By Bro. Tim Bryce
As we all know, law enforcement personnel are easily distinguished by certain symbols, such as a badge, a helmet, a uniform, or a shoulder-patch. Different jurisdictions, different symbols. But the shoulder-patch worn by the State Highway Patrol of Montana is an interesting design bearing one of the most intriguing insignias found in the law enforcement world: “3-7-77″, a simple set of numbers which many people, including the Montana troopers themselves, have trouble explaining. In its simplest terms, it refers to how “Law and Order” was introduced to Montana and represents the basis for the founding of the state.
For years, historians have been at a loss as to the exact meaning of the mysterious “3-7-77.” Theories abound to try and rationalize this cryptic numbering convention; everything from the dimensions of a grave (3 feet wide, 7 feet deep, and 77 inches in length), to a countdown to warn an outlaw or undesirable to get out of town (3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds) or face the consequences of vigilante justice. These theories are logically flawed and, as such, lack conviction. The only thing historians and scholars can agree upon is that it stood for a vigilante movement in the 1860’s which cleaned up Montana and made it safe from thieves, armed robbers, claim-jumpers, and cutthroats. Bottom-line, the numbers “3-7-77″ struck fear into the hearts of the outlaws of the day and, as such, must have been developed by a force to be reckoned with….Freemasons.
Nathaniel P. Langford
1862 represented a chaotic year for the United States. The young country was at war with itself over ideology. After just one year of conflict, both the Union and the Confederacy started to realize their differences weren’t going to be settled any time soon. The outlook for prosperity was bleak. People in both the North and the South were beginning to experience economic hardships. Those not interested in the righteousness of either side of the conflict wanted a way out. The western frontier held potential for those not afraid to embark into the unknown. Gold and silver had been discovered in the Northwest, making the temptation to move west irresistible to many people, including Nathaniel Pitt Langford of Minnesota.
In the summer of 1862, Langford, was one of dozens of men who signed on to an expedition, led by Capt. James L. Fisk, to cross the northern plains by wagon train and head into Western Montana to seek their fortunes and create a new life for themselves. At this time, Langford was 30. He was a tall man and had a beard to offset his slowly receding hairline, but more importantly he had a steely gaze that could penetrate your soul if you got on his bad side. Born in 1832 in Westmoreland, New York, Langford was raised and educated in New York state. In 1854, at age 22, he started his migration west by first stopping in Minnesota where he became a merchant and was raised a Master Mason under the Grand Lodge of Minnesota, an event which proved to be a key development in his character often overlooked by historians. He was proud of his Masonic heritage and was proficient in his degree work. Little has been recorded of his personal life, other than he was strong willed and spoke with conviction.
Like many others, Langford moved west to seek his fortune but he also suffered from wanderlust; the American frontier fascinated him and he found the temptation to explore it irresistible. Now, at age 30, he felt compelled to do something with his life and the Fisk Expedition represented the opportunity he had been waiting for.
The name “Montana” is Spanish meaning “mountainous.” Those visiting the state are struck by the beauty of the Rocky Mountains that follow the continental divide in the western part of the state. However, there are also vast plains in the state. Other than the plentiful mineral resources in the western part of the state there was little else in Montana of the 1860’s but buffalo and Indians, lots of Indians. Montana was an excellent refuge from the white man’s advancement to the west. Consequently, Montana became the home of many tribes including the Blackfeet & Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Flathead, Salish, Pend d’Oreille, Assiniboine and Sioux. The plains provided the perfect hunting grounds for bison representing the food, clothing and materials to sustain the tribes.
Bros. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (St. Louis Lodge No. 111, MO) brought the first group of white explorers across Montana in 1805 and 1806 as part of their expedition to the northwest. They were closely followed by fur trappers and traders. Aside from this, Montana remained the domain of the Indian…until gold was discovered.
Well before Montana was recognized as a territory of the United States, gold was found in south-western Montana in the early 1860’s. With this news, prospectors hurried to the area and makeshift villages began to pop-up. Since there was not yet a territorial government formed, law was governed by mining camps who would hire private sheriffs to administer justice, usually with mixed results.
