Big Sky Treasures #6

One of Montana’s most enduring legacies has been the appearance of “3-7-77.”  One might ask, what is this? 

Right off the bat, the number might resemble a date (March 7, 1977 or March 7, 1877).  Does anyone really know?

Historians are not on the same page with the meaning of this number, but most agree that the symbol was first used by the Vigilance Committee of Virginia City, Montana in the 1860s.

In southwestern Montana during the early 1860s, gold fever surpasses the nation’s Civil War in its importance.  Even before the Montana Territory is created in 1864, the lure of gold is bringing hundreds and later thousands to the future Treasure State.

Three early gold discoveries set in motion the migration of fortune hunters into the areas of Grasshopper Creek, Alder Gulch, and Last Chance Gulch.  Unfortunately, the undesirables often accompany the miners into the territory in search of appropriating gold dust from their rightful owners.  Yes, highwaymen and robbers lurk in the shadows, waiting to strike.

In the Bannock and Virginia City areas, robberies continue to be a problem, and eventually miners and others feel a need to create their own methods of policing with quick justice. 

In February, 1864, justice comes at the end of a hangman’s rope for 21 villains, including Sheriff Henry Plummer in Bannock.  The sheriff is presumed to be working outside of the law in cooperation with a gang of criminals, who have been successfully robbing gold shipments from the mines.

Let’s return back to “3-7-77” and see where this investigation goes.

A few quick questions come to mind:

  • Is the symbol a warning to other robbers and highwaymen?
  • Could it be a command for certain roughnecks to leave town?
  • Do the numbers represent the dimensions of a grave (3 feet by 7 feet by 77 inches)?

Whether used as a warning, code, or cipher, the symbol of “3-7-77” remains pretty much a mystery.  Is it just some type of secret vigilante code or something more?

Some historians feel that the Freemasons were quite involved in the organization of the Vigilance Committee.  In Bannock, the first lodge meeting takes place in 1862 with “three” founders present.  Perhaps “seven” Freemasons organized the Vigilance Committee.  At the same time, Mason #77 (last name Bell) died from the fever.

Could the use of “3-7-77” have been a vigilante warning to outlaws to get out of town in 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds?

In nearby Helena, were occasional roughnecks sent out of town with a $3 ticket on the 7:00 a.m. stagecoach to Butte by order of a secret committee of 77?

Again, much is left to speculation because many Freemasons were opposed to vigilante actions and were never excited about publically displaying secret codes such as “3-7-77.”

Over time, the symbol of “3-7-77” has been painted on doors, walls, fences.  Some suspected criminals, who were caught and hanged, were discovered with a note attached to their clothing with “3-7-77.”

In modern times, “3-7-77” remains visible in one way that many Montanans see frequently.  In 1956, the Highway Patrol adopted the symbol as a tribute to the vigilantes, Montana’s first police force.  The emblem on their uniform shirts proudly displays “3-7-77.”

Fewer Montanans know that the Montana Air National Guard uses the symbol on their flight suits.

The meaning of “3-7-77” will be debated for years to come, but one truth is clear.  The early gold rush days in Montana create an environment ripe for robbers and outlaws.  Without any type of organized law enforcement in the 1860s, concerned citizens find a way to take action with the formation of a Vigilance Committee. 

Big Sky Treasures #2

Growing up under the Big Sky and spending about 50 years living there certainly makes me a citizen for life.  This short feature will put the spotlight on how gold fever rushed miners and others into three different regions during the 1860s into the Last, Best Place called Montana. 

During America’s Civil War, Montana seemed a bit more preoccupied with gold than war.  Three separate gold strikes poured people into western mountain valleys overnight.

Each region was designated with a geographic name as well as the town which sprung up in the midst of gold fever.

  • Grasshopper Creek in 1862 (Bannock)
  • Alder Gulch in 1863 (Virginia City)
  • Last Chance Gulch in 1864 (Helena)

Montana became a territory in 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Congressional legislation into law.  Each of these three gold mining communities would serve for a time as territorial capital.

Bannock (Territorial Capital 1864-1865)

This boom town started from Montana’s first significant gold strike.  Along an unassuming creek, hundreds of miners made the trek into Montana.  Today, Bannock is a ghost town, but a state park preserves the town’s structures.

These Bannack pictures (courtesy of Pinterest) show the exterior of a Masonic Temple and the interior of another building.  

Virginia City (Territorial Capital 1865-1875)

One of the world’s largest placer gold strikes proved much richer than Montana’s first discovery along Grasshopper Creek.  While Bannack declined, Virginia City thrived.  Today, the town serves as the county seat of Madison County with the historic courthouse formerly being the territorial capitol.

These photos were taken during a summer, 2016 trip to Montana which included an opportunity to visit Virginia City.  The Madison County Courthouse (formerly the Territorial Capitol) is on the left.  Virginia City is a unique community with the 21st Century living alongside of the preserved historical district as shown in the photo on the right (the inside of a business as it looked back in the gold rush days).

Helena (Territorial Capital 1875-1889)

A forlorn group of prospectors decided to pan for gold.  Their “last chance” before moving on proved to be the discovery which turned the region into a mad scramble of miners and businesses.  The gulch later became a meandering avenue (the original Main Street) in Helena, Montana’s capital city when statehood became a reality in 1889.

The above images (courtesy of Pinterest) show the contrast of Last Chance Gulch from earlier times on the left with the modern walking mall of today.

Thanks for visiting as Big Sky Buckeye appreciates your readership.  Stay tuned for future posts about the Last, Best Place of Montana.