By Schenectady Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi© 1998. The History of the Office of Sheriff was published and copyrighted in 1998 by Schenectady County Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi.
The government that took hold in the American colonies was in many respects an adaptive form of English government. . . . The first [such] form of law enforcement on the continent was not the sheriff but provost marshals and marshals who operated under a central authority for military matters from 1625 to 1627.
In 1634, Virginia was divided by statute into eight shires, or counties . . . Along with the shire form of government came the administrative position of sheriff. William Stone became the first sworn sheriff in America when he was appointed the sheriff in the County of Accomac. The first sheriffs and other county officials in Virginia were selected from exclusive groups of large land holders within the counties. They were typically the most influential men and were able to hold more than one county office capacity at a time. William Stone served two consecutive terms in 1634 and 1635 and also served as a county commissioner during most of this interval. In 1648, after a distinguished multiple career in local government, Stone moved to Maryland where he was appointed governor by Lord Baltimore.
A Virginia proclamation of March 13, 1651 required each county to choose a sheriff. In an interesting departure from the previous appointment process, which would prove to be prophetic in future years, the commissioners of Northampton County Virginia asked its inhabitants to elect its sheriff. William Waters became the first elected sheriff in America. The Northampton County record of 1651 reads:
"That this day Leift. Wm. Waters a gent. Accordige to the Instruccons directed to ye Comissions & Inhabitants of this County By Pluralitye of voyces was nominated & made choyce of to be high sherr of Northampton Counties from this present daye dureinge ye accustomed tyme"
In 1640, there were ten counties in Virginia. By 1664, that number had grown dramatically to nineteen counties. A similar increase occurred in Maryland. As the distance between the settlers and provincial capitals expanded the more the demand increased to have decisions made on a local level. As the populations grew and spread out, it became increasingly difficult for the governor to handle issues. The county courts embraced duties affecting the entire local government. Wills were probated with a county clerk, tavern keepers filed for licenses with county commissioners, and all official documents were filed at the county level. These were all things that were formerly done at the provincial capital.
The sheriff of the county became the ranking police and financial officer. He served warrants, made arrests, and most notably, he collected taxes. By 1676, Virginia was under full authority of England's sovereignty and laws were enacted to establish that England's benefits be extracted, in the form of taxes, from Virginia's county residents. The governor's justices levied annual taxes and framed local ordinances to establish the collection of taxes. Rules were revised to assist in this process, and the newly commissioned sheriff's first and foremost duties were to collect taxes on behalf of the Crown.
Along with the American introduction of the office of sheriff came the position of the sheriff's second in command, the "under-sheriff". This position was designed to augment the sheriff, which was becoming evermore multifarious. The under-sheriff was authorized to act on behalf of, or in place of the sheriff with regard to enforcement issues within the county. By his contract with the sheriff, the under-sheriff was bound to attend every county court session to receive directions from the tribunal. He would then report back to the sheriff the accounts and commands of the court. Further, he was responsible to effect the sheriff's arrests, attachments, executions (the seizing of property), and all other concerns involving the office of the sheriff. In consideration of all the services required by the sheriff, the under-sheriff was to have all his expenses paid and he was to receive one-half of the fees that he obtained from writs and bonds that he executed. William Stone, the colony's first sheriff, agreed to pay his under-sheriff one-half of all the fees he collected but in turn he required his under-sheriff to remit one-third of that to his deputy.
Before 1660, the sheriff, the under-sheriff, and the deputy sheriffs performed all functions of the office in a similar manner. As counties became more complex and the business before the courts increased, new appointees of the sheriff appeared. In 1664, a position of court crier was established by the sheriff as a separate position within his scope of authority in Northampton County. In 1679, the sheriff of Middlesex appointed a jailer to operate the county prison. While both of these positions were officials appointed directly by the sheriff, they were paid for by separate tax levies from their respective counties.
County government in Maryland was similar in most respects to that in Virginia. In 1676, Maryland established local control of government in its province. . . .In Maryland, as in Virginia, the county sheriff was the officer of enforcement and the collector of taxes, as directed by the courts. Many of the English institutions found in Maryland were so similar to that of Virginia that they appeared to be a direct copy.
Maryland sheriffs were required to be property owners just like the Virginia prototype. Similarly, larger land owners were the political elite. . . . While the sheriff could hold other county office, he could not sit in the Assembly while holding any other county position. Numerous complaints against sheriffs for various abuses within office was cause for Assembly reform legislation in 1678. The legislation limited the sheriff to a single one year term unless a certificate from county court could be obtained that attested to the "honest and efficient execution of office during the preceding year."
The sheriff in the colonies was responsible through the county courts to carry out orders of corporal punishment against offenders. He was responsible for building and maintaining common devices of the day that created or assisted with the mechanics needed for such punishment. Objects like stocks, pillories, whipping posts, and ducking stools were all common apparatus used by the sheriff to inflict pain and humiliation as prescribed by the courts. . . .
The fiscal duties of the sheriff were considerably more important in the American colonies than they were during the same period in England. In the colony of Virginia the sheriff was responsible for not just the royal revenues but more importantly the most productive of the colonial receipts, that being the poll taxes. A Virginia Act of 1661 and 1662 provided for a systematic census taking by dividing the counties up into precincts. This allowed for a more exact count of assessable persons, thereby, allowing the sheriff to be more methodical in extracting the tithable assets from the community. Three levies: the public, the county, and the parish were collected by the sheriffs. In many counties the sheriff was authorized to keep ten percent of the taxes he collected as his personal poundage. In York County, its sheriff was rewarded 3159 pounds of tobacco for his cut in the collection of tax for the year 1658. The large commission received for collecting three poll taxes made the office of the sheriff a very desirable position.
The role of sheriff in Maryland was slightly different than that of the Virginia sheriff. Here the sheriff was also responsible for the collection of poll taxes but for only a few years, when the duties were transferred to a county commissioner. When he did collect these taxes, the sheriff did not officially receive a percentage of the tax. He was however, allowed to receive a percentage of the debt he collected on behalf of creditors. The sheriff in Maryland was also allowed to collect fees from prisoners in his custody. In addition to this, the Maryland sheriff was permitted a ten percent commission for collecting the Proprietor's Rent, revenues, and fines on properties held by landowners and leased to persons working the land.