200 Years of History

Written by Lt. Col. Neil Baxley


The term “sheriff” has it’s origins in old English history. When kings ruled England they supported their kingdoms through a taxation program. It was necessary to have an individual to collect those taxes for the king. King Alfred in 890 A.D. appointed an individual upon whom he bestowed the title Reeve. The term is defined as “guardian”. Among the duties of the Reeves were tax collection, mediating disputes and posse comitatus. The last was the authority to command others to assist in keeping the peace in the kingdom. Alfred went further and determined geographical jurisdictions over which the Reeves had authority. These geographical locations were called shires. Thus when the people naturally combined the two terms, "Shire" and "Reeve", it denigrated into "Sheriff."

The Office of Sheriff is the longest continually standing office in civilized history. Although English rule changed as various kings became stronger and took larger parcels of land, they kept the Office of Sheriff established. In approximately 1190, King Henry II expanded the duties and responsibilities of the Sheriff as well as established the right to trial for the accused and the powers of a grand jury.

Henry’s directives were expanded in the next century with the passage of the Magna Carta, the forerunner of our Constitution. The Office of Sheriff is mentioned no less than 27 times in that powerful document. Among the duties were apprehending criminals, assisting other sheriffs, operating the jails and conducting executions. The latter is the only duty now relegated to the state.

As the New World was explored and populated the King gave huge tracts of land in present day Georgia, North and South Carolina to eight loyal supporters known collectively as the Lords Proprietors. These men were given the authority to appoint Provost Marshals for the various districts under their leadership. At this point in history Beaufort did not exist as a separate entity. The Town of Beaufort was founded in 1711 and answered to government authorities in Charleston. The Provost Marshal for the District of Charleston had full authority of a sheriff for the entire district including Beaufort. The scant records available indicate that there may have been town marshals appointed in Beaufort to keep the peace.

The Circuit Act of 1769 by the State Legislature created a separate county known then as Granville County. Within a few short years it would change its name to Beaufort County. The Circuit Act legislated a sheriff be appointed for each district by the Legislature. The Provost Marshall for Charleston District was granted the authority to continue to hold the position, changing the title to Sheriff until such time as the Legislature appointed successors. The Provost Marshal at that time was Roger Pinckney IV. He is the first sheriff responsible for the Beaufort District, even though he lived and worked from Charleston.

In 1776 the Council of Safety appointed a Charleston Blacksmith, Tunis Tourent as the first sheriff of Beaufort (Granville) District. Tourent was a patriot ardently supporting the rebellion against the King. Due to the disorder and changing environment during the Revolution with the British and Americans exchanging control of Beaufort several times, no sheriff’s were appointed again until 1781 at which time William Rose was appointed. Rose would be followed by a succession of notable Beaufort citizens in the Office of Sheriff.

Between 1776 and 1810 the sheriffs were appointed by the Legislature. They could only serve one two year term (which could be held longer if no successor was named). In 1810 the new Constitution of South Carolina was ratified, and the Office became an elected position.

At least twenty-four men held the office between Tourent and the outbreak of the War Between the States in 1861. T.G. Buckner was the last man to hold the office when war broke out. He joined the Confederate Army, fighting in Virginia where he was severely wounded. Upon the end of hostilities, Buckner was unable to resume his duties as Sheriff due to his wounds. W.J. Gooding, who had served as a Lieutenant in the 11th South Carolina Infantry, was elected to the post. He held the job less than two years when the Reconstruction Act was passed by Congress, and all southerners who had served the Confederate Army were barred from holding office.

Alfred Williams was elected to office, beginning a series of northern men who came to Beaufort during or immediately after the war as speculators and carpetbaggers. Henry Elliott, a native of Beaufort, ended this period in 1883, returning the office to native sons through a very popular election. One of those native sons would be George A. Reed, the first black sheriff of Beaufort County. Reed, a Republican, was elected on a joint ticket known as the Fusion Ticket in November 1888, which served to fully restore power in Beaufort County to citizens of Beaufort County. Reed would serve two full terms, including facing one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. He was sheriff when the hurricane of 1893 struck Beaufort County, killing over two thousand citizens, only the second worst hurricane to strike our nation.

The period between 1882 and 1924 was a difficult one for sheriffs of Beaufort County, with six dying in office. All died of illness and disease, most at reasonably young ages. The final death, in 1924, was James E. McTeer.

McTeer had served as Sheriff from 1904 to 1912. He lost the office in 1912 but was reelected in 1924. Unfortunately he died before he could take the Oath of Office and assume the duties. His twenty-three year old son, J.E. McTeer was asked by the legislative delegation of Beaufort to assume the duties in place of his father and he consented. This began one of the longest consecutive runs in United States history. J.E. McTeer would win reelection each term through 1962 for a total of thirty-eight years.

McTeer was replaced by L.W. Wallace, a former South Carolina State Trooper. Wallace is credited with beginning the transition from a small town southern Sheriff’s Office to a progressive, modern, well-equipped law enforcement agency. He initiated central dispatching for emergency services and worked hard to upgrade the equipment to meet the new demands of a growing Beaufort County.

Wallace and his immediate successor Morgan McCutcheon would work tirelessly on this endeavor, leading the effort in bringing an 800mhz. state of the art communications system to Beaufort County in 1989.

Sheriff P.J. Tanner brought the agency into the 21st Century with a stated goal of providing the best, most efficient and technologically advanced law enforcement possible for Beaufort County. Tanner has successfully directed the effort in establishing a drug analysis laboratory, video forensics processing equipment, satellite communications, internet, web-based internal communications and on-board computer technology in to the agency.

The first law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty in Beaufort County was a State Dispensary Constable (the forerunner of Alcohol Beverage Control officers). Constable J. Rollins Cooler was shot and killed from ambush at the Corner intersection on St. Helena Island on April 12, 1915. His brother, W.M. Cooler was a deputy sheriff at the time. Deputy Cooler would later safely and professionally escort the convicted killers to prison in Columbia. On January 6, 1925 Deputy Benjamin Paul Cardin would be shot and killed while serving an arrest warrant in Seabrook. Deputy Elmo Langford would die violently just two years later on June 6, 1927 while investigating a reckless driving complaint in Grays Hill. In each of these cases the killers would be caught and convicted.

Sixty-three years would pass before another officer would be killed in the line of duty. Russell Bell was shot to death by a prisoner he was escorting on April 17, 1990. The worst single day for the BCSO would wait another twelve years. On January 8, 2002 Dyke Coursen and Dana Tate were shot and killed from ambush while responding to a domestic disturbance call for help. The men involved in these cases were apprehended and convicted.

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office began in 1769 with one person. As of May 2015, 238 sworn-certified law enforcement officers and 95 civilian personnel work together to meet the mission of the BCSO.