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The History of Florida Sheriffs: 5 Facts You Didn’t Know About Sheriff History

October 31, 2022

Since the beginning of Florida’s history, the Office of Sheriff has played an important role in shaping law enforcement and on a broader level, the state itself. From the very first Florida sheriff to those who are serving today, you can’t talk about Florida history without talking about the history of the sheriff’s office. How much do you know about sheriff history in Florida? Here are five fascinating facts to test your knowledge.

1. The Office of Sheriff Dates Back to 800 A.D.

Believe it or not, the Office of the Sheriff dates all the way back to 800 A.D. and is considered the oldest continuing nonmilitary law enforcement entity in history. The word sheriff itself is derived from two English common law words: “reeve,” meaning chief or leader, and “shire,” which describes hundreds of people banded together (similar to what would be called a county today). The term Shire Reeve, then, was used to identify a leader of the shire who was appointed by noblemen and kings to maintain peace. Over time, it evolved to the modern term sheriff. English settlers would later bring the concept, and the word sheriff, with them to America.

2. The First Florida Sheriffs Were Appointed in 1821.

In 1821, Florida’s first governor, Andrew Jackson, issued the Jackson Ordinance creating Florida’s first two counties: Escambia and St. Johns. Next, Jackson appointed a sheriff for each county: James R. Hanham for St. Johns and James Pendelton for Escambia. Interestingly, while the two served as the first law enforcement officers in the state of Florida, they may never have met each other in person.

3. The Sheriff is the Highest Elected Law Enforcement Official in Each County.

The Office of Sheriff comes with law enforcement powers that are greater than any other state or federal official. Sheriffs are elected by citizens of each county through a general ballot, and their powers include appointing sheriff’s deputies to act in their name. These powers are given to them by the Florida Constitution. Today, there are more than 30,000 sheriffs’ office personnel in Florida.

4. The First Black Sheriff was Appointed in 1868.

On July 14, 1868, Florida Governor Harrison Reed appointed Sheriff M.A. Clonts as the sheriff of Marion County. A former slave, Clonts was the first Black sheriff to be appointed in Florida. He was followed shortly thereafter by Sheriff James Montgomery, who was appointed on September 11, 1868. It wasn’t until 1888 that Sheriff C.F. DuPont would become the first elected Black sheriff in Florida. He was elected in Monroe County. Click here to learn more about the history of Florida’s Black sheriffs.

5. The First Two Female Sheriffs Were Appointed to Replace Their Late Husbands.

In 1938, Okeechobee County Sheriff Claude Simmons tragically died from pneumonia. His wife, Eugenia Simmons, was appointed as sheriff to serve the rest of his term.  Under similar circumstances, Celia Adkinson was appointed to replace her late husband, Walton County Sheriff D.C. Adkinson, after he was fatally shot in 1938. As a result, these two women are considered the first two female sheriffs in Florida. Neither woman sought reelection after her term ended.

In 2005, Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton became the first elected female sheriff in Florida.

Supporting the Office of Sheriff

Since 1893, the Florida Sheriffs Association has been the voice of Florida's sheriffs. Joining FSA is a tangible way to express your support for the work that our sheriffs do to protect families like yours every day. Becoming a member also means supporting the Office of Sheriff in your community through leadership, innovative practices, legislative initiatives, education and trainingClick here to learn more or become a member today.