Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sheriff in Colonial Virginia

The office of Sheriff is a rather ancient one, indeed.  In the colony and dominion of Virginia, prior to its independence, it looked and operated a bit differently then we might be accustomed to in our day and age.  Much of this colonial office remained unchanged by the Revolution, so the following description is also apt for the early days of the Commonwealth.

File:UK Coat of Arms Governor's Palace.jpg
The Coat of Arms of the Kings of Great Britain of the House of Hanover -- on a building in Williamsburg, VA.

The following is an account of the office of Sheriff in Cumberland County, in the Piedmont of Virginia, during the 18th century:

The office of sheriff was a “fee officer” position, as the sheriff received payments for the duties he performed.[1]  Nevertheless, a “salary” of one thousand pounds of tobacco was allotted to cover any other expenses.  The governor appointed the sheriff, upon the commendation of the county court, to serve for not more than two years.  Typically, the court submitted the names of three men – all of whom had to be presently sitting on the court: “no one but a justice could be sheriff.”[2] Thus, the 17 October 1770 excerpt from the Executive Journals of the Council shows:

John Mayo, William Smith, & Richard James, Gentn. Having been recommended by the Court of Cumberland County, as Persons proper for the Office of Sheriff of that County for the ensuing Year, & divers Certificates being produced of the said John Mayo’s having declared he would not accept of the said Office;
Ordered, that a Commission immediately issue, appointing the said William Smith Sheriff of the said County.[3]

Once appointed sheriff of the county, membership in the House of Burgesses [the colonial assembly and forerunner of the House of Delegates] was forbidden.  Indeed, in 1769 “this prohibition was extended to two years after the sheriff completed his term.”[4]  Hence, when George Carrington was named sheriff of Cumberland County in 1764, he relinquished his seat in the House to Thomas Prosser.  This was one instance were the possession of multiple offices was not deemed acceptable.

The sheriff of Cumberland, as any colonial Virginia county, was responsible for numerous and varied duties.  In addition to law enforcement, the sheriff was responsible for the upkeep of the jail and any prisoners,[5] the collection of taxes,[6] the overseeing of elections for the House of Burgesses,[7] and generally being the “chief executive officer of the county,” which included a great deal of other “miscellaneous administration.”[8]  Needless to say, this kind of authority, particularly regarding collecting of taxes and fees and the managing of elections, was prone to abuse.  Hence, the Assembly in Williamsburg constantly passed laws to remedy “the problem child of the period.”[9]  Indeed, a “bond of 1000 £ sterling…to insure” that the sheriff “shall collect and account for Cumberland rents and dues, and all other matters relating to his office” was demanded!  This was required of the first sheriff of Cumberland, Stephen Bedford, and he, along with Alexander Trent and Archibald Cary, paid the bond on 22 May 1749.[10]  Particularly challenging was the accurate listing of tithables and collecting of the taxes.  The fact that the sheriff received a commission on the taxes that he collected was problematic.  Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier, in his account of the quitrents paid for the year 1765, notes that Cumberland County paid some £295, 18 shillings, and 6 pence for 295,923 acres of land.  The allowance granted to the sheriff for the collection of this amount was £29.11.10.[11]  Cumberland seemed to have little habit of paying the quitrent in arrears.  Much like the county court, the sheriff was primarily concerned with maintaining the common good and order of the county; viz., with keeping the king’s peace.

[1] Porter, County Government in Virginia, 28.  In Porter, 73, a schedule of fees as of 1732 for a Virginia sheriff is given.  It includes the following: “Making an arrest…30, Serving an order of the court…15, Use of the stocks…10, Keeping a prisoner, per day…5, Calling a court…200.”  Cf. IV Hening 348.
[2] Ibid., 69.
[3] Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, Vol. VI, 1754-1775, 369.
[4] Porter, County Government in Virginia, 71.
[5] Ibid., 30.
[6] Ibid., 74.
[7] Kolp, Gentlemen and Freeholders, 32-35.
[8] Porter, County Government in Virginia, 74.
[9] Ibid., 68.
[10] Cumberland County, Virginia deeds, 1749-1752 (Miami Beach, FL: TLC Genealogy, 1990), 3.
[11] George Reese, ed., The Official Papers of Francis Fauquier, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, Vol. III (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1980), 1417.  Lest the reader be confused, the currency of the day was either in pounds sterling, or pounds tobacco.  If pounds sterling, 1 pound, or £1, was equal to 20 shillings, and 1 shilling was equal to 12 pence.  Thus, £29.11.10 is the shorthand way of writing twenty-nine pounds, eleven shillings, and ten pence.  For what its worth, the penny was divided into four farthings.
[From,"To declare for an Independency": Cumberland County, Virginia and the Revolution: 1749-1789 / by Thomas Eric Cole; http://magik.gmu.edu/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?BBID=1427221]

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