History of the County Sheriff's Office

The Office of the Sheriff is over 1000 years old and has a long and interesting history. Nearly as far back as the beginning of English and Scottish Law, the Office was the center of local administration of justice.

The word "Sheriff" itself came about in an unusual manner. Originally the word "Reeve" meant an administrative official who had the general duties of a steward, or overseer or bailiff. His authority extended over various territorial area sometimes called his "Bailiwick" His title was often used in combination to indicate his jurisdiction. The Reeve of a Borough was called a Borough-Reeve, The Reeve of a Church, a Church-Reeve, and the Reeve of a Shire, the Shire- Reeve.

The Shire was a territorial division roughly equivalent to a county. Eventually, a Shire-Reeve was shortened to Sheriff, and the word survives to this day. The Sheriff's principal function in the earliest days seems to have been to protect the interests of both the King and people against the powerful barons. He executed the King's Writs and presided in the county court and the hundred court.

The Posse Comitatus is the entire body of people who may be summoned by the Sheriff to assist in preserving the public peace or in executing any legal precept which is forcibly opposed. The term is still in use today, although almost invariably the comitatus is dropped, and we speak of the posse, or the Sheriff's Posse. Presiding at the courts and holding the power to call out the posse comitatus gave the Sheriff more power than any other official in the County.

In the early days the office was elective, but eventually the power to appoint Sheriff's was invested in the Crown. In certain sections powerful land owners became allied with the Sheriff, and they attempted to make the Office hereditary.

At that period the Office was on a par with that of a member of Parliament, with the Sheriff being a Lord and holding a title. For a time the duties of the Sheriff included the collection of taxes within his Shire. The Sheriff also accompanied the judges of the assizes when they held court. Assizes are periodical sessions of the Superior Courts in the the Counties of England, held for the purposes of administering justice in trials. The Office of the Sheriff was to this country by the Pilgrims.

The Sheriff's responsibilities in the colonies were basically that of collecting taxes and overseeing local elections as the representative of the Governor. Before the Revolutionary War, Sheriff's were appointed by the Governor and held office at his pleasure. The State Constitution, adopted July 2, 1776, provided for the annual elections of Sheriff's and Coroners, who were ineligible for reelection after three terms. These were the only county officials elected by the people.

In the latter part of the 19th Center, the Constitution was amended and Sheriff's were elected for Three-Year terms.