History of Sheriffs

Sheriff E. Wright (Left), Sheriff. E. Butler (Right)

A Sheriff is in principal a legal official with responsibility for a county.  In practice, the specific combination of legal, political, and ceremonial duties of a sheriff varies greatly from country to country.

The word “Sheriff” is a contraction of the term “shire reeve”, meaning a royal official responsible for keeping the peace throughout a shire or county on behalf of a king.

The position of sheriff now exists in various countries.  In the United States of America the role of a sheriff varies between different states and counties.  In many rural areas, sheriff and their deputies are the principal form of police, while in urban areas they may have more specialized duties, such as prisoner transport, serving warrants, service of process or police administration.

The Office of Sheriff is an office of high respect in our judicial system and was known to the most early ages of common law.  In the United States a sheriff is generally the highest law enforcement officer of a county.  A sheriff is in most cases elected by the population of the county. The political election of a person to serve as a police leader is an almost uniquely American tradition.

A sworn law enforcement officer working for an agency headed by a Sheriff is called a Sheriff’s Deputy and is so called because he or she is deputized by the Sheriff to perform the same duties as he.  However, in some states a sheriff may not be a sworn officer but merely an elected official in charge of sworn officers.  The second-in-command of the office is sometimes called an “Under Sheriff” or “Chief Deputy”.

Sheriff’s History

History of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office

The County of Cumberland was formed in 1754 when separated from Bladen County.  Cumberland County was named in the honor of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland.  Augustus was the second son of King George II.

The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office was also established in 1754 when the County of Cumberland was formed.  The first person to hold the Office of Sheriff in Cumberland County was Hector McNeill.  During this time, the services of the Sheriff were little in demand and Sheriff McNeill’s yearly salary was only ten pounds which translates to about $14.25 in today’s American currency.

In 1754, new North Carolina laws were adopted.  One of the new laws gave Sheriff McNeill the responsibility of collecting taxes from those who lived and worked in Cumberland County.  McNeill was Sheriff until 1770.

In 1770, Colonel Robert Rowan became Sheriff of Cumberland County.  Sheriff Rowan was considered one of Cumberland County’s most distinguished citizens during his time period.  Sheriff Rowan was the first signer of the “Liberty Point Resolutions.”  Sheriff Rowan owned much property in town and made many valuable gifts to the county.  Rowan Street was named after Sheriff Rowan where he owned a home and spent part of his time there.  However, Sheriff Rowan spent the majority of time at his home at Hollybrook, about four miles from town on Wilmington Road.  Sheriff Rowan held the Office of Sheriff in Cumberland County until 1772 and served again in 1777, according to historical archives.

Sheriff Rowan died at his home off Wilmington Road and was buried in his family cemetery.  The inscription on his tomb read: “In memory of Colonel Robert Rowan, who died 26th of October 1798, aged about 60 years.  Sheriff Rowan filled many civic and military offices and discharged their duties with integrity.  Sheriff Rowan was an early and steady friend, generous and cheerful.”

During the years of 1777 through 1782, Thomas Hadley served as Sheriff of Cumberland County.  Following Sheriff Hadley, Philemon McNeill was the next to take the Office of Sheriff for less than one year.  However, some history recollections don’t name McNeill as a past Sheriff of Cumberland County.  Sheriff Hadley returned to the Office of Sheriff in April of 1782 and remained until 1784.

In 1784, the North Carolina General Assembly passed an act dividing Cumberland County into two distinct counties.  Moore and Fayette Counties became effective on July 4, 1784.  Colonel James Emmet was elected Sheriff of Fayette County at this time.  In November of 1784, an act, clarifying the boundaries between the two counties and repealing the name change of Cumberland was passed.  Sheriff Emmet stayed in office for approximately 1 year when John Campbell became Sheriff.  Sheriff Campbell remained Sheriff until 1789.

In 1789, Thomas Armstrong became Sheriff of Cumberland County and would stay in office for one year.  Robinson Mumford was next to take the helm of Sheriff of Cumberland County and would remain in office until 1797.

From the years 1797 through 1865 there is a lapse in documentation of who was Sheriff during this time period.  The next documented Sheriff of Cumberland County was Jim Smith who according to records held this office for one year. Sheriff Smith was also the town’s Postmaster.  The next recorded Sheriff was John Reily who held the Office of Sheriff until 1870. The next three persons to hold the Office of Sheriff of Cumberland County were Robert Hardee (1870 – 1885), Neill McQueen (1885 – 1888) and James B. Smith (1890 -1895).