The Fisk Expedition
Langford and the Fisk Expedition found its way through the plains of Montana with little incident. It had been a long and hard trip, but they were now approaching the end of their journey. Shortly before they reached the mountains, the expedition split into different directions with Langford’s group heading towards the southwest.
The group of about a dozen men stopped along a river bank one day at noon to take refreshment and were about to resume their journey when three or four horsemen appeared, coming out of the mountains, dressed from head-to-toe as mountain men. As such, the Fisk group eyed them suspiciously and checked their weapons in case of trouble, particularly Langford who was attending to his horse towards the back of the group. Fortunately, the riders presented no threat as all but one rode past the group without stopping to talk. The one lone rider stopped and dismounted to talk to the men at the front of the group who were yoking the oxen. Langford was out of earshot as to what was being said but the conversation was brief and the rider mounted his horse again. As he was about to leave, he turned and asked,
“Whose train is this?”
“Nobody’s; we own the wagons among ourselves.”
“Where are you from?”
“How many men were there in your train?”
“About one hundred and thirty.”
“Was there a man named H.A. Biff in your train”"
“No, sir! No such man.”
“Did you ever hear of such a man?”
“I never did,” replied one.
“I know of no one of that name,” said another.
This dialog, of course, caught the attention of Langford. Before the rider could leave, Langford approached him on horseback and offered him the token and word of a Master Mason. The two shook hands fervently for both had found a Brother they could talk to and trust. The two rode the rest of the day together describing their backgrounds and talking about Bannack, the small mining town where Langford was heading. Langford found the man to be a warm and intelligent brother Mason and enjoyed his company immensely. Likewise, Langford was the first Mason the rider had met in Montana and they talked as long-lost friends for hours, much to the bewilderment of the others.
After the two had established a warm rapport and described their Masonic upbringing, the rider began to give Langford a picture of the lay of the land. He warned Langford how the area was growing due to the gold rush, and how some miners who struck gold had a tendency to disappear or were found dead. There was little, if any, law enforcement or government in the area. Consequently, he advised Langford to keep a low profile and watch his back.
The two eventually parted on the square with the rider heading off to rejoin his comrades. Langford took heed of his Brother’s advice.
As the Fisk group continued their trek, Langford marvelled at the power of Freemasonry and dwelled on his chance meeting with his fraternal Brother. Summer had given way to Autumn and Langford knew their trip to Bannack was coming to an end. The group camped on the Mullan road near the summit of the Rockies. It was a picturesque spot where the mountains surrounded them and was lit at night by the moon and a curtain of stars. The glory and grandeur of the Rockies stirred Langford’s soul and he wanted to celebrate their arrival. Knowing there were two other Masons in his party, he recruited Bro. George Charlton and Bro. George Gere, who, like Langford, were all members of Minnesota Lodges and the trio ascended the summit for the purpose of opening an informal Lodge of Master Masons as generations of Masons have done before them, complete with Bible, square and compass. Being more proficient in Masonic custom than his Brothers, Langford acted as Worshipful Master. Inspired by the moment, the Masonic words and ritual came back to Langford with fluidity and precision. All agreed it was a beautiful degree and confirmed their faith in their Masonic heritage. None realized the significance of this “epochal” event as Langford would call it, representing the very first Lodge of Master Masons ever held in Montana and ultimately foretold the events to shape the territory. The date: Monday, September 23rd, 1862.
These three Brothers, by their actions, became the “3″ in “3-7-77″.
Bannack was located on the south-eastern edge of the newly created Idaho Territory (the southwest corner of modern Montana). The name “Bannack” was derived from the local Bannack Indians and the town was situated next to the Grasshopper Creek, a tributary of the Beaver Head. Grasshopper Creek was ultimately the source of the gold and the reason for people migrating to the area. Although the river had already been named by Lewis & Clark, local miners promptly renamed it “Grasshopper” due to the inordinate amount of insects that would swarm around as you walked about the area. Gold had been discovered in the Grasshopper on July 28th, 1862 and by the end of the year, hundreds of people had gravitated to the area, with a thousand by the end of 1863.
