Though Alachua County was created in 1824, it would not see the appointment of the first sheriff until three years later. In the very early years, from 1821 to 1828, Florida sheriffs were appointed by the governor of the state with the advice and consent of each individual county‘s legislative council. However, that changed in 1828 when a bill passed that required sheriffs and other county officials to be popularly elected by the citizenry, and to each hold their office for two years. Sheriffs had to post a $5,000 bond and take an oath before they could hold office. Sheriffs did not earn a salary, but rather worked on a set fee basis, earning a specific amount of money for each service. The early fee system included the following tasks:
- Removing a Prisoner – $.10
- Appearing before a Judge or a Justice with a Prisoner – $2.00 per day
- Putting a Prisoner in Jail – $1.00
- Releasing a Prisoner – $.25
- Whipping a Free Person under Court Order – $2.00
- Executing a Condemned Person – $10.00
Simeon Dell, was appointed the first Alachua County Sheriff in 1827, serving until 1832, and also the county’s tax assessor and tax collector. At least two constables also served under Sheriff Dell, including Thomas N. Smith and Thomas Barrow.
John Gideon Tiner became the second Sheriff of Alachua County, serving from 1832-1839. The job of Sheriff was so demanding that in 1834, a law was passed that allowed Florida sheriffs to appoint deputies, who would have the same constitutional powers as the sheriffs they served. At least eight deputies served under Sheriff Tiner, acting as constables in various locations throughout Alachua County including Micanopy, Hogtown, Newnansville and the Springhill District, which was located near Alachua. These constables had to post a $500 bond in order to serve.
After Tiner, succeeding sheriffs were only required to post a $2,000 bond. Jesse Carter served next from 1839-1840 followed by Thomas Everett Barrow, previously a constable under Sheriff Dell. Barrow served from 1840 until 1841.
John McNeill served as Sheriff for the next two years; June of 1842 to 1843. An 1832 law which carried over into statehood described the methods of punishment for crimes, including executions. “The punishment of death shall be inflicted by hanging by the neck, in some public place, until the culprit is dead.” Two murderers were executed by a public double hanging in Newnansville on June 1, 1842.
Isaac B. Blanton was the next Sheriff of Alachua County, from 1844-1845. He was the last sheriff to serve during the territorial days of Florida, and the first to during Florida’s statehood, granted in 1845. Sheriff’s bonds began to vary widely during this time. Blanton’s bond was $3500.
Sheriff Thomas Cook Ellis served from 1845-1847, elected to office on October 31, 1845. His successor, William Gibbons, only served from November of 1847 to April of 1848. Unbeknownst to the Sheriff, Gibbons was playing poker with William Watson, who had murdered the sheriff of Jackson County in 1844; Watson fled to Alachua County and changed his name to avoid capture. While playing cards on April 4, 1848 the two got into a heated argument. Sheriff Gibbons called for guns and engaged Watson in a duel, which he lost. After killing Sheriff Gibbons, Watson fled, was captured but escaped before trial and was never located. Former Sheriff Thomas Ellis replaced Sheriff Gibbons after his unfortunate death.
In 1848, a new law established the clerk of the courts. This removed the responsibility of the sheriff to also serve as a tax collector, and left them free to enforce the law. Sheriffs now served four year terms, broken down into two year increments.
Abraham E. Geiger was the next Alachua County Sheriff, though most referred to him as “Captain” from his service in the Second Seminole War. Elected on July 17, 1848, he served until November 2, 1849. County Commission records show he was very busy furnishing the Newnansville Jail, guarding prisoners and repairing the jail when needed. That jail, built in 1848 at a cost of $400.38, had specifications recorded in the Alachua County Commission Minutes as follows:
A structure “of hewed logs dovetailed together, double-pinned one pin inside. . . . all the logs shall be square. That the jail shall be sixteen feet clear on the inside, that there shall be a trap door in the loft. . . . That there shall be a door in the gable end above the logs. . . . That there shall be two windows, or air holes eighteen by twenty-four inches square secured by a double set of large iron bars crossing each other. That the doors shall be fixed with strong hinges and locks and a ladder for the trap door. That there shall be a sink or hole for a spring inside secured as well as possible.”
Charles L. Wilson was elected Sheriff on November 3, 1849, narrowly defeating his opponent by 37 votes, Wilson was re-elected in 1851 and served until 1855. Records show Alachua County continued experiencing issues with jail security. The jail became so compromised that the County Commission order the jail “repaired and made sufficient to hold prisoners” on February 2, 1852. Wilson’s term included the transfer of the county seat from Newnansville to Gainesville in 1854.
