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.
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 Sheriff’s 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 over seeing 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.