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Prince William County, Virginia, 1904-1911

Reader Allissa Smith was particularly interested in The Legal Genealogist‘s webinar earlier this week on criminal court records because of one ancestor: her second great grandfather Francis C. “Frank” Rorabaugh was the sheriff of Prince William County, Virginia, from 1904-1911. But outside of some newspaper articles talking about finding a suspect, she hadn’t been able to find out much about him.

So, she asks, “how do you go about finding information on him being a sheriff?”

Allissa, you’re in luck. Because there’s simply a wealth of information available on sheriffs in Virginia generally, and on your second great grandfather in particular. You’ve got a road trip in your future to Virginia, of course, but oh… what you’re likely to find when you get there!

First off, let’s do a quick history lesson. Remember that the term “sheriff” is a blend of two words: shire — an English county,1 and reeve — in old English law, a ministerial officer who had functions of a constable.2 The resulting term was sheriff: “an officer of great antiquity, … also called the `shire-reeve.’”3 And the duties of the sheriff were to maintain law and order and execute the writs — the orders — of the courts.4

There have been sheriffs in Virginia since as far back as there has been a Virginia. There were mentions of the sheriffs and their tasks in the laws of Virginia as far back as 1633-34, when the laws directed that sheriffs be elected for every shire and have the same powers as sheriffs in England.5

If you’re of an historical bent, you can review the roles of the early sheriffs and how the laws changed in the early years in early Virginia statutes, readily available online.6

And the role of the sheriff took on constitutional significance when Virginia adopted its first constitution in 1776. In that document, Virginia provided that:

The Sheriffs and Coroners shall be nominated by the respective Courts, approved by the Governor, with the advice of the Privy Council, and commissioned by the Governor. The Justices shall appoint Constables; and all fees of the aforesaid officers be regulated by law.7

The Constitution of 1830 provided that “The Sheriffs and Coroners shall be nominated by the respective County Courts, and when approved by the Governor, shall be commissioned by him.”8

The Constitution of 1864 changed things, and sheriffs became elected officials, with two-year terms and a limit of two consecutive terms.9 But under the 1902 Constitution — under which Frank Rorabaugh was elected — the sheriffs were elected to four year terms without term limits.10

So what did a sheriff do under that later Constitution? You can find those statutes of Virginia, giving you a look at the tasks men like Frank Rorabaugh were charged with, online as well, and you’ll see that — even in the early years of the 20th century — sheriffs had the same tasks as their long-ago English ancestors: their jobs were to maintain law and order, to deal with the jails and the prisoners, and to serve and carry out the orders of the courts.11

So you’re lucky to begin with that there’s so much information available about Virginia Sheriffs. But you’re also very lucky because he was a Prince William County, Virginia, sheriff, and Prince William County, Virginia, has RELIC. That’s the Ruth E. Lloyd Information Center (RELIC), a special collection devoted to genealogy and local history with a focus on Virginia and Prince William County, that’s located at Bull Run Regional Library in Manassas.

And RELIC is simply one of the best local collections you’ll ever have the pleasure to find. Not only does it have a periodical called the Prince William Reliquary, that’s written about Prince William County Sheriffs including Frank Rorabaugh in a two-part series — Prince William County Sheriffs 1731 – 1904 and Prince William County Sheriffs 1904 – 2004 — but it has collections of the local newspapers of the time and, perhaps best of all, its index of its Photographic Archive of Prince William County says it holds a photograph of Frank Rorabaugh.

See what I mean about a road trip? And you’ll need to head to Prince William County anyway, since few of the 20th century Prince William records have been microfilmed — though there are a handful available through interlibrary loan from the Library of Virginia in Richmond. You’re going to want to go through the court minutes and dockets, the tax records and so much more, since the sheriff was involved in so much.

And in the interim, while you’re planning that trip, never ever forget about the fabulous, free, word-searchable collection of early newspapers online at the Library of Congress titled Chronicling America. I don’t want to give too much away here — but you’re in for such a treat if you head to that collection, choose Virginia as the state, the years from 1870 to 1915 as the dates, and enter just the name Rorabaugh as the search term.

Let’s see here… 1888, F.C. Rorabaugh chosen as a delegate to a Congressional convention;12 1894, Sheriff J.P. Leachman and his deputy F.C. Rorabaugh bringing prisoners to Manassas to be hanged;13 and, of course, 1903, F.C. Rorabaugh selected as the Democratic nominee for sheriff.14

Oh… and one more thing while you’re waiting to take that road trip… The Library of Virginia has digitized its collection of Chancery Court cases so that many of them are online. If you do a name search at the LVA website, you’ll find the name appears in six different Chancery Court cases. You have to go page by page through the records, and they’re all in individual PDF files, but you might find it’s worth it. How ’bout this — your second great grandfather’s signature on a 1901 receipt as a deputy sheriff for a sheriff’s sale of property:

Definitely a Prince here in terms of records, Allissa. Have fun tracking him through them all!


Images: Library of Congress, Chronicling America; Library of Virginia, Chancery Causes

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1093, “shire.”
  2. Ibid., 1010, “reeve.”
  3. Ibid., 1090-1091, “sheriff.” See also John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society ( : accessed 6 Jun 2012), “sheriff” (the “name is said to be derived from the Saxon seyre, shire or county, and reve, keeper, bailiff, or guardian”).
  4. Judy G. Russell, “The high sheriff,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Jun 2012 ( : accessed 12 Dec 2012).
  5. William Waller Hening, compiler, Hening’s Statutes at Law, Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, 14 vols. (1819-1823; reprint ed., Charlottesville: Jamestown Foundation, 1969), 1: 223-224.
  6. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Early Virginia Statutes,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 13 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 12 Dec 2012).
  7. Virginia Constitution, 1776, HTML version, National Humanities Institute ( : accessed 12 Dec 2012).
  8. 1830 Virginia Constitution,” West Virginia Division of Culture and History ( : accessed 12 Dec 2012).
  9. Article VI, §§ 29-30, Constitution of the State of Virginia and the Ordinances adopted by the Convention… 1864 (Alexandria, Va.: D. Turner, State Printer, 1864), 24-25; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 Dec 2012).
  10. Article VII, §§ 110-112, The Constitution of the State of Virginia: adopted by the Convention of 1901-2 (Richmond, Va. : p.p., 1902), 28-29; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 Dec 2012).
  11. See generally Code of Virginia as Amended to Adjournment of General Assembly, 1904… (St. Paul, Minn. : West Publishing Co., 1904); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 Dec 2012).
  12. Alexandria (Virginia) Gazette, 8 Aug 1888, p.3, col.2; digital images, “Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers,” Library of Congress ( : accessed 12 Dec 2012).
  13. Ibid., Richmond (Virginia) Times, 27 Apr 1894, p.2, col. 1.
  14. Ibid., Richmond (Virginia) Times Dispatch, 24 Sep 1903, p.3, col. 3.
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