In 1862 Bannack was a typical American frontier boom-town. Buildings sprouted up seemingly over night, some were nothing more than simple cabins or shacks. Although tents were commonly used by the miners at first, wooden structures were needed to withstand the harsh Montana winters. Consequently, several establishments sprung up quickly, including hotels, stables, a barber, even a bakery; and more than one saloon. Other structures would soon follow based on private donations, including a church, a jail, a school, and eventually a Masonic Lodge.
When people heard about the gold in Bannack, they swarmed to the area to seek their fortune. Most came to mine for gold, others came to create the infrastructure needed to support the miners, e.g., hardware, hotels, saloons, food, etc., but other lawless characters inevitably appeared on the scene to rob and steal from the work of others. Most of the residents were law-abiding citizens, others were outlaws looking for quick money, parasites sucking the decency out of society.
Although one would be captivated by the beauty of the area and unbridled freedom of Montana, you were always reminded that Bannack was an outpost in the “Wild West.” In the early days, fights and duels would erupt at a moments notice, primarily due to liquor, gambling, a word spoken out of turn, or to simply prove manhood. Wrote Bro. Thomas J. Dimsdale, a writer who documented the era, “such men find themselves removed from the restraints of civilized society.” This was a very masculine dominated society and the absence of female companionship only contributed to problems. To make matters worse, there was nothing to do during the brutal Montana winters except drink; consequently, many fell victim to “cabin fever.”
Bannack was isolated from any true territorial jurisdiction, without any form of government. But man is a social animal requiring structure in the form of agreed upon rules, regulations and laws. Without them, chaos quickly follows, which Bannack fell victim to, and became a convenient target for outlaws who organized into gangs of roving desperados.
The citizenship of Bannack eventually took steps to bring a rudimentary form of law and order to the town. It was common in the old west for mining camps to elect their own sheriffs to settle disputes and try to keep a general sense of order. Bannack followed suit. Such sheriffs had a free hand to keep the peace, regardless of their methods. Suffice it to say, the tactics of the sheriffs would be unthinkable by today’s standards. Again, this was the “Wild West.”
Such was the environment Langford and his party rode into in the Fall of 1862. Bannack was far from the civilization known to Langford in New York or even Minnesota. Such an environment would test any Freemason who believed in justice, religion, and brotherhood – as it did with Langford, who would stand out as a pillar of Bannack society based on his strong moral convictions.
Whether you were a miner or not, everyone at least dabbled in the search for gold, including Langford. But Langford was more of a businessman by nature and quickly recognized Bannack was rapidly expanding with plenty of miners looking to spend their gold dust. Consequently, he headed up a small partnership to build a sawmill outside of Bannack in a place called Godfrey’s Canyon.
Langford restricted his close confidants to those he could trust, especially Brother Masons. Among his friends was Bro. William H. Bell who was a Mason from St. Louis. In November 1862, Bell fell victim to mountain fever and, as his dying wish, requested Langford give him a Masonic funeral. When Bell passed, his body was taken to the cabin of Bro. C.J. Miller and Langford spread the word from mouth to ear for all Masons in the area to assemble at Miller’s cabin for the funeral. He did not anticipate the response his call would result in, nor the chain of events that would ensue.
Word of the Masonic funeral was carefully passed from one Brother to another around Bannack. As the sun set on November 12th, the Masons began to assemble at Miller’s cabin, some came alone, others in groups, but they kept coming. Langford had expected perhaps a handful of Masons to heed his call. Instead, dozens appeared to pay their Masonic respects to their fallen Brother. So many Masons appeared that they moved the funeral to a larger cabin nearby. Langford conducted the services personally and 76 Brothers deposited the evergreen in Bell’s grave.
These 76 Brothers, along with the deceased Bell, became the “77″ in “3-7-77″.
The Masons were pleasantly surprised by their numbers. Prior to the funeral, it had not occurred to anyone that the fraternity was so well represented in the area. Consequently, they began to hold lodge meetings in the security of the mountains, away from prying eyes and easy to tyle. These meetings became important to the Masons, not only to reaffirm their Masonic obligations but to establish the support network they needed to survive in dangerous times.
