Clara McCarty's mother, Ruth Kincaid, arrived in Washington by wagon through Naches Pass and settled with her family in Sumner. She was 17 and acted as mother to her younger siblings. It is not known when her mother died. Clara's father, Jonathan C. McCarty, arrived in the West in 1854. Ruth and Jonathan were married in 1855. In 1858 they fled to Fort Steilacoom during an Indian disturbance, and Clara McCarty was born at Fort Steilacoom.
She grew up on the family farm near the Stuck River until the age of 12. At that time the family moved to Seattle so that the children could get a good education. Jonathan McCarty became a shopkeeper.
After three years of preparatory work, Clara McCarty entered the Territorial University. She began in a class of 17 students, but she was the only one to finish. She received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Washington in June 1876. In later years she told a reporter:
"The tuition was $30 a year and books were shipped from around the Horn from the east. Even in the '70s about 20 students a year worked their way through. Typewriters and fountain pens were unknown and even notebooks and pen and ink were scarce. Nearly all writing was done with pencil on foolscap paper" (Ryan).
Historian Clarence Bagley lists a Miss McCarty as one of two teachers at South School in September 1876. The South school was one of the three public schools in Seattle. This was undoubtedly Clara McCarty.
McCarty then went to Oakland, California, and did post-graduate work at the University of California. She later taught in the Puyallup Valley and in Tacoma. In 1880 she was elected superintendent of schools in Pierce County, the first woman elected to public office in the county. She supervised the schools in Tacoma, Orting, Sumner, and Puyallup.
In 1880 McCarty married John H. Wilt (ca. 1852-1907). They had one daughter, Clara May. After her husband's death McCarty continued to be active in civic life. She served as YMCA secretary and was active in church and historical society work.
A University of Washington student dormitory, McCarty Hall, is named after her.