The History of the
Office of Sheriff
The Office of Sheriff is one of antiquity. As the oldest law enforcement office known within the common-law system, it has always been accorded great dignity and high trust. For the most part, the Office of Sheriff evolved of necessity; were it not for laws which require enforcing, there would have been no necessity for the Sheriff. There would have been no need for the development of police administration, criminology, or criminalists. Man learned quite early that all is not orderly in the universe. All times and all places have generated those who covet the property of their neighbors and who are willing to expropriate this property by any means. As such, man's quest for equity and order gave birth to the Office of Sheriff, the history of which begins in the Old Testament and continues through the annals of Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, there is no honorable law enforcement authority in Anglo-American law so ancient as that of the County Sheriff. Today, the County Sheriff is a peace officer entrusted with the maintenance of law and order and the preservation of domestic tranquility.
Sheriffs have served and protected the English-speaking peoples for a thousand years. The Office of Sheriff and the law enforcement, judicial and correctional functions the Sheriff performs are more than 1,000 years old, dating back at least to the reign of Alfred the Great of England. Some scholars even argue that the Office of Sheriff was first created during the Roman occupation of England.
Around 500 AD, Germanic tribes from Europe (called the Anglo-Saxons) began an invasion of Celtic England which over the centuries eventually led to the consolidation of Anglo-Saxon England as a unified kingdom under Alfred the Great late in the 9th Century. Alfred divided England into geographic units called "shires" or counties.
In 1066, William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxons and instituted his own Norman government in England. Under both the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, the King of England appointed a representative called a "reeve" to act on behalf of the king in each shire. The "shire-reeve" became the "Sheriff" as the English language changed over the years. The "shire-reeve" was the chief law enforcement officer of each shire in the year 1000 AD. The modern Sheriff maintains the same function in 21st century America.
The concepts of "county" and "Sheriff" were essentially the same as they had been during the previous 900 years of English legal history. Because of the English heritage of the American colonies, the new United States adopted the English law and legal systems.
The Sheriff is the only viable officer remaining of the ancient offices, and the Sheriff's contemporary responsibility as conservator of the peace has been influenced greatly by modern society. As the crossbow gave way to the primitive flintlock, the Sheriff is not unaccustomed to change. But now, perhaps more than ever before in history, law enforcement is faced with complex and rapid changes in methodology, technology, and social attitudes. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his THE VALUE OF CONSTITUTIONS, "the Office of Sheriff is the most important of all the executive offices of the county."