The term shire reeve appears in documents in England in the early 11th century. When William the Conqueror conquered England in 1066, he kept most of the Anglo-Saxon sheriffs. When William abolished the great Anglo-Saxon Earldoms, the sheriff became the immediate representative of the king in the county. His appointment was typically for one year. He held court where he punished minor offenders. Later, his powers were reduced to arresting and imprisoning criminals.
When the American colonies began to grow, Britain established political control. As each colony established counties, a sheriff was appointed to keep law and order. He was also an officer of the British court. The sheriff had different titles in different colonies. In Rhode Island he was called a general sergeant. In Connecticut and Massachusetts the title was Marshal. In Plymouth Colony he was called a messenger. In the later colonial period, sheriffs were appointed by the colonial governor. They collected taxes, testified in court and served subpoenas. Because they were paid per task, and tax collecting paid the most, enforcing the law became a lower priority.
After the American Revolutionary War sheriffs were elected by the people.
17th and 18th century America
In the American west, the Spanish were colonizing what would become Texas, California. The equivalent of the sheriff was called an
Alguacil (sheriff/constable). As Americans moved west, they often started new communities. A sheriff was usually the only available law enforcement. Sheriffs had the power of
posse comitatus. That means a sheriff had the power to deputize anyone to help him keep the peace or go after and arrest criminals. A group of temporary deputies under the authority of a sheriff is called a posse. As America grew the posse was used less and less.[a] Sheriffs are still the main law enforcement in