The Law in Montana Territory


LindaBrodaySeems like every state has a storied law enforcement agency. Here we have the Texas Rangers. In Montana it was the Vigilantes. I recently ran across an interesting story about the Montana Vigilantes that was formed in December 1863.


But first, here’s a glimpse of what they faced in 1863. Outlaws, robbers and murderers ran rampant in the Montana Territory. What courts there were had very limited power in remote mining camps. Mostly justice (if any could be had) came about through what was called miners’ courts and was mostly very weak and the rulings difficult to enforce.


A group of men from three of Montana’s major cities held a clandestine meeting in John Lott’s store in Virginia City and formed this secret organization. Over the course of two years their numbers rose to over two thousand men. The Vigilantes’ main goal was to rid the territory of an outlaw gang called the “Innocents.” They dispensed harsh justice to undesirables of the young Montana Territory.



In the first two months of 1864, they hung 24 men. Pretty busy it appears.




Seems the Vigilantes would paint the numbers 3-7-77 on homes, fences, tents and other things as a threat. If the person didn’t leave, they dealt with them violently and swiftly. No one ever got a second threat.


The meaning of the numbers is a mystery. Some say they represented the exact time period that the Vigilantes gave their targets to get out of town – 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds.


Another interpretation is that the numbers were a grave’s dimensions: 3 feet, by 7 feet, by 77 inches.


Still another school of thought is that it was a code used by the Masons.


MHP PatchWhatever they represented, they struck terror in a man’s heart and he quickly heeded the warning or risked death. These numbers became a potent symbol of law and order.


The Montana Highway Patrol still uses the numbers today. The patch on each lawman’s shoulder sports 3-7-77. The department also paints it on the rear panel of each patrol car.


To the lawmen of today it represents “Serve and Protect.”


While there’s no justification at all for vigilantes, neither could a man couldn’t stand by and let evil take over without doing something to root it out.  Evil is like a poison; it destroys and eats at the fabric of society.

Do you have any opinions?


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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

25 thoughts on “The Law in Montana Territory”

  1. I do not believe these vigilantes were Masons. They have to swear they are believers in GOD, and if they were, this wouldn’t happen by them. I have known many Masons including my brother and husband. They were always doing good for others. Maxie

  2. Loved this post, Linda. I had never heard of the Vigilantes. How cool that today’s Montana lawmen still honor their roots with the 3-7-77.

    I have mixed emotions about vigilante justice. When there is no effective law, someone needs to step up in order to hold evil back. Yet, when vigilantes grow in power, there is always the risk of them abusing that power. I can’t help but wonder how many innocent men fled under the threat of 3-7-77. Or worse, how many ended up at the end of a rope.

    Fascinating history, though. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Good Morning, Maxie………Wow, you were up before the chickens! Glad you stopped by. I agree with you about the Masons. Seems they got blamed for a good many things back in the day and I think that stemmed from all the secrecy surrounding the very old organization. Whatever the code meant it sure put the fear of God in people. I found it so odd though that the highway patrol still puts those numbers on their uniforms and cars. But then I love mysteries. Guess that’s why I’m a writer.

    I wish you a wonderful sunshiny day!

  4. Good Morning, Karen……….Glad you enjoyed my blog. I found it fascinating. I’ve always loved a good mystery. I agree about vigilante justice. It’s not always justice at all but evolves into revenge for any slight. I’m sure quite a few innocent men were caught up in this. Really a sad situation. But at least the vigilantes rid the territory of that horrible outlaw band that had taken over. I’m not saying it’s justified but sometimes men have to do whatever they must to protect themselves and their families when there is no law to do it.

    I hope you enjoy this sunshine and warm weather. Might not last too long.

  5. Great post, Linda! I went to college in Montana and then lived there ten years after and the vigilante question is still something that can get people fired up, especially up near Virginia City. In my opinion the problem with vigilantes is usually it turns from men ridding the country of crooks and murders to those same men becoming the crooks and murderers. It’s too easy to start pointing at a neighbor who just so happens to own a piece of land you’ve been wanting.

    I’m not sure there were many innocent men who saw 3-7-77 on their door, but I think some of those holding the rope belonged on the same tree.

  6. Hi Kirsten………So glad you stopped by. I should’ve known you were acquainted with Montana history. What I don’t understand is why the highway patrol puts the number on their clothes and cars. Seems a little strange to me why they’re still hanging on to that number. Yes, power can sure go to a man’s head and in many instances he can become the very thing he’s trying to root out. Kinda sad. But it happens over and over in yesteryear and today.

    I wish you a great day. Whatever you do, I know you’ll have fun. You have the ability to make anything fun and exciting.

  7. Hi Linda!

    Fascinating post. Yes, there does need to be law and order. However, often real criminals are attracted to this in order to pass laws that make their illegal/criminal tendancies “legal.” I could give so many examples.

