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The Origin of The Office of Sheriff

When anyone mentions the word Sheriff, the first thing that comes to his or her mind is the western frontier “ Sheriff “ who was crucial in settling our western frontier. People are somewhat amazed as they learn that the history of the Office of High Sheriff reaches far back into the Middle Ages for well over a thousand years.

The Office of High Sheriff began some 1300 years ago, in the country that we now know as England. This Office continues today as it has for over a Millennium, and precedes that of the Chancellor ship as the oldest secular office under the Crown. The Office of Sheriff in England continues today as an appointed Office.

Nominations for High Sheriffs of Counties in England and Wales are made each year in a Meeting of the Lords of the Council of the High Court of Justice presided over by The Lord Chief Justice on November 12. Subsequently, the final selection is made in March by the Sovereign Privy Council, when the ‘picking’ of each name is perpetuated.

The Warrant of Appointment is received by the new Sheriff from the Clerk of the Privy Council, and since 1319 has been for one year. The High Sheriff takes up the appointment upon making a sworn declaration usually before a Judge of Her Majesty’s High Court of Justice.

The Office of High Sheriff has the longest continuous service and most ancient office known to the Realm and the Crown. The High Sheriff was Chancellor, Home secretary, Secretary of State for Defense, and Minister of Agriculture. There were no police, no judges, not even magistrates, no Inland Revenue, no customs and excise. The High Sheriff supervised everything on behalf of the King.

In the early days of England families grouped together and were called Tuns (now known to us as towns). During the next two centuries, changes were made to this existing system and “tuns” became “shires”. The term “shire” is the forerunner of what we now know in our modern day as a “county”. Just as the tuns, there is no single date for the beginning of the first Sheriff. He evolved over a period, as the kingdom was "shired" into units by the King.

As time evolved, the “shires” were given a keeper of the “shires” and were known as “Shireeves”. Years later the term “Shireeves” evolved into what we now today know as “Sheriff”.

The King James Version of the Holy Bible first mentions Sheriffs in the book of Daniel 3:2-3. Deputies are mentioned again in the New Testament. At that time, the Sheriffs were called on to put down a public riot. While it may not be clear what all the functions of the Sheriff were, it is evident that the Sheriffs were respected men, who had vested power from the King and authority to keep the peace.

In the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, the role and importance of the Sheriffs became more obvious. The whole constitutional, economical, judicial and administrative development was dependent on the office of the High Sheriff.

There are many thousands of sheriffs in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India who owe their origins to King Alfred and Canute.

The history of our American Sheriff began in 1634 when the settlements of Virginia were established to allow for the replacement of the military regime by a civil government. The scattered settlements and plantations had been formed into shires as in the English pattern, and the most important aspect of the American Sheriff's office was his responsibility for keeping the peace. Today the sheriff is firmly entrenched in the constitution of the various states.

The American Sheriff, however, is an elected office of the people and functions much differently from the Sheriff who was appointed by the King. As you would expect, the American Settlers desired a Sheriff who served at their pleasure and not at the King's pleasure. That is why the Sheriff today is an elected office of the people.

The Office of Sheriff has been an integral part of government in North Carolina from the beginning in one form or another. Probably no other officer in the colony exercised such complete and absolute executive and administrative powers as the Sheriff did. He was not only the executive officer of the county court; he was also the representative of the crown in the county as the English Sheriff was in England.

In North Carolina in 1776 the constitution was written and provided that each county in North Carolina would have a Sheriff. Our constitution in 1776 established this office as an elected position. Sheriffs are elected for to serve a 4-year term. The Sheriff of each county serves as the chief law enforcement officer in that county. Even though the duties of the sheriff vary from state to state, all offices have mainly the same duties.

The Sheriff's Office is generally active in all three branches of the criminal justice system: law enforcement, courts, and corrections.

Although the American Sheriff may not have the same responsibilities, as did the early King appointed Sheriff, he or she still holds the People’s Chief Law Enforcement Office in the County, which is elected. His or her duties are more than just Law Enforcement (Peace Keeper) or to enforce orders of the court. The modern day Sheriff’s responsibilities have expanded beyond the original duties brought forth by the crown. These include but are certainly not limited to: Civil Process Service, Court Duties, Detention Services, Crime Prevention, Education Initiatives, Violent Crime Investigations, Search & Rescue Functions, Community Policing, Traffic Enforcement and Drug Investigations.