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History of the Office of Sheriff
January 4, 2001
The Sheriff's Office in History

The history of the Office of Sheriff is really a history of self-government. While some historians maintain that the Office of Sheriff derives from either the Roman proconsul, or the Arab Sharif (nobleman), it is generally accepted that the Office goes back historically to Anglo-Saxon England, (A.D. 500-1066).

According to Anglo-Saxon custom, if someone broke the law it was not just a crime against the victim, but a crime against the whole community. The Anglo-Saxon kings expected their subjects to keep good order, which they called "keeping the peace." A crime was an act against the peace and some of the more serious crimes were said to be "against the King's Peace." Eventually, the idea grew that all crimes were against the King's Peace.

Under Anglo-Saxon rule it was the duty of the citizens themselves to see that the law was not broken, and if it was, to catch the offenders. All the males in the community between the ages of 12 and 60 were responsible for this duty. They were organized in groups of about ten families, and each group was called a "tything": At their head was a "tythingman." Each member of the tything was held responsible for the good behavior of the others. Ten tythings were led by a "reeve."

If one member committed a crime, the others had to catch him and bring him before the court, or the "moot" as the Saxons called it. If they failed to do so they were all punished, usually by paying a fine. If anyone saw a crime he raised a "hue and cry" and all men had to join in the chase to catch the criminal and bring him before the court.

Under Alfred the Great, (A.D. 871-901), reeves began to be combined, forming "shires" or counties. Each shire was led by a reeve. For minor offenses, people accused of crimes were brought before the local "folk moot." More serious cases went to the "Shire Court," which came under the "shire reeve" (meaning "keeper and chief of his county"), who came to be known as the Sheriff. After the Normans conquered England in A.D. 1066, they adopted many Anglo-Saxon law keeping methods, including the system of tythings, the use of the hue and cry, and the Sheriff's courts.

In A.D. 1085, King William ordered a compilation of all taxable property in a census, and decreed that the Sheriff was to be the official tax collector of the king. In A.D. 1116, King Henry I established a new penal code. While the Crown reserved to itself the power to punish for violations of the penal code, it delegated to the sheriff the power to investigate and arrest. Through the next century, as the power of the King increased, so did the power of the Sheriff. During the Westminster Period, (1275-1500), the offices of "bailiff" and "sergeant" were created to supplement the Sheriff. However, county government remained in the hands of the Sheriff.

By the year 1300, the Sheriff was the executive and administrative leader of the county. In addition to being the tax collector for the King, the Sheriff was head of the local military and was charged with assuring that the peace was maintained. The Sheriff presided over the prisoners and the court, and his authority was unparalleled by any other county official.

When settlers left England to colonize the New World, they took with them many of their governmental forms. When the first counties were established in Virginia in 1634, the Office of Sheriff in America began. Maryland soon followed this pattern, and in both states the Sheriff was delegated the same powers as the Sheriff held in England. As in England, respect for the Sheriff was strictly enforced by the law. A special seat was often reserved for the Sheriff in churches. Contempt against the Sheriff was an offense punishable by whipping. At this time, Sheriffs were responsible for both enforcing and punishing offenders.

By the time of the American Revolution, all of the colonies had Sheriffs. When the American frontier began to move westward, so did the Sheriff. The 19th Century was the golden age of the American Sheriff, with characters like Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and Texas John Slaughter becoming a colorful part of American history.

Today, the Office of Sheriff is found in every state in the Union.