‘Stars Over Tennessee’ Shines a Light on Tennessee Sheriffs

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Hear the word “sheriff” and everyone has a picture pop into their head. It may be of the Sheriff of Nottingham, England from the days of Robin Hood. Perhaps it is Bat Masterson, considered the best of the breed in the Wild West. Or Maybe Andy Taylor of Mayberry from the TV show. But what is the vision of a sheriff in Tennessee? Eleven years ago, Ronnie Erwin and his now deceased wife, Lynn, began to explore that question by researching the almost 4,200 sheriffs who have served the State of Tennessee since 1776 in their coffee table book, Stars Over Tennessee.

The term “sheriff” is derived from the ninth century Anglo-Saxon term “Shire-Reeve” or “Chief of the County”. According to sheriffs.org, “In early England the land was divided into geographic areas between a few individual kings – these geographic areas were called shires. Within each shire there was an individual called a reeve, which meant guardian.” Those who held this job collected taxes and enforced the king’s laws.

In 1641, the first sheriff’s office was established in America in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. However, these lawmen are most famously known from the Old West. In the wild and lawless American Old West, sheriffs were still collecting taxes and keeping the predatory from inflicting injury upon the citizens under their care.

Tennessee’s first sheriff took office in 1772, and the position was adopted into the state’s constitution in 1796, as the territory became a state on June 9, 1796, according to the Erwins’ research. In the end, the Erwins found 4,155 men and 28 women who had served as a county sheriff.

According to information shared by the Williamson County Public Library, where Ronnie Irwin recently spoke about his book, the concept of Stars Over Tennessee emerged after the couple met Texas historian Sammy Tise, author of the book Texas County Sheriffs and founder of Tise Genealogical Research. They became hooked on Old West history when they lived in Texas, although they are both originally from Maury County, Tennessee.

Ronnie and Lynn became collectors of historical sheriff’s badges and patches purchased from Tise. Ronnie shared with the Williamson Herald that one day when “Lynn was deep into Tise’s book researching three sheriffs’ badges [we’d] recently purchased… Out of the blue she said, ‘Our Tennessee sheriffs deserve a book like this, too’… Then she said, ‘We need to do it’…she pulled out a stenographer’s notebook and started outlining her vision.” He completed the book as one of her final requests.

Stars Over Tennessee is bursting with facts about everything from the origin of sheriffs to the names and dates of service for every sheriff who has served the 95 counties, and the five counties that were renamed or no longer exist. It also includes information about badges and patches, along with anecdotes about many of those who served in the job. Stories of the 46 sheriffs who died in the line of duty are also included in the book.

While one would think that Ronnie Erwin might have served in law enforcement, he did not. Erwin worked in the food technology business, and his wife Lynn was a teacher. The book was a product of their shared passion for the Old West and the history of law enforcement.

The project took thousands of hours of research, and was possible with the help of county historians from all over the state. Heavy footnotes in the book were put there as resources for those wishing to delve deeper into the topic, be it for interest in history or family genealogy.

All proceeds from the sale of the book go to The Lynn M. Erwin Education and Training Fund for the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association. The perpetual fund provides an annual payout to one of the 95 sheriffs selected each year by the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association.

For more information about Stars Over Tennessee or to order a copy of the book, visit www.rebelsprings.com.