There is another lapse in documentation of who held the Office of Sheriff from 1895 till 1910.  In 1910 N. H. McGeachy was elected to the Office of Sheriff in Cumberland County.  Sheriff McGeachy served the County of Cumberland as Sheriff until 1950.  Sheriff McGeachy is the longest reigning Sheriff in Cumberland County’s history.

Sheriff McGeachy occasionally had some opposition at election time.  Sheriff McGeachy was challenged in several primary elections but never was challenged in a general election.  Sheriff McGeachy was tall, distinguished in appearance and had friends everywhere.  It is said that Sheriff McGeachy’s mere presence commanded respect.  Sheriff McGeachy never carried a gun and the warmth of his personality often conquered those who broke the law. Sheriff McGeachy’s instruction to his deputies were to be kind in handling their prisoners and treat them with respect.  Sheriff McGeachy was a lifetime member of the Knights of Pythias, a member of the Kiwanis Club and a member of the First Presbyterian Church.  Sheriff McGeachy was also one of the founders of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association.

Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office History
Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office History

The next Sheriff elected to Office in Cumberland County was Leon Guy.  Sheriff Guy remained in Office until 1958.  According to an article in the News and Observer of Raleigh printed on April 14, 1957, Sheriff Guy was a colorful Sheriff, if not a controversial one.  Sheriff Guy stood six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds.  Sheriff Guy was known for his big feet, big hands and ears like Clark Gable.  Sheriff Guy’s wife Lillie served as his Chief Deputy and also served as a Deputy Clerk of Court.

In 1958 W. G. Clark was elected Sheriff of Cumberland County.  He served as Sheriff until he retired in 1973 turning his unfinished term over to Ottis F. Jones.  Sheriff Jones was the last Sheriff to operate the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office out of the historic 1924 Courthouse on Gillespie Street.  In 1975, the Sheriff’s Office moved to the new Law Enforcement Center on Dick Street, under Jones’ administration.  Sheriff Jones died while in office in 1987.

In 1987, after the death of the late Sheriff Jones, Morris Bedsole was appointed to fill the remainder of Sheriff Jones’ term, by County Commissioners.  At the time of his appointment, Sheriff Bedsole was the Chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners.  At the end of Sheriff Jones’ term, Sheriff Bedsole was successfully elected to the Office of Sheriff. Sheriff Bedsole remained Sheriff until 1994. Sheriff Bedsole did not seek re-election.

In 1994, Earl R. Butler a well-known high school and college football star, and a District Supervisor with the North Carolina Department of Probation and Parole, was elected Sheriff of Cumberland County. During Butler’s career as Sheriff of Cumberland County, he served on many state boards to include the Governor’s Crime Commission and the President of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. During Butler’s tenure as Sheriff, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office was nationally and internationally accredited. It is one of only five Sheriff’s Offices in the state to hold this honor. After 22 years in office Sheriff Butler retired in December 2016. Sheriff Butler requested the County Commissioners to appoint Chief Deputy Ennis Wright to fulfill the remainder of his term.

On January 03, 2017, Ennis W. Wright was appointed Sheriff by County Commissioners with a unanimous vote.

Wright had over 20 years as a law enforcement officer when Sheriff Butler’s request was made to the County Commissioners to appoint him as Sheriff. Wright’s law enforcement career started with attending Basic Law Enforcement Training at Robeson County Community College in Lumberton North Carolina. He was first employed at Spring Lake Police Department where he worked for three and a half years as a road officer prior to joining the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office as a patrol deputy. Wright transitioned as a member of the Motors Section where he rose to the rank of Senior Sergeant, in charge of the Support Section for the Sheriff’s Office. With Wright’s promotion to Captain, he was assigned as Assistant Operations Commander.

Wright was promoted to the rank of Major where he was in charge of the Operations Division that consisted of the Uniform Patrol, Community Policing, Support, Motors, Interstate Criminal Enforcement, Canine, the Hazardous Device Unit, Special Response Team, and F Platoon (Reserves). Upon selection as Chief Deputy, Wright assumed supervision of the entire Sheriff’s Office.

Under Sheriff Wright’s command, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office has continued to be internationally accredited and to be an exemplary agency, recognized for its achievement and leadership.