George B. Ellis was elected in November of 1855, taking office in December of that year. His father owned more than 600 acres in the area of Fort Clarke where the family settled in the 1830’s. A subdivision, Ellis Park, and a small family cemetery still exist in the area today.
Sheriff Ellis was succeeded by Samuel W. Burnett, elected Sheriff in October 1857. He was reelected 1861 and 1863, serving until 1865 – including during the Civil War. During Sheriff Burnett’s tenure, the first Alachua County jail in Gainesville was completed around 1858 at a cost of $1394. The floor was made of flint rock covered with sealed two inch planks, and windows were fashioned with iron grates and the door specifications called for them to be “made of the best material and in the most substantial manner.”
In May 1865, martial law was imposed in Florida and the military authority removed Sheriff Burnett from office on December 21, 1865, appointing Sheriff John O. Cosby in his place. Cosby was Sheriff during Reconstruction. Cosby was removed from office in March 1868 by General Meade, and George L. Barnes of Massachusetts was appointed in his place. In 1868, Sheriff’s terms were also extended from two to four years.
Sheriff Barnes served during the creation of the job of Town Marshal, later known as the Chief of Police, for the city of Gainesville, which Poindexter Shemwell first held. After leaving office, Mr. Shemwell served as a deputy with the Sheriff’s Office until his death in 1873.
By the late 1860’s the Alachua County jail was in a state of disrepair. On November 10, 1868, they ordered the Sheriff to “proceed at once to build a temporary jail for the confinement of State and County Prisoners until provisions” [could] “be made for building a good and substantial one.” In April of 1869, the County Commission also ordered that all prisoners held in the county jail and sentenced to hard labor be put to work on the county roads and buildings under a competent guard as hired by the Sheriff. By July of 1869, the county commission proposed holding a special election as to whether a tax should be levied to build a “good and substantial” jail. It was no doubt needed, as in November 1869, fourteen prisoners escaped from the jail, as reported in this Kentucky newspaper.
In 1870 and 1871, Sheriff Barnes was accused of mishandling money several times. He overcharged the county, creating errant charges, and was even jailed by Judge Goss at least twice for failing to turn over money that he had collected as Sheriff. By February 1872, Barnes had resigned and Judge Goss appointed Deputy and former Town Marshal Poindexter Shemwell to serve as Elisor until the Sheriff could be replaced. Shemwell served until March of 1872.
Barnes was replaced by appointment of DeWarren L. Barton, but he did not last long: John Howell replaced Barton, and Howell was replaced by Louis A. Barnes, George Barnes’ brother, all by February 1873. Barnes had a difficult time keeping the jail secure as well and improvised by containing prisoners inside the courthouse until he was ordered by the County Commission not to do so on July 29, 1875.
In 1876, Samuel Cotton Tucker was elected Sheriff, serving until 1880. He was replaced by A.J. Weeks for a short time in 1880. John W. Turner replaced Weeks and served from June of 1880-1883, when Samuel Tucker was re-elected Sheriff, serving a second term from 1883-1886. A.J. Collins replaced Tucker in 1886 for a short period of time until Samuel Hamlin Wienges was elected later that same year. Wienges also served as the Clerk of Court and was a Worshipful Master in the Gainesville Masonic Lodge. Sheriff Wienges left office in 1890.
In 1890, Sheriff Samuel Tucker served for a third and final time until Sheriff Lewis Washington Fennell took office that same year. Sheriff Fennell served until 1892, when Allen U. Hilleary was elected. In January of 1895, Sheriff Hilleary resigned and on January 9, 1895, the County Commission met to approve the bond of Hamilton Melton Tillis as Sheriff. Sheriff Tillis served for three years until Sheriff Fennell was reelected in 1897.
Sheriff Fennell was born in Melrose, the son of an orange grower and started his adulthood as a farmer in Hawthorne. He held office on the County Board of Supervisors, was a deputy tax assessor, and also served on the Alachua County Commission, State Democratic Committee, and was President of the State Sheriffs’ Association. After leaving office, served as Chief of Police for the Gainesville Police Department.
Sheriff Fennell, known as “Uncle Wash,” struggled to maintain staff – at that time deputies worked strictly off of commission, not salary. In those days, work often meant talking to witnesses, tracking footprints, and using hounds—all from horseback and usually alone. Alachua County was still very much rural frontier land, and authority did not rest with the rule of law, but with whoever chose to take it by force. Sheriff Fennell and his deputies made a valiant effort to begin changing the face of Alachua County‘s frontier into something approaching law and order, but were largely unsuccessful.
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