by wagon on a 199-day journey and settled in Old Boston, Bowie County. That same month, the couple had a son, John Calvin Carter, Jr., but the child died, as did Parthena, on October 16, 1845.
Carter and his family relocated west to Clarksville, Texas. He was a successful merchant who operated a gristmill on Rock Creek and farmed on his large plantation known as Roland Place while in Clarksville. On May 26, 1846, he married Mary Ann Dinwiddie of Carroll County, Tennessee. They had two sons, named John Calvin II and Albert Burrow, while in Texas. The family is known to have owned four slaves including a thirty-six-year-old black female, eleven-year-old black female, and a fifteen-year-old black male. By 1860 Carter worked as a miller, farmer, and merchant. He owned four slaves including a forty-four-year-old mulatto male, a thirty-six-year-old black male, and a fourteen-year-old black female.
He enlisted as first lieutenant in the "Red River Dragoons" company commanded by Capt. Smith Ragsdale on June 15, 1861, in Red River County, Texas. The company formed on June 17, 1861, and on July 28, 1861, he was elected as major of the first regiment, eighth brigade of the Texas militia in command of the second battalion. The unit primarily traveled within Texas and kept order and rounded up conscripts and deserters. In 1863 Major Carter was briefly in command of Camp Cooper in Abilene. The company was reformed into Company B of the Ninth Texas Infantry. Carter then transferred to the Second Texas State Cavalry, known as Maxey's or Young's Regiment, that organized from three companies in late 1863 for a six-month contract by the state legislature. From 1864 to 1865 the Second State Cavalry served in Texas and Louisiana. The unit was created to assist in guarding the more vulnerable areas of Texas against Federal invasions and Indian attacks. They served in Northwestern Texas with headquarters maintained at Camp Cooper. Carter's unit, also known as Wilson's Company, had assignments that included the Northern Sub-district, District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, Trans-Mississippi Department in November of 1863, and they were attached to Townes' Cavalry Brigade, Slaughter's Division, from December 1863 to January 1864. Wilson's Company remained fairly small and was consolidated into the Texas State Cavalry Battalion in January 1864. The unit remained on duty until very near the end of the war and was released from service in March or April 1865. Carter's three oldest sons served in the Confederate Army during the war in both Texas and Tennessee.
After the war Carter had his land but no money to pay taxes since his slaves were freed. So, he sold his land in Clarksville, and the family moved to Roland Place plantation where they worked as farmers. Carter eventually sold Roland Place and moved the family to Gonzales County for a short time before returning to Red River County. They lived in the cities of Detroit and then Manchester, both in Red River County, where Mary Carter died on September 22, 1893, and John Calvin Carter died on September 1, 1896. Carter was buried with Masonic honors on a hill in a small cemetery in Manchester next to his wife.