The early settlers of Fort Nashborough (now Nashville) recognized early on the need for a Sheriff. This official position dates back to 10th-century England, where the Sheriff was an agent of the King. The first Sheriff of Davidson County, Daniel Williams, was appointed in 1783 by a court in North Carolina (the state of Tennessee had not yet been established at that point in time, and the area we now call “middle Tennessee” was still part of the state of North Carolina).
What were the qualifications and functions of Tennessee’s earliest Sheriffs? Why was it important for the settlers to have such an official? Apparently, one of the first concerns at Fort Nashborough was that the Sheriff be a proven soldier and fighter. In 1783, Davidson County was still a lively battleground with Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw warriors attempting to block the encroachment of European settlers. Daniel Williams had stayed to defend Fort Nashborough when other men had taken their families to less dangerous ground, thereby proving his bravery and willingness to take a stand and fight.
Sheriff Williams had no jail to keep, no vehicles patrolling his area – which was an extensive wilderness very sparsely settled – and no established local bureaucracy to determine the functions of his appointed position. His main duty, it appears, was to respond bravely to danger and to lead other men when facing problems.
One of the biggest law enforcement problems of those days was horse thievery. It was the Sheriff’s duty to have the cheeks of horse thieves branded or, if the stealing continued, to have the thieves hanged. The Sheriff also gave certain offenders a specified number of lashes in the public street, if they were found guilty of having committed certain particular crimes.
As Davidson County developed, so has the office of Sheriff. In 1834, Jacksonian democracy brought changes, which included holding public elections to select county Sheriffs. Throughout history, changes in the law have created changes in the Sheriffs’ powers and responsibilities.
Since the institution of metropolitan government in 1963, the Davidson County Sheriff is charged with two major functions: the safety and security of all inmates housed in Davidson County jails, and the service of all civil process. The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department functions as the primary law enforcement agency.
Although the Sheriff’s Office no longer lashes offenders in the public streets and no longer patrols the roads, it has assumed a great responsibility to Metropolitan Nashville. Overseeing more than 4,000 inmates, over 850 employees, and an $80-million budget, makes the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office an important and essential part of our community.
Additional History Information