The wild “wild west” is actually responsible for producing our modem legendary figure of The Sheriff. In reality though, he was a person of real stature, long before the days of Tombstone, Arizona.
Some educators contend that the word sheriff is actually derived from the Arabic word sharif, meaning illustrious or noble. We are sure, however, that the concept of sheriff, as we know it, began in early England with the constable. The constable was responsible for keeping law and order for a group of one hundred people. The hundreds were eventually grouped to form a “shire” - a geographical area equivalent to a county, and the citizens of each shire were pledged to maintain law and order within boundaries.
In the 10th century, the Anglo-Saxon shire was controlled by an ealdorman, who presided in its court jointly with the bishop and the king’s reeve.
By the 19th century, the ealdorman had become responsible for a whole province rather than just a single shire, and the separation of the ecclesiastical from the secular courts under William 1st left the new shire-reeve preeminent in the county and president of its court.
Thus, a shire-reeve, the ancestral term for thousands of sheriffs to come, was appointed by the Crown to supervise each county. The constable’s authority remained limited to the one hundred in his geographical area, but the shire-reeve became responsible to the local noblemen to insure that law and order were enforced effectively throughout that county. Accordingly, in time, the coroner, constable, and justice of the peace all took their duties from the “sheriff”.
Soon afterward, the sheriff expanded his responsibilities to take part in the pursuit and apprehension of lawbreakers (and to become liable for their safe keeping once caught), to attend on the judges at assizes and election petitions, to prepare panels of jurors, and to execute all writs.
The colonists drew upon this same effective law enforcement structure in their rural America as early as 1634 when Virginia Colony established its counties. There also, the constable was responsible for law and order in towns, and the sheriff took charge of enforcing order in the counties.
Virginia Governor, Thomas Jefferson (1779-1781) principle author of the Declaration of Independence who later became the third president of the United States (1801-1809), called the office of sheriff, “The most important of all the executive offices.”