Officer for a Year: The Life of a Colonial Sheriff

Liana Meeker \ Summer 2013 e-tern \ Biola University

When transcribing the ledger pages of the Glassford and Henderson store, it isn’t out of the ordinary to find the occasional wealthy landowner or merchant whose debits (or purchases) spill over onto the opposing page, usually reserved for credits (or payments).  On the other hand, it’s quite unusual to find someone whose account pages are dominated by income instead.  Such is the case for Pierce Bayly, deputy sheriff.

From the Glassford and Henderson accounts, as well as Fairfax County records, we know that Pierce Bayly served as a sub-sheriff under Sampson Derell for the year 1768-1769.[1]  As sheriff, Bayly would have been a rural counterpart to the town constable.  His title, “sheriff,” derives from an Old English term. Originally, a sheriff – or “shire-reeve” – was the man tasked by the king with safeguarding the peace and order in a shire, or county, of England.[2]  For example, think of the sheriff of Nottingham from Robin Hood stories.

In colonial Virginia, the sheriff was an important agent in a community-based system of law and order.  Sheriffs were usually well to do men from respectable backgrounds.  Every year, the county court recommended three men for the position between June 30 and August 31.  From these three, the Governor selected a candidate to serve a one year commission.  Before beginning his service, the candidate was required to purchase two bonds from the court as an assurance that he would carry out the “true and faithful performance of his office.”[3]  The bonds would have totaled £1,000 – a considerable sum for the time.

Once installed, the sheriff was a busy man.  His responsibilities included the execution of writs, organization of elections, and appearances in court, as necessary.  He was also required to collect the years’ taxes and tithes.[4]  This explains the preponderance of credits to Bayly’s account.  Locals were paying him their taxes, tithes, and government fees in pounds of tobacco or local currency.  Since he was simply a middleman, Bayly was then transferring most of these payments on to the intended recipients.  For instance, we see 332 pounds worth of tobacco (collected on behalf of parishioners) delivered through his Glassford and Henderson account to “the Red [Reverend] James Scott.”  And no, contrary to what you may think, this was not for the personal use of the good Reverend!  It was simply a colonial commodity of trade.

Pierce Bayly’s Account.

Pillory book plate:

Since the sheriff was an elected official with a one year (or sometimes two year) tenure, many men were rotated through the office.[5]  And though the sheriff’s title was prestigious, the position was not always desirable.  It did have its drawbacks.  For one, an appointment to this position could be a financial burden.  This is why the laws of Virginia excused a man from service if he was unable to pay his bonds of commission.  Additionally, some hapless sheriffs came to ruin when debtors escaped from prison and they had to appease angry creditors by compensating for the loss.  This must have been such a problem that after 1748, Virginia law ruled that sheriffs were not responsible for debtor’s escapes if there was no negligence proven on their part.[6]  Finally, sheriffs were likely to make themselves an enemy or two.  As it was, they were often the individual to directly deal with criminals and troublemakers.  Humiliating punishments, like the ducking chair or the pillory, were not likely to be soon forgotten.[7]

Nevertheless, being a sheriff had its perks.  As mentioned above, the position was a prestigious one.  It was also paid. Sheriffs were compensated for each task they accomplished.[8]  This is why, on June 28, 1769, Hannah Neale paid 13 ½ pounds of tobacco to Pierce Bayly for “serving [a] subpoena vs. [against] Thomas Neale” (her brother).  Perhaps best of all, sheriffs were given a portion of the public taxes to keep as their own.  Apparently, this benefit was so enticing that some sheriffs were tempted to embezzle.  Virginia law eventually required sheriffs to account for all the levies they collected.[9]  After all, no one desired a crook as a keeper of the peace.

[1] “Past Fairfax County Sheriffs,” Fairfax County Virginia Website, (accessed September 23, 2013).

[2] “The Early Days of American Law Enforcement,” National Law Enforcement Museum Insider Vol. IV, issue 4, (accessed September 14, 2013).

[3] “Laws of Virginia, October 1748 – 22th George II,”  Chapters XIII-X, The VAGen Web Project, (accessed September 17, 2013).

[4] “The Early Days of American Law Enforcement.”

[5] Rhys, Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790 (The University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 111.

[6] “Laws of Virginia, October 1748 – 22th George II.”

[7] James A. Cox, “Bilboes, Brands, and Branks: Colonial Crimes and Punishments,” Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Spring 2003), (accessed September 17, 2013).

[8] “The Early Days of American Law Enforcement.”

[9] “Laws of Virginia, October 1748 – 22th George II.”

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2 Responses to Officer for a Year: The Life of a Colonial Sheriff

  1. Thomas Hay says:

    A good article but a couple of points to make; Sheriffs in Colonial Virginia were actually members of the County bench serving a sheriff for one or two years, as such they socially ranked far above constables. The County bench sends a list of two or three nominees to the Goverenor and his Council and they pick one, usually the top name on the list.

  2. Lisa Turner says:

    Thanks for this great entry! I especially appreciate the etymology of sheriff (never stopped to consider that one!) and the great detail in your description of what day-to-day life entailed.

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