The “7″ in “3-7-77″ is the keystone of our algorithm and represents the culmination of our story. Although, it is the main component that lead to law and order in Montana, it would be for naught without the first two variables in place.
As the Masons held Lodge in the mountains, a new force arrived in the Spring of 1863, Henry Plummer a New Englander who had come to town via California. In Plummer’s youth, he was sickly and, based on his doctor’s advice, left New England as a young man and travelled west to San Francisco where he tried his hand at odd jobs. Eventually he moved to Nevada City where he became a successful baker. Politics intrigued him and he was elected Marshall of Nevada City where he learned to be tough in order to survive as a lawman.
Plummer’s record as a lawman was tarnished in 1857 when he gunned down John Vedder. Although Plummer claimed self-defence, the jury believed he may have been romantically linked to Vedder’s estranged wife, Lucy. Consequently, he was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin. While in prison, Plummer’s health again deteriorated; so much so, that on the recommendation of prison doctors, he was granted a pardon from the governor after serving only six months in prison. He returned to Nevada City to recuperate and work with his partner in his bakery. Eventually, he took up mining but was unsuccessful with the several claims he tried.
No longer a lawman, Plummer felt free to live a wild lifestyle which would include liquor, women, and fighting. He was drawn into a drunken confrontation and shot a man named William Riley dead. Not wishing to take his chances with the local legal system again, Plummer left California in October 1861, before Riley’s inquest. By fleeing the state before the inquiry, Plummer had become a fugitive from justice.
Plummer crossed over the California state line into Nevada but his name was known in these parts and, fearing arrest, he kept moving northward away from Nevada and California to Washington state. Learning of the gold strike in 1862 and seeking anonymity in the wilderness, Plummer headed to Montana where he could start anew and arrived in Bannack in the Spring of 1863.
Bannack at this time was still growing and lawless. The first flashpoint in its development towards law and order came when Charlie Reeves, and his accomplices Moore and Mitchell stirred up trouble by attacking a nearby Indian camp and, in the process, killed and wounded white men, as well as many Indians. The local citizenship was aghast by this and called for justice. In March of 1863, the mining districts became part of the newly formed Idaho Territory, but it took time for the word to reach Bannack. Feeling isolated but compelled to do something about the murders, the citizens of Bannack ordered a trial, the first of its kind in a miner’s camp. In the past, miner camp trials were used to settle disputes over mining claims, not for murder cases. As such, Langford got involved and insisted on a trial by jury, not by the miners in mass as was the usual custom. Consequently, a judge, jury, prosecutor, defence attorney, and sheriff were appointed to hear the case with Langford sitting on the jury. The trial of Reeves, Moore and Mitchell was well attended by the miners and although the organizers had good intentions, it was far from perfect in terms of jurisprudence.
There was no doubt about the guilt of the accused, only their motivation. Unmoved by their arguments, Langford alone insisted on the death penalty while the rest of the jury wanted to seize their property and banish them from the area. After much deliberation, Langford settled for the seizure and banishment.
The acting sheriff felt uncomfortable in the role and quietly abdicated his position shortly thereafter. This left the door open for Henry Plummer who, with his New England charm, was elected sheriff of the mining district in May of 1863. Plummer was only 27 years old at the time. He was a handsome man of medium build, with a long moustache, customary for the time. He could change his disposition at a moment’s notice, going from polite and engaging one minute, to crude and insensitive the next. Plummer was intelligent and his advice was often sought on a variety of matters, including mining. His disarming charisma could sway people and helped to break up fights and settle disputes. However, the educated citizens of Bannack saw through his charm and treated him suspiciously, as was the case with Langford who felt Plummer’s New England charm beguiled a darker side to his character.
Plummer courted and eventually wed Electa Bryan in June of 1863. However, the marriage was brief, lasting just three months before she left him for her native Iowa under mysterious circumstances. The trouble between Plummer and his wife seemed to be caused by his frequent absence from home; he was either at his office, on patrol in the district, or, unknown to Electa, at the Rattlesnake Ranch, headquarters for the outlaws.
