Department History

The following history of the office of sheriff is provided by the National Sheriff's Association publications.

The office of sheriff is the oldest political office in the western world.  It has existed in one form or another since the reign of King Alfred the Great (871-901 A.D.).  The office of sheriff evolved from a rudimentary method for providing local control and services under the monarchy to an arm of democratic government fully invested in the constitutional pursuit of justice.  Significantly, it has remained a fundamentally local institution.

The roots of the office of sheriff may be found in Anglo-Saxon England.  Families came together in groups of ten families.  They were called tithing.  The leader of these groups were called tithing men, who were elected by each tithing.  He had the responsibility of raising the Hue and Cry (a process in which every able-bodied man had to participate in the chase and apprehension of offenders; this was the origin of today's citizen's arrest).

Tithing was further organized into groups of ten called hundreds.  The headman of a hundred was called a Reeve.  Several hundreds combined to form a Shire, an area equivalent to a county.  The leader of the shire was called a shire-reeve, from which it is believed the word sheriff evolved.

The office of sheriff migrated to the English colonies in America early in our history.  In 1634, sheriffs began to assume the duties of the provost marshal in a few colonies, and the King of England appointed them, just as the King appointed all sheriffs in England.  Virginia was the first with an appointed sheriff, followed by Maryland in 1638.

The colony of Virginia held its first election of sheriff in 1651.  There were sheriffs in all thirteen colonies in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War.  It was Sheriff Nixon who read the Declaration of Independence on the steps of Independence Hall in 1775.

During the great westward expansion of the United States, the sheriff was installed in every territory and state.  The sheriff followed near on the heels of the pioneers who settled the areas.  Violence was a common problem on the frontier, and the idea that there had to be a "taming" of the west was what had the sheriffs moving west just behind the first pioneers. 

These new migrating sheriffs retained their common law duties.  One common law power that became particularly important in the sparsely populated and expansive western lands was that of Posse Comitatus, "the power of the county."  This put all of the able-bodied men in the county at the disposal of the sheriff, a clear benefit at a time when the sheriff had few deputies at his disposal.

For over 176 years the office of sheriff has been present here in our county.  It is the oldest and longest-standing law enforcement agency in the county of Delaware.  On February 13, 1827, Peter Nolan became the first sheriff of Delaware County, Indiana. 

Early sheriffs patrolled on horseback, brought criminals to justice, and held criminals at the sheriff's house.  Before a county building was present, the sheriff would hold prisoners awaiting court where the current county building sits now.  The prisoners were told that they had to stay between a couple of trees and rocks and could not cross an imaginary line.  The more dangerous criminal was chained to a tree.  Court was held in an old livery stable which sat on the corner.

While being held at the sheriff's house, the prisoners would be kept in shackles and bolted to the floor.  The sheriff's wife fed and took care of the prisoners until it was time for them to leave.  Where the current Justice Center now stands, there was an old log cabin-style jail that held prisoners.  Through the years, several jails were built at this same site.  The sheriff and his wife used to live at the jail up until the 1950s, when a new jail was built.

In the mid-1990s, the transformation of the sheriff and his duties was greatly expanded.  What began as a horseback sheriff housing prisoners in his home evolved into a full-service sheriff's office, which provides law enforcement, patrol duties, security to the courts, service of civil process, and operation of the county jail.

The office of sheriff is potentially the most powerful in the entire criminal justice system.  And its influence extends far beyond that system.  There are at least five reasons for this:

First, the sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in his county.  This status derives from the Common Law and applies whether the office in question is established by constitution or statute.  It is also typical for sheriffs to be constitutionally or legislatively authorized to assume the functions of municipal law enforcement within their counties under circumstances of a breakdown of public order, wide-scale corruption, or collapse of the local enforcement mechanism.

Second, the sheriff is elected at-large on a county-wide basis.  This, of course, means that the sheriff is directly accountable to the entire electorate for his performance.  The sheriff typically garners a significant portion of the votes cast; this is a great source of power and an awesome responsibility.

Third, the county sheriff is the only agency head with specific constitutional or statutory responsibilities for performing functions in all three of the subsystems of the criminal justice system: law enforcement, courts, and corrections.  This tripartite authority provides the sheriff with legitimate -- in fact, mandatory -- roles to play in the full range of policy-making across the subsystem.

Fourth, the sheriff performs at least five significant leadership roles that influence the health and well-being of his community.  He is a political leader.  He is a criminal justice leader.  He is a community leader.  He is a leader of his organization and a technical leader.  This makes him a resource to other key policy makers as well as to the general public in his community.

Fifth, the sheriff is part of an institution that transcends the local community.  He has peers in 46 states in the Union.  He is part of a state coalition of his peers that wields significant influence in the development of policy and law.  He and his state colleagues are part of a national coalition that performs the same role in Washington, D.C.  As elected officials themselves, the sheriffs represent a powerful -- and short -- link between state and federal lawmakers and their constituents "back home."  When sheriffs speak, legislators listen.

Below is a list of Sheriff's who served the citizens of Delaware County beginning in 1827.  Originally, Sheriff's served two-year terms; after 1954 the terms changed to four years.


Peter Nolin


William S. Thornburg


William Gilbert


Joseph Thomas


James Howell


Joseph M. Davis


H. E. Bowen


Clark McColly


William Walling


John W. Dungan


D.D. Daugherty


Wilson R. Smith


Orlando H. Swain


C. H. Maitlen


Andrew J. Slinger


John W. Dungan


J. R. McKimmey


C. H. Maitlen


O.H. Swain (R)


William P. Sherry (R)


Thomas Starr (R)


William N. Swain (R)


Stafford Perdieu (R)


W. Albert O'Harra (R)


Jesse White (D)


W. Albert O'Harra (R)


Thomas Hiatt (R)


Harry E. Hoffman (R)


Fred W. Puckett (D)


O. P. Snodgrass (R)


Fred W. Puckett (D)


Otis P. Snodgrass (R)


Samuel H. Gray (D)


Samuel H. Gray (D)


Wilber "Pete" Anthony (R)


Jack Young (D)


Harry Howard (R)


James P. Carey (D)


Gary Carmichael (R)


Dan Elliott (D)


Steve Aul (D)


George Sheridan, Jr. (R)


Michael Scroggins (D)