Vigilantes are an often revered part of Montana’s history. From Absarokee to Zurich, tales are told to elementary, middle-school, and high-school students about “vigilante justice” that was nothing if not swift. Helena, the capital, even boasts its own tribute to the vigilantes with a “Vigilantes Day” including a parade and other events. But perhaps the greatest tribute Montana has given them is the symbol 3-7-77 on the patch worn by Montana Highway Patrol troopers across the state. The numbers were added to the patch in 1956 and added a final gloss of respectability to the actions of the original law enforcement group. Promoted to chief administrator that year, Alex Stephenson personally designed the new insignia as a tribute to law and order. “We chose the symbol,” he explained later, “to keep alive the memory of this first people’s police force.”
This mysterious combination of numbers has captured the imagination of students of early Montana law enforcement ever since the old-timers who knew its significance refused to reveal it. The original Vigilantes took an oath of secrecy which was strictly observed through the death of the very last one of them. There are many explanations that have been explored over the years, and while their true meaning remains a mystery, one thing is clear. Those numbers struck fear into the hearts of those who found them tacked upon their doors.
The most widely accepted theory today is that the numbers represent the dimensions of a grave: 3 feet wide, 7 feet deep, and 77 inches (6 feet 5 inches) long. The idea behind this is that if the “Road Agent” did not leave town within a given amount of time (3 hours, 7 minutes, 77 seconds), they would find themselves in such a grave.
Another theory is that the numbers represent certain persons in the group from their earlier days in the mining camps of California. Most of the Vigilantes came from California and followed the gold from there to Montana. Many of the Montana miners had belonged to vigilante organizations in California where only numbers were used. This theory indicates that three prominent California vigilantes (3, 7, and 77) came to Montana and offered their expertise. This same theory applies to Colorado as well.
A third theory explains that the numbers signify the vocations of persons involved in the organization: 3 lawyers, 7 merchants, and 77 miners.
Perhaps one of the most well-known theories is that the Vigilantes were formed by the Masonic order. In this theory, 3 represents the number present at the first Masonic meeting in Montana, 7 the quorum, and 77 signified the number of Masons present at the first activity in the Territory, the funeral of Brother William Bell (Bell was the 77th Mason present).
Each theory is credible. Regardless of its meaning, however, 3-7-77 is emblematic of the first organized law enforcement in Montana. The Montana Highway Patrol, in adopting this early symbol, honors the first men in the Montana Territory who organized for the safety and welfare of the people. For that same reason, the Association of Montana Troopers has carried on that tradition by placing the legendary 3-7-77 on their patch as well.