Plummer wouldn’t allow anyone to challenge his authority and made it a point to reaffirm to everyone he met that he alone represented “Law and Order” in the area. His reputation as sheriff quickly grew; so much so, that he was nominated a Deputy U.S. Marshall for the Idaho Territory. But his nomination was blocked by Langford who, by this time, was President of the Union League and saw through Plummer’s charm. This incensed Plummer who tried to sway Langford to endorse him, to no avail. Consequently, Langford became Plummer’s sworn enemy.
Plummer had heard of the Masonic meetings in the mountains and, thinking it would be a shrewd political move, tried to join them only to be rebuffed by the fraternity who refused to let him in. This concerned Plummer greatly. He knew there were many Masons in the area and was concerned about the goings-on in their secret meetings, consequently, he sent spies to check on the Masons, only to be turned away by Tyler's who safeguarded the meeting.
Despite the presence of a seemingly strong sheriff with his hand-picked deputies, crime did not abate, in fact, it proliferated. Robberies increased, as did disappearances and killings. Admittedly, Bannack was growing at an alarming rate. But if Plummer was half the sheriff he claimed to be, the town should not have been experiencing the problems it was. Further, it had not gone unnoticed that Plummer was absent from town whenever a robbery occurred. This was too remarkable a coincidence to be overlooked.
The second flashpoint came in the Fall of 1863 when two stagecoach robberies took place between Virginia City and Bannack, along with the killing of Nick Tiebolt who was robbed of two mules and murdered. Although the outlaws covered their faces, those riding on the stage suspected George Ives, a known local ruffian, as the person leading the raid.
The brutality of the crimes infuriated the citizenship, particularly the Masons who discussed the problem at length in their meetings. The Brethren did not trust Plummer and his deputies, nor did they have faith in the jurisprudence of the newly formed territory.
Suspecting Ives’ involvement with the stage coach robbery, a group of Virginia City citizens (Bannack’s neighbours) seized Ives and brought him to trial. Ives’ trial can be described as “clumsy” at best. Nonetheless, he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
Subsequent to the trial, a core group of citizens, all Masons, met in secret. Impatient for justice and incensed by recent events, they decided to take law into their hands and formed a vigilante committee. Recognizing the need for organizing a tightly bound group, seven members swore allegiance to bring law and order to the area. On December 22, 1863 a vigilante oath was administered by Wilber Sanders, nephew of the new Chief Justice of the territory, Sidney Edgerton, both Masons from Ohio. It was these seven Brothers, by their actions, that became the “7″ in “3-7-77″.
They formalized the oath in writing the next day:
“We the undersigned uniting ourselves in a party for the purposes of arresting thieves and murderers and recover stolen property do pledge ourselves on our sacred honour each to all others and solemnly swear that we will reveal no secrets, violate no laws of right and never desert each other or our standard of justice and seal them 23 of December 1863.”
Vigilantes were not uncommon in the wild west, particularly in the wilderness and loosely governed territories. But this Montana group developed an oath and a set of obligations based on honour, secrecy and righteousness; characteristics of Freemasonry.
The ranks of the vigilantes swelled immediately with Langford and many other Masons joining the group, as well as other non-Masons concerned with law and order. Merchants, miners, and professional men alike joined the committee, but membership in the vigilantes was a well guarded secret since they probably feared reprisals from the outlaws.
On the gallows, George Ives’ last words were that it was his confederate, Alex Carter, and not himself, who had actually committed the murder of Nick Tiebolt. With this information, the newly formed Vigilante Committee sprung into action and went in search of Carter. Warned the committee was looking for him, Carter made his escape. Instead, the committee found Red Yeager, an accomplice of Carter’s, and took him prisoner. Under questioning, Yeager revealed the names of the outlaw gang and the roles they served. Shockingly, he named Sheriff Plummer as Chief of the Gang, along with his deputies as accomplices. This made sense to the vigilantes, as all the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.
