The office of the sheriff has been a very important part of the society, economy, and polity of North Carolina from the very beginnings of the state. The sheriff was once called the Provost Marshal, but the name was changed early in North Carolina’s history with the reorganization of the colonial government in 1739. The Civil Process handbook for Sheriff’s states: “No other officer in the colony exercised such complete and absolute executive and administrative powers as the sheriff.”
He was both the executive officer of the county court and the representative of the crown in the county just as the English sheriff was in England. The full power posse comitatus was his as a peace officer of the county. He was also a very important fiscal officer as the collecter of taxes for the colony, the county, and the parish. He was responsible for holding the elections of members of the legislature and the local vestries and through this exercised great influence over elections and the legislature. In most counties, he acted as vendee master, conducting public sales, and possessed important powers in connection with that office. All of these powers made the office of sheriff a position of great importance and one highly sought after and prized in colonial North Carolina.
In 1767, North Carolina was divided into six Judicial Districts: Wilmington, New Bern, Edenton, Halifax, Hillsborough and Salisbury. County courts were established in every county then “in esse” at the same time. The sheriff had a very active role as the executive officer of the court. He and his crier opened court with a call for silence and attention and then called each action as it appeared on the docket. He submitted the names of the men summoned for service on the grand and petit juries when ordered to do so. In criminal actions, he had in his custody or under bond the defendants in the actions and suits before the court. If the defendant was in his custody or in jail he brought him before the court at the proper time to answer as the case required. The sheriff summoned the witnesses for the cases pending prior to the opening of court. During and after the court session the sheriff served the court’s orders and writs, levied executions, proclaimed acquittals and supervised the infliction of punishments: the stocks and pillory, whippings, brandings, cropping of ears and hangings.
Though Guilford County was formed in 1771 and began conducting court business during this time no County Court Minutes exist for the period from 1771 to 1781. Some scant records are available through The Colonial Records of North Carolina, land records and a few other sources but much of the history of law enforcement in Guilford County in the 1770’s possibly including the identities of up to four sheriff may be lost forever.
The search for the eighteenth century sheriffs of Guilford County County, especially those who served during the 1770’s was painstaking and time consuming. Much of the original research had to be scrapped after it was discovered that most of the published materials regarding sheriffs and the dates they served including a couple of highly regarded histories of the county were inaccurate. Except for the dates of service for two sheriffs which I have noted within the text all information contained herein is from original historical documents and has wherever possible been verified by the use of two or more sources. The search for the missing sheriffs continue.
By Susan Vicent Pons, Former Guilford County Sheriff’s Deputy, 1990