The office of sheriff existed in England at least as far back as 1066. At that time, as it is today, England was divided into several counties. The king appointed law enforcement officers to safeguard these counties and to carry out his will. The chief law enforcement official was known as "sheriff," from the Saxon words "scyre," or county, and "reve," or keeper. Thus, the sheriff was the keeper of the county.
As keeper of the county, early sheriffs possessed vast powers to preserve the peace and carry out the king's commands. They arrested and committed felons to jail, executed the process of early English courts, returned impartial juries for the trial of men's lives, and, at times, commanded citizens to form a "posse comitatus" to defend their territory. Through the exercise of such power, the sheriff's office quickly became one of great utility and responsibility. The holder of the office of sheriff was held in high respect.
When the English colonists crossed the Atlantic and settled in the New World, they brought with them many of the legal developments of English jurisprudence, including the office of sheriff. Early settlers subdivided their territory into counties and elected a sheriff to oversee peaceful development within the sheriff's jurisdiction. The sheriff's office carried with it all the powers and duties associated with that of the ancient English keeper of the county. With this grant of power, the sheriff sought to preserve the peace and enforce the law in the spirit of the new age.
Despite dissatisfaction with most other forms of English administration, after the Revolution all of the American states provided for the maintenance of the office of sheriff. Through constitutional provisions and charters, the sheriff was vested with the authority to act as an executive of the state within his county. As a result, the sheriff was often the highest governmental official within the sheriff's county.
Today, the office of sheriff has changed only slightly from its medieval origins. The sheriff still retains ancient duties to preserve the peace and execute the law through the exercise of power as an officer of the sovereign government. The office of sheriff is still the chief law enforcement office of the county, although the growth of local police departments has shifted some of the sheriff's responsibilities. Most importantly, the office of sheriff has not lost the dignity it has enjoyed since its inception. Like their Middle Ages counterpart, a sheriff today continues to hold the respect and admiration of the citizens they protect.
(Work in progress - More counties to be listed soon)