    There are masons and then there are masons. At the highest levels, I have read evidence that shows that the very highest levels are compromised and were deliberately done so by Adam Weishaudt (can’t spell his last name) who founded the Illuminati. He specifically wanted the masons infiltrated in order to use their organization for his own ends. So much documented proof of this follows — his own writings, other writings, etc.

    But at the lower levels of masons, they have the good of people uppermost in mind, I think. Or at least they used to.

    But long ago, the upper levels of Masons were infiltrated by an organization set up to do evil specifically — the illuminiti — and they exist even to this day, sad to say.

    That’s my take on it anyway. Fascinating post.

  8. Hi Karen Kay………I’m glad you liked my post. And how interesting about Adam Weishaupt. I didn’t know any of this. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. My uncle was a Mason and rose pretty high in the ranks but I didn’t really know anything about it. My aunt told me he was under oath to never talk about the organization. When he passed away the Masons gave him a huge funeral. A person’s imagination runs away with itself when there are secrets involved.

    Have a wonderful day.

  9. I love this, Linda, especially because I’m setting a book in Montana/Wyoming Territory–those borders jumped all over and I’ve had trouble pinning down exactly what to call this area in the year of my books. But my dates are earlier than this. But the whole lawlessness is fascinating, and the idea of the vigilantes and that the 3-7-77 is still used today even though no one really exactly knows what it is, for some reason that gives me CHILLS. And chills are always a good sign when I’m reading history. 😀

  10. Hi Tanya……..Isn’t this fascinating? But then history is to me. The two subjects I really excelled in in school was history and English. I’m glad you enjoyed my blog.

  11. Hi Mary……..Wow, talk about good timing. How exciting to set a book in that part of the U.S. Your book must take place in the early 1800’s before the westward expansion really got in full swing. Yes, this gave me chills too. I love mysteries and history and when you combine them you get something exciting.

    Good luck on the new book!!

  12. Hi Linda
    Oh, I love this kind of historical background. It’s so neat to see those numbers on the Montana badges today. One could only hope the Vigilantes were decent and fair in their assessment of villains. Sometimes, I think we need that kind of law enforcement today to sweep the country of criminals. Very cool blog!

  13. Fascinating, Linda! I never heard of the 3-7-77 mystery. I love this! As always, a very interesting post, my filly sis!

  14. Linda, this was such an interesting post. We were in Montana this past summer and thank goodness, we didn’t get up close and personal with any highway patrolmen but it is certainly something I will sure look for if we ever get stopped or need any assistance .

  15. I don’t believe in vigilante “justice.” There were no rules of evidence or protection for the accused. It lends itself to personal grudges and misuse. I can understand the feeling that it was better than nothing, however, when is someone is dead, there is no way to change it if you find you have made a mistake. The Texas Rangers operated under the law. It doesn’t sound like the Vigilantes were tightly organized or trained well enough to prevent abuse of their power.

  16. Great post Linda. I had never heard of the Vigilantes. I know there was vigilante justice in the West in those days because of lack of law enforcement and people who let their emotions run away with them. If a family member was killed by someone I’d want them to pay too. Having been in law enforcement I hate to see someone take the law into their own hands. Nothing good ever comes of it. We see this even today. Patrica, I’m proud of the Rangers too. Have worked with some but I think Linda’s point was that there was no law there then. Usually law enforcement officers are willing to help at any time. I wound up with a lady hanging on to me very upset at a crime scene. It didn’t matter that I had a gun on my hip, she needed comfort.

  17. Hi Cheryl…….I apologize for answering your post a day late. I got caught up in some things and missed your comment. I’m glad you liked knowing about this 3-7-77 code. It’s certainly a mystery. I love this kind of thing. Sure gets me thinking.

  18. Hi Britney……thanks for coming by and leaving a comment. I’m glad my post caught your interest. That’s always my goal. I was as surprised as you are that the highway patrol is still using the mysterious code.

    Hi Melanie…….I’m so glad you stopped by. When I ran across this information about the code and the Montana Highway Patrol, I was instantly intrigued. It’s such a fascinating part of history and not many people know about it.

  19. Hi Patricia B………Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. I appreciate your honesty. Vigilantes were not something I’d want a part of. I know how power can go to a man’s head and how quickly they can turn from good to bad, especially in the Old West where lawlessness ran rampant. Yet, you can’t let a gang have control of a town, a county, or a state. Montana was so far removed from the rest of the country in those days and it was a very dangerous place.

    I hope you have a wonderful day. Enjoy the sunshine while you can. I fear winter isn’t done with us yet.

  20. Hi Connie Brown……..Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting on this subject. I have all the respect in the world for law enforcement people. Such a dangerous job and the pay is probably not all that great. You have to dedicated and love what you do. And you seem like that kind of person. If I ever find myself in need of help, I pray someone like you comes along.

    The old West was such a difficult dangerous place at times and sometime you had to make your own law when no other was available. I believe the strong sense of right and wrong and commitment to justice for all was what settled the West.

    Take care. May God be with you!

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