On January 10th, a group of 50-75 vigilantes from Bannack split into three squads and picked up Plummer and his two deputies, Ned Ray and Buck Stinson. Plummer had heard of how Ives’ was arrested and executed and was probably not surprised to see the arresting squad on his doorstep. He didn’t resist arrest, thinking he could talk his way out of the situation. He was wrong. The deputies were also easily apprehended and all three were hung on the Bannack gallows.
Following the hangings, the vigilantes in both Bannack and Virginia City wasted little time hunting down the remaining members of the outlaw gang, including Alex Carter who had escaped earlier. By the end of February 1864, Plummer’s gang had been eliminated and peace was restored to the area. The vigilante activities eventually subsided after this but was not totally abandoned until a few years later when the citizenship was convinced of the effectiveness of the legal system.
Historians question whether Plummer was, in fact, the leader of the outlaws and perhaps was innocent. The fact remains, with Plummer and the rest out of the way, law and order prevailed and Montana flourished.
It is not known who specifically invented the expression “3-7-77″, but it became the calling card of the vigilantes. In fact, the mysterious numbers actually did not appear until the 1870’s as the vigilantes were disbanding. It would be found carved in trees and brandished around towns as an intriguing warning to outlaws not to disrupt the peace and harmony of Montana. For if they did, the warning implied the vigilantes would not hesitate to reassemble and take justice into their hands again.
Vigilantism in today’s society is unimaginable. But given the climate of the times, e.g., alone in the wilderness with the “civilized” country at war with itself, it is understandable how the turn of events came about. Were the vigilantes wrong for taking the law into their own hands? Perhaps. But we, as members of the 21st century, are not fit to judge. Bottom-line, we must look at the end result: the robberies and killings stopped and law and order came to Montana.
There have been numerous books and articles written on the Vigilantes of Montana. Over the years, historians sifted through newspaper clippings of the time and available court and territorial records. We must remember American journalism, particularly in the west, had a flare for the dramatic at the expense of actual facts. Further, governmental records in a frontier town were practically non-existent. Regardless of how historians today protest Plummer’s innocence, they had no way of knowing in any precise detail of the events that occurred. More importantly, they didn’t have any knowledge of the customs and character of the Masonic Fraternity. In this author’s opinion, most of the historians simply “missed it.”
Nathaniel Langford spent a total of fourteen years in Montana. In 1870, he led an expedition to explore the upper Yellowstone and became the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. In his later years, he authored four books on both the formation of Montana and his explorations of Yellowstone, all of which are still available for sale from on-line book stores. He died in 1911 at the age of 79.
A lifelong Mason, Langford was very active in the Fraternity for many years. In 1867, he was appointed Grand Historian and, at the Grand Lodge of Montana’s Third Annual Communications in Virginia City, he delivered an eloquent description of the accounts mentioned herein. His oratory, which was re-discovered not long ago, is available on-line at the Grand Lodge of Montana web site.
With law and order restored in Bannack, Montana become a U.S. territory in 1864 with Bro. Sidney Edgerton, Langford’s friend and confidant, becoming the first territorial governor. Remarkably, Bannack had grown to a respectable size and, as such, became the capital of the new territory. But the gold-rush inevitably subsided and the populace moved on. By the time Montana became the 41st state in 1889, the capital was moved to Helena.
By 1938, Bannack was deserted and declared a ghost-town. Today, it is a state park where 60 buildings remain as a mute reminder of what was at one time the “Toughest Town in the West.” Amongst the buildings, stands a small two story dwelling bearing the square and compass. The Masons built the building in 1874 with the bottom story donated as the town’s school and the upstairs used as the Masonic Lodge.
Bannack Historical Lodge 3-7-77 A.F.& A.M.
The Lodge in Bannack remained dormant for many years until 2000 when the Grand Lodge of Montana rechartered it as a historical lodge. Today, any Master Mason in good standing and belonging to a Lodge recognized by the Grand Lodge of Montana can apply for a Life Membership in Bannack Lodge.
The monies derived from membership in Bannack Lodge are used to maintain this historical structure. To date, the monies have been used to shore up the building without disturbing the past. So much so, that a Lodge of Master Masons is now held once a year to honour and remember the Brothers who helped tame a territory and forge a state.
Article reprinted with permission of the author and FreemasonInformation.com