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Constable vs. sheriff in NC

Belinda Wilson, who runs the Mitchell County NC Genealogy Research page on Facebook, was posting some links to abstracts of the court records of a parent county — Yancey County, NC — when she saw that William A. Wilson, her second great grandfather, was “appointed Constable, was sworn and gave bond with Samuel C. Wilson, Wm. Dixon and William Phillips Sureties.”1

“What I want to know is,” she asked, “what is the difference between a constable and a sheriff??”

Mostly politics and money. But isn’t that the way it usually is?

Here’s the deal. The word constable itself is from the Norman French — it came over to England with William the Conqueror and originally referred to a very high official:

the dignity and importance of whose office was only second to that of the monarch. He was in general the leader of the royal armies, and had cognizance of all matters pertaining to war and arms, exercising both civil and military jurisdiction. He was also charged with the conservation of the peace of the nation. Thus there was a “Constable of France” and a “Lord High Constable of England.”2

By the middle of the 12th century, the word started to be used to describe an official whose job was a lot closer to the old Saxon “tythingman” — the local whose job was to keep the peace in a small district and take the bad guys to court, and who got paid fees for individual services rather than a salary.3

By the 14th century, under the Justices of the Peace Act in 1361,

The constable became the executive arm of the justice and an agent of the parish. In common with all other parish officers he was unpaid. The office was filled in rotation among all qualified parishioners, and refusal to accept office was punishable by a fine. His staff or baton was his symbol of authority. He wore no distinctive uniform of any kind. Whilst this could only be loosely described as a system, it lasted for about 500 years.4

That constable was generally called a petty constable, “inferior officers in every town and parish, subordinate to the high constable of the hundred, whose principal duty is the preservation of the peace, though they also have other particular duties assigned to them by act of parliament, particularly the service of the summonses and the execution of the warrants of justices of the peace.”5

And that’s roughly where things stood when the English started colonizing America and the colonists brought the English law with them. And by statute in 1715, North Carolina declared that “the Justices of the Several Precinct Courts … within this Province shall yearly … make choice of so many discreet men of the same precinct to be Constables for the year Ensuing as they shall think necessary,”6 and gave them “all such Power, authority & immunities as to the same officer within the Kingdom of Great Britain does of right belong or appertain.”7

Now because the constables weren’t paid, except in fees, and they tended to have the nasty jobs like serving court papers and telling people they had to pay taxes, it wasn’t exactly the most popular job in the world. Early records are full of cases where constables were hurt trying to do their jobs. So in 1741, the statute was amended to at least give the constables a little break: each constable was declared “exempt from all Provincial, County, and Parish Taxes, for himself only, and from working on the Roads, for and during the Year he shall be Constable.”8

The elite, of course, were themselves exempt from having to serve as constables:

civil and military officers, members of the General Assembly (past and current), clergymen, physicians, lawyers, and those “exempt by the laws of England” were excused from constabulary service. In essence constables were drawn from the farmers, ferry keepers, tavern keepers, and artisans of the day.9

Over the years the constable’s role changed very little, even when the position was enshrined in the North Carolina Constitution of 1776 (“there shall be a Sheriff, Coroner, or Coroners, and Constable, in each County in this State”).10 By the time Yancey County was created in December 1833, the constable’s role was set as a “minor county official who kept the peace in his district, served legal papers, summoned persons to list taxes, and performed other similar duties.”11

And the sheriff? A whole ‘nother kettle of fish. In general, that’s the “chief executive and administrative officer of a county, being chosen by popular election. His principal duties are in aid of the criminal courts and civil courts of record; such as serving process, summoning juries, executing judgments, holding judicial sales, and the like. He is also the chief conservator of the peace within his territorial jurisdiction.”12

In North Carolina, the sheriff was originally head of the county court and presided as chief judge under the Fundamental Constitutions of the 17th century. In the 1730s, county courts ran their own show independent of the sheriff, and the courts were allowed to nominate three men, with the governor choosing one to serve as sheriff. “The sheriffs were to execute the orders of their respective county courts and also to serve as officers of the higher courts, collectors of all taxes, and as supervisors of the elections. This made the sheriffs officers of the province and of their counties, a dual role.”13

Described as “the oldest public office in North Carolina,” the sheriff was in charge of facilitating

the county’s judicial and administrative government, a responsibility that made him a powerful person. Even when his office was conducted in strictest honesty, the sheriff was one of the highest-paid officials in the colonial government. His income came from several sources: fees for executing orders of the court, including warrants, civil papers, and attachments; commissions on collected taxes; a salary paid by the colony; a salary paid by the county for “extraordinary expenses” in performing services for which the legislature permitted no fees; commissions on the sale of estates for which he acted as executor; and other miscellaneous fees.

The sheriff became the chief law enforcement officer in the county. Under other provisions of an 1829 law, each county was subdivided into captain’s districts for military purposes. The county court appointed a patrol committee of three for each district, which functioned under the sheriff. Sheriffs, elected to two-year terms, continued through the Civil War. A sheriff’s duties, which remained much the same over the decades, included enforcing the criminal law, overseeing the civil process, and executing all court processes. A sheriff also served as bailiff to the court, maintained the county jail, and oversaw the collection of taxes and fees owed the county and state.14

In a nutshell, by the time Yancey County was created, the sheriff was “a major county official; the chief executive and administrative officer of the law court, charged with keeping the peace, carrying out court orders, summoning juries, and the like. In early records referred to as the High Sheriff of the county.”15

So let’s see here — the powerful, well-paid, sought-after, elected major official Sheriff versus the poorly-paid minor-position-people-didn’t-want-but-often-got-stuck-with constable.

Yep. Politics and money. The way of the world…

And, by the way, there have been (and are) constables in many jurisdictions, not just North Carolina, and this discussion may not apply to them in the same way. It’s the law at the time and in the place the ancestor lived that counts!


  1. Sandra Allen Fender, “Yancey County Minute Docket, Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, January Term, 1834 & June Term 1834,” abstracted from Microfilm # C.107.30001, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh; NCGenWeb Archives ( : accessed 5 Mar 2013).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 257-258, “constable.”
  3. See “The Office of Constable: An Historical Perspective of the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Police,” JCC Agenda Paper, September 2007, PDF at 2-3; Police Federation of England and Wales ( : accessed 5 Mar 2013).
  4. Ibid., PDF at 4.
  5. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 258, “constable.”
  6. Laws of North Carolina, 1715, Chapter XIII, § III, in Walter Clark, compiler, State Records of North Carolina, Vol. 23 (Goldsboro, N.C. : Book & Job, 1905), 116; online version, “Colonial and State Records of North Carolina,” Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill ( : accessed 5 Mar 2013).
  7. Ibid., § IV.
  8. Ibid., 23: 163, Laws of 1741, Chapter V, § X.
  9. Alan D. Watson, “The Constable in Colonial North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review 68 (1991): 1-16; HTML version, North Carolina Office of Archives & History, Colonial Records Project ( : accessed 5 Mar 2013).
  10. North Carolina Constitution, 1776, § XXXVIII, “in” Clark, State Records of North Carolina 10: 1012.
  11. Helen F. M. Leary, editor, North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History, 2nd edition (Raleigh : North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996), 575.
  12. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 1090, “sheriff.”
  13. The Sheriff in North Carolina,” Dare County Sheriffs Office ( : accessed 5 Mar 2013).
  14. Frank McGuirt, “Sheriff,” NCpedia ( : accessed 5 Mar 2013).
  15. Leary, ed., North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History, 595.
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