Sometime before the year 700 A.D., Anglo-Saxons in England became the first group of people in history to recognize a person within their “shire” as a “reeve” or “chief”. A shire was a group of hundreds of people and is akin to what we recognize today as a county. The “shire-reeve” eventually became known as the sheriff and was the person responsible for maintaining law and order in the county.
When English settlers first came to America, they brought the Office of Sheriff across the Atlantic with them. While records show the first sheriffs in colonial Virginia were elected by popular vote, sheriffs were most often appointed in early America. Sheriffs were tasked with enforcing the law, collecting taxes and overseeing jails and workhouses. Perhaps the most famous early American sheriff was Augustin Washington, father of George Washington.
As America began to expand into the western territories, the Office of Sheriff, along with the concept of jails and law and order travelled with it. On the western frontier, law and order was complicated and sometimes proved difficult to implement and enforce. Because of this, it seems this period of American history is filled with some of the most famous or infamous sheriffs in history such as Pat Garrett (famous for killing Billy the Kid), Wyatt Earp (famous for the Shootout at the OK Corral) and Bat Masterson (famous sheriff in Dodge City, Kansas).
Today, there are over three thousand counties in the United States and almost all of them have a sheriff. Even some large cities have sheriffs. In the majority of states, the Office of Sheriff is established by the state constitution. Alaska is the only state where the Office of Sheriff does not exist. There are only two states in which the sheriff is not elected by the voters: Rhode Island and Hawaii.
Despite the differences in sheriffs’ offices across the country, most sheriffs in the United States retain the same basic responsibilities as they did when the office was established in America: law and order, service of civil process, court security and jail administration. Modern sheriffs are also largely responsible for the safety and security of the courts as well and are still deemed by many as the most respected and highest-ranking law enforcement officer in their community.