The Montana Highway Patrol should patch reads 3-7-77. I’ve heard (and told) several different explanations. Links to several explanations are below the patch – and at the end, is the story that, I feel, best explains the 77.
Cornelius Hedges came headed out on foot from Iowa to the Montana gold fields, arriving in Virginia City in late Summer of 1864. By the time he arrived, the serious Vigilante action around Alder Gulch was winding down, and Hezekiah L. Hosmer, the first chief justice of Montana’s territorial supreme court was arriving.
Hedges moved to Last Chance Gulch, where vigilantes were still active. For many years, he was Grand Secretary of the Montana Masonic Lodge – and his description, taken from the lodge newsletter, