You might say he was born to the job.
When Sheriff John P. (Jack) Robbins, Jr. became Sheriff of Northampton County in 2002, he was following a long family tradition. A very long family tradition. One that began 350 years ago when his 11th great grandfather, Edmund Scarburgh became the Sheriff of Accomack County in 1661.
Of course, Robbins didn’t know this when he became a Sheriff’s deputy in 1977 or even when he became sheriff. He was just pursuing a career in which he had held a long time interest.
A few years ago he was looking at a list of Northampton County sheriffs and noticed a few familiar names on it – Addison, which was his mother’s maiden name, and Robins, a variation on the spelling of his last name.
Robbins consulted the family expert, his second cousin David Scott. Scott, a Nassawadox physician, has been researching Eastern Shore genealogy since his was a teen-ager in the 1970s.
“I said, oh yeah, you’re a descendant of a lot of these people,” Scott confirmed. “If you include cousins, you are probably related to three quarters of these people.”
But as a genealogist, Scott knows the difference between being a direct descendant and merely cousins. He looked at the sheriff’s list, which dates back to 1634, and he looked at his genealogies, and he connected Robbins in the direct line of eight former Northampton County sheriffs.
I might be the only sheriff in the state with that many sheriffs in my family tree, says Robbins. Scott agrees that Robbins’ large number of direct sheriff ancestors is likely unique. Several factors contribute to the probability. The Eastern Shore was one of the earliest places settled in Virginia, and it had the first sworn sheriff in the new world in 1634. Robbins’ ancestors have been here since the early 1600s, and the Shore is geographically isolated resulting in many families which are intertwined.
The sheriffs come from both Robbins’ father’s side of the family — he was John Page Robbins, from Johnsontown, and his mother’ side – she was Margaret Tutwiler Addison of Eastville.
The first sheriff from whom Robbins is directly descended was Colonel Edmund Scarburgh, one of the most prominent figures in early Eastern Shore history. Scarburgh was intelligent, wealthy and powerful, owning 46,000 acres of land and serving in almost every significant political position available in that period. In addition to being the sheriff from 1661-1668, he was Virginia’s surveyor general, clerk of court, member of court and a member of the House of Burgesses.
Robbins is also a direct descendant of Argoll Yardley, II, the grandson of the much-respected colonial governor Sir George Yardley. Yardley was sheriff in 1681. He’s Robbins’ 9th great-grandfather on his father’s side.
Robbins’ other ancestors holding the post include Capt. Arthur Robins, his 7th great grandfather, who was sheriff in 1691 and Arthur Robins III, sheriff in 1773.
Col. John Stringer, sheriff in 1670, Hillary Stringer, sheriff in 1686, Ralph Pigott sheriff in 1721, and John Addison, sheriff in 1820 round out the family tree.
Some of Robbins’ modern-day duties are remarkably similar to those several centuries ago. Then and now, the sheriff was responsible for arresting those charged with offenses, keeping the jail, and maintaining the security of the court.
Unlike today, says Robbins, in the 17th and 18th centuries, basically I think they were tax collectors. One of the sheriffs’ most important duties was collecting tithables — the equivalent of a tax. The tithe was assessed in pounds of tobacco. The sheriffs’ salaries were paid with tobacco as well. The Northampton County order book for 1773 has the following accounting:
“To Arthur Robins Gent Sheriff his salary 1385 (pounds tobacco)
“To Arthur Robins Gent for a lock for the prison 70 (pounds tobacco)
“Ordered the Sheriff do collect 8 (pounds) tobacco from every tithable or in money at
12/6 (12 shillings, 6 pence).”
Sheriffs in the 17th and 18th centuries also oversaw punishments ranging from sitting in stocks, wearing a sign describing one’s offenses in church or being dragged across a body of water.
While such duties are no longer part of the office, Robbins takes a great deal of pride both in his family connections to past sheriffs and in Northampton County’s long and interesting sheriff’s history.
He occasionally talks to local school groups about how the office began when reeves served the English king as tithe collectors and keepers of the peace. Each reeve served in a geographical area known as a shire, and the shire’s reeve morphed into name sheriff, Robbins explains.
Last year the General Assembly recognized the 375th anniversary of the office of sheriff and the Eastern Shore’s role in it. In addition to having the first sworn sheriff in America, the Eastern Shore boasts the first elected sheriff as well. In 1651 the House of Burgesses required each county to chose a sheriff. Forging new ground, Northampton’s commissioners asked the residents to elect one instead. The result was the first elected sheriff in the new world – William Waters of Northampton County.
As part of the 375th anniversary, Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade designed commemorative badges and made them available to sheriffs and deputies who wished to buy them. It should come as no surprise that the sheriff who has eight sheriffs in his family tree wears that badge with pride.
by Claudia Bagwell
David R. Scott contributed genealogical research for this article.