The ancient origin of the sheriff’s posse

My generation learned about good versus evil by watching  recycled American TV westerns. Shows like The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman, Bonanza, and my favourite, the Cisco Kid, portrayed the good guys triumphing over lawlessness in the Old Wild Western Frontier. The bad guys (wearing black hats), after shooting up the saloon, were pursued out of Tombstone, Deadwood or Dodge City on horseback by the sheriff and his posse of men (wearing white hats). They headed out into the prairies, the Rio Bravo, the Rio Grande, The Badlands or the cactus-infested Arizona desert, to eventually be brought to justice by the good guys.

The wild west vocabulary

Watching the westerns my vocabulary was extended quite considerably. I learnt that:

  • a hoosegow is a jail (from the Mexican Spanish word juzgao for tribunal or court and derived from Latin judicare, to judge)
  • to hightail it is to leave fast
  • a saloon is a wild-west pub where you drink hootch
  • hootch is cheap whisky so-called from shortened form of Hoochinoo for liquor made by Alaskan Indians, from the Tlingit dialect, Hutsnuwu, literally meaning the grizzly bear fort
  • you keep your gun in a holster
  • an American farm is a ranch (from American Spanish rancho)
  • a cowboy is a man on a horse (not on a cow)
  • a corral is where you keep that “hoss” (corral comes from Spanish corro for ring)

Sheriff of Nottingham

So imbued with these stories, I still cannot imagine the Sheriff of Nottingham without a five-pointed star pinned to his chest or accept that he is a black hat in the Robin Hood story. But, despite being on different sides, in different times and in different places, the position of Sheriff of Nottingham is not so different to the position of Sheriff of Dodge City.

The origins of sheriff

The word sheriff derives from an old English word scirgerefa, meaning representative of royal authority in a shire (or county) from scir for shire and gerefa for a reeve. A reeve was an Anglo-Saxon official of high rank, having local jurisdiction under a king.

The sheriff is an elected official in the US who serves as the arm of the county or parish court and is often responsible for law and order (the scope of duties varies between states and counties).

In colonial Australia the office of sheriff was established (in 1824) to carry out court judgements, to act as a coroner, and to manage jails, prisoner transport and executions. In the US this role is undertaken by a Federal marshal (and there were federal marshals in the wild west that were used for law enforcement).

The origins of posse

But more surprising than the word history of sheriff is that of posse. It is not derived from Mexican, Spanish, or Native American languages. It is a common-law term for the authority of a sheriff (or marshal) to conscript able-bodied man to assist them in keeping the peace, or to pursue and arrest a felon. Posse is a shortening of posse comitatus meaning the force of the county from the Medieval Latin words posse for body of men and comitatus for of the county.

Posse comitatus is similar to the English law concept of hue and cry by which bystanders are summoned to assist in pursuing someone witnessed committing a crime (hue and cry from French hu et cri, meaning outcry and cry).

So although sheriff and posse are words at the core of the rough-justice vocabulary of the wild west they have their roots in the ancient common law principles of Medieval Europe.