More than twelve hundred years ago, the country we now call England was inhabited by small groups of Anglo-Saxons who lived in rural communities called tuns. (Tun is the source of the modern English word town.) Each tun was divided into groups of ten families, called tithings. The elected leader of each tithing was called a tithingman. The tithings were also arranged in tens. Each group of ten tithings (or a hundred families) elected its own chief. The Anglo-Saxon word for chief was gerefa, which later became shortened to reeve.
During the next two centuries, a number of changes occurred in this system of tithings and hundreds. A new unit of government, the shire, was formed when groups of hundreds banded together. The shire was the forerunner of the modern county. Just as each hundred was led by a reeve (chief), each shire had a reeve as well. To distinguish the leader of a shire from the leader of a mere hundred, the more powerful official became known as a shire-reeve. The word shire-reeve eventually became the modern English word sheriff. The sheriff--in early England , and metaphorically, in present-day America --is the keeper, or chief, of the county.
The king distributed huge tracts of land to various noblemen, who thereby became entitled to govern those tracts of land under the king's authority. Under this new arrangement, it was the noblemen who appointed sheriffs for the counties they controlled. In those areas not consigned to noblemen, the king appointed his own sheriffs.
When English settlers began to travel to the New World , the office of sheriff traveled with them. The first American counties were established in Virginia in 1634, and records show that one of these counties elected a sheriff in 1651. Although this particular sheriff was chosen by popular vote, most other colonial sheriffs were appointed. Just as noblemen in medieval England had depended upon sheriffs to protect their tracts of land, large American landowners appointed sheriffs to enforce the law in the areas they controlled.
As Americans began to move westward, they took with them the concept of county jails and the office of sheriff. The sheriff was desperately needed to establish order in the lawless territories where power belonged to those with the fastest draw and the most accurate shot. Here it is said that sheriffs fell into two categories, the quick and the dead.