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Sheriffs Office History Detail

The Office of Sheriff is one of antiquity. It is the oldest law enforcement office known within an organized civilization. For the most part, the Office of Sheriff evolved out of necessity.


One of the earliest mentions of the Sheriff was in the King James Version of the Holy Bible, found in Daniel 3:2-3. Here, the Sheriffs were supervisors for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. This reference, five thousand years ago was an office, which continued throughout history.


Our English roots of the office of Sheriff began in 1066 AD after the Norman conquest, when King Alfred the Great divided England into shires. The King appointed “Rieves” or overseers, to manage the Shires on his behalf. During the next two centuries, the system of administration and the shire was the forerunner of what later became a modern day county. Thus, the “keeper of the shire” a “Rieve”(chief law enforcer) became known as the “Shire Rieve”. Eventually the title was shortened to Sheriff. At the same time the “Constable” acted as the Sheriff’s deputy and keeper of the Sheriff’s horse stables. This position, in due course, became part of the law enforcement rank.


During those early days Shirieves were called upon to maintain public order in the shires. While it may not be fully clear what all the functions of the Sheriffs were, it is evident they were vested with the power of 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 entire government, constitutional, economical, judicial and administrative development depended upon the Office of the High Sheriff.


The longest continuous service to the Crown is the Office of High Sheriff. The Sheriff was Chancellor, Home Secretary, Secretary of State Defense and Minister of Agriculture. The Sheriff supervised and controlled the sovereignty for the King. In the early days, Sheriffs had significant authority in the administration of law and order in the shires.

Permanent armies were not established in Europe until the 19th century. Before this, if an army was needed to defend the country from invasion, it was gathered from among the general public. Assembling this army in times of war was a responsibility of the Sheriffs of England. In Halsbury’s Laws of England, one of earliest collections stated, “the Sheriff was a conservator of the King’s peace. It is the duty of the Sheriff to defend his Country against invasion by the King’s enemies…”


A perpetual police service did not exist in England until the mid-19th century. As a result the Sheriff was charged with “…all authority to suppress unlawful assembly, and riot, to apprehend offenders, to pursue and arrest felons and for that purpose may raise hue and cry.” Halsbury’s Law also directed each citizen as being”… legally bound in a County to be ready at the command of the Sheriff and at the cry of the County to arrest a felon.” The practice of a Sheriff deputizing citizens to apprehend criminals was carried over to the colonies and remains today in the title of Sheriff’s employees, Deputies, who serve as an extension of the Sheriff himself.


One of the first acts decided on by the pilgrims on arrival at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts in 1633 was formation of a Sheriff/Constable for the settlement. Thus into colonial days the Sheriff was a formidable figure as hamlets and communities sprang up in the New World. As colonial governments formed, the Sheriff became an officer of the court, collector of public taxes and private levies, keeper of prisons and public hangman. As chief arresting officer they were required to “… lay hands upon the accused, use all and sundry force to open all doors and commandeer any person, any entity or enactment to accomplish his commission.”


As the thirteen colonies became the United States, so did its people fashion the Office of Sheriff to reflect the new government’s design. North Carolina in 1776 was one of many states, which established in their state constitution the position of Sheriff.


A person is now elected by citizens instead of receiving appointment by a King or Governor. In 100 counties of North Carolina, each Sheriff is elected to a four year term. As duties vary from state to state, the Sheriff’s Office is active in all three branches of the criminal justice system: law enforcement, courts and corrections.


Since before the revolutionary war, the office of Sheriff has been held in high esteem in the American public. George Washington’s father was an early Sheriff in colonial Virginia. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his constitutional assessments, “The office of Sheriff is the most important of all executive offices of the country.”


In 1870 Grover Cleveland was elected Sheriff of Erie County, New York. He campaigned on a platform of eliminating corruption in county government. On assuming the office he revamped its operation. In one instance, the Sheriff discovered the miller supplying flour for the jail was providing the poorest quality and insect infested flour at top quality prices. Sheriff Cleveland threw the flour out and threatened to arrest the miller for defrauding the county. The Sheriff directed the staff not to cheat in quality or quantity the food furnished the prisoners.


Of the many duties of Sheriff Cleveland, one that he did not delegate was the public hanging of convicted criminals. In 1872 Sheriff Cleveland on two specific occasions publicly executed men convicted of murder. By 1881 he had been elected Mayor and later Governor of New York. The year 1885 saw Cleveland become the 22nd president of the United States, and by 1893 he was inaugurated as the 24th president. Cleveland was the only man in history to serve two separate terms in the presidency.


Although the American Sheriff may not have the same responsibilities as did the early King appointed Shirieves, he still holds the position of the People’s Chief Law Enforcement Officer in the county. The Sheriff’s duties have well expanded beyond peace keeper or enforcer of the orders of the court. A modern day Sheriff has numerous tasks and responsibilities.


Orange County was formed in 1752. It is named for the land grant holder William of Orange V of England. In its initial composition consisted of what we now know as Orange, Alamance, Durham, Chatham, Caswell and Person counties. The eastern section of the county was what later became Rockingham, Guilford, Randolph and portions of Lee and Wake counties. Likewise, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office was established as one of the first acts of 1752. Given the size, it is little surprise Hillsborough was the state capitol for years. Because of its central location, Orange County found itself to be a massive political landmark. With the climate, healthful forests and water, many landowners set homestead along the Flat, Haw, Eno and Little rivers of Orange County.


Hillsborough was located on the Trading Path of Indians and frontiersmen working their way west. As the beginning of the Revolutionary war approached, Hillsborough developed into a pivotal location in the state of North Carolina and the southeast. In April 1778, as tensions grew among locals over a British influence tempers exploded. Citizens angrily defied the Sheriff of Orange County and fired bullets into the home of the county registrar. Soon after the War of the Regulators erupted and concluded with the Battle of Alamance. Regulators considered enemies of the state were returned to Hillsborough and after a brief trial, were hanged by the Sheriff off St. Mary’s Road.

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