Curly Bill Cutter and his band of outlaws rushed out of the Perseverance City Bank, pistols in hand and pouches of gold nuggets and greenbacks stuffed into their clothing. But as they raced toward their horses, a man stood in their way. He was tall and lean, with a white Stetson on his head and a thousand-yard stare in his squinty pale eyes. “Hold on there, partners,” he drawled.
Laughing derisively, Curly Bill and his compadres pointed their weapons. But the tall man moved with preternatural grace, unholstering his weapon faster than an eye could track and taking down an outlaw with each bullet. When he was done, five bodies lay still in the dust, and one bullet remained in the chamber. The tall man blew on his weapon before settling it smoothly back in its holster. Then he tipped his hat slightly at a young woman in calico. “Howdy there, ma’am. There’s a new sheriff in town.”
Okay, I may have a bit of unhealthy interest in bad westerns. But we’ve all seen this scene or one like it. Have you ever wondered where that sheriff came from? Turns out he wasn’t a product of the Wild West at all—our sheriff had his start long before that, in Merry Olde England.
Back then, counties were called shires (yes, like where the hobbits live). In an era when travel was rare and dangerous, kings had trouble keeping control of the local population. This state of affairs didn’t improve after the Norman Conquest, when the nobility might not even speak the same language as the locals. So the king would appoint a man to represent him. Depending on the time and place, this man was responsible for a number of things, including collecting taxes, keeping prisoners until the judge rode into town, and generally keeping the peace. His title was reeve. Shire reeve, to be exact. Sheriff.
Sheriffs were often corrupt and often not very popular—like Robin Hood’s nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Some of these problems were later addressed with a different royal appointee, the coroner. I’ll blog about coroners some other time.
English colonists brought the sheriff system with them to America, where it was used primarily in rural areas. (Urban areas developed a different system based more on the English constable). Since the western United States remained rural for a long time—and, in fact, much of it still is—sheriffs stuck around.
Nowadays, sheriffs are usually elected officials who hire deputies to conduct their work. Wild West sheriffs had deputies too, although often those men were volunteers and worked only for a short, specific time to round up particular bad guys. Sheriffs today provide most of the law enforcement duties in rural areas, including the running of the local jails, just as their counterparts did in England a millennium ago. They may also be charged with other duties such as serving warrants or housing the local coroners office.
An interesting thing about the policing system we inherited from the English is that is takes place mostly at the local rather than national level. I’ll blog about this later too.
Maybe it’s due to their long history, but a lot of enduring legends and archetypes are attached to sheriffs. Think Roscoe P. Coltrane from Dukes of Hazzard. Andy Taylor. Sheriff Bart from Blazing Saddles. Rick Grimes. Bat Masterson. Wyatt Earp. And our old friend, the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Incidentally, don’t get sheriffs confused with another Old West staple, the marshal. There were both town marshals and US marshals. More on them later!