History of the Sheriff

History of the Sheriff 


The Beginning:
More than twelve hundred years ago, the country we now call England was inhabited by small groups of Anglo-Saxons who lived in rural communities called tuns (a group of ten families). 

The Anglo-Saxon word for chief was gerefa, which was later shortened to reeve (group of 100 families).  During the next two centuries, a number of changes occurred in there system which led to a new unit of government, the shire (groups of hundreds banded together), which is now known in America as a county.  So to distinguish the leader of a shire from the leader of a mere hundred, the more powerful official name became known as a shire-reeve.

The word shire-reeve eventually became the modern word for sheriff (the keeper, or chief, of the county).

In the year 871, under King Alfred the Great, the Sheriff was responsible for maintaining law and order within his own county.

Over the years as the country became more centralized the King distributed huge tracts of land to various nobleman who governed those lands under the King’s authority.  The nobleman appointed the Sheriff for the counties he controlled and for those areas not given to noblemen, the King appointed his own Sheriff.

In 1066, more than ever before the Sheriff became the agent of the King and his new duties was that of tax collector.  This traces back to England before the Norman Conquest.  During the reign of William the conqueror, the Sheriff had almost unlimited power.  He was virtual ruler of the county, responsible for its revenues, military force, police, jails, courts and the execution of its writs.  The importance of the office resulted not only from the scope of the Sheriff’s duties, but from his direct relationship to the central government.  The Crown appointed English sheriffs.

In 1215, King John signed the Magna Carta.  In the text of the Magna Carta it mentioned the role of the Sheriff nine times further establishing the importance of the office.

Over the next few centuries, the Sheriff remained the leading law enforcement officer for the county. 


The Sheriff Crosses the Atlantic

When English settlers came to the new world, the office of Sheriff traveled with them.

The first American counties were established in Virgina in 1634 and one of these counties elected a Sheriff in 1651.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, American Sheriffs were assigned a broad range of responsibilities by colonial and state legislature, such responsibilities as tax collection and law enforcement were carried over from England.  Some new responsibilities were added such as overseeing the jails and workhouses.

As America began to move Westward, they took the concept of county jails and the Office of Sheriff with them.  The sheriff was desperately needed to establish order in lawless territories where power belonged to those with the fastest draw and the most accurate shot.  Here it is said that sheriff fell into two categories, the quick and the dead.

Famous American Sheriffs:

Sheriff Buford Pusser — McNairy County, Tennessee portrayed in Walking Tall, and in a suite of songs on Drive-By Truckers' 2004 album, The Dirty South.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio — Maricopa County, Arizona, famous for his stance on criminal justice.

Sheriff Pat Garrett — Lincoln County, New Mexico, famous for killing Billy the Kid.

Sheriff Bat Masterson — Ford County, Kansas

Sheriff Sherman Block — Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, highest paid government administrator in the United States.

Sheriff Dave Reichert — King County, Washington, tracked the Green River killer; elected to Congress in 2004.

Sheriff Gerald Hege — Davidson County, North Carolina, famous for his "no-deals" behavior and highly unorthodox way of fighting crime.

Sheriff Grover Cleveland — Erie County, New York, the only sheriff ever to be elected President of the United States; in his case, he was elected to that office twice in non-consecutive terms.

Sheriff Seth Bullock - Of Deadwood fame.


The Sheriff Today:

There are over three thousand counties in the United States today and almost every one of them has a Sheriff.

In the majority of the states, the office of sheriff is established by the constitution.  Most of the remaining states were established by an act of state legislature. 

There are two states in which the Sheriff is not elected by the voters.  In Rhode Island they are appointed by the Governor and in Hawaii deputy sheriffs serve the Department of Public Safety’s Sheriff’s Division.

Law Enforcement:

Most Sheriffs’ offices have a responsibility for law enforcement, although the authority of the Sheriff varies from state to state, the Sheriff has the power to make arrests within his or her own county.  Some states extend this authority to adjacent counties or the entire state.  Many sheriffs’ offices perform routine patrol functions such as traffic control, accident investigations, transport of prisoners, criminal investigations and some even have specialized activities.

Court Duties:

Sheriffs are responsible for maintaining the safety and security of the court, take charge of juries when outside of the courtroom, service of court papers such as subpoenas, summons, warrants and civil process and prisoner extradition.

Jail Administration:

In some states the Sheriff is responsible for the operations of the county jail.

Tax Collection:

The sheriff is also responsible for collection of property taxes.  Which is the same function that they served under the Kings in England?



The Kentucky Sheriff


In the South, where the county system was strong, the office of Sheriff was more important than in those areas where local government centered in towns or townships. Under the first Kentucky Constitution, the office of the Sheriff was elective and the term of office was three years. Under the second Constitution the Sheriff was nominated by the county court and appointed by the governor from the courts list of nominees. The term of office was two years (KY Const. (1799), Art. III, sec. 31). In 1850, under the third Constitution, the Sheriff’s office was again made elective. The term of Office was two years (Art. VI, sec. 4).The present Constitution requires the election of a Sheriff in each county. His term is for four years (section 99). Before taking office he must execute bond as provided in KRS 70.020, 134.230 and 134.250. The bond required by KRS70.020 relates to the performance of his tax collection duties. He must also take the constitutional oath of office (Ky. Const., sec.228) and statutory oath of office.



Twenty-four years of age
 A Citizen of Kentucky
 A resident of the Commonwealth for two years
 A resident of the county in which he is elected one
    year prior of election.


Before Taking Office:

Execute a bond and take constitutional oath of office


Term of office:
 Four Years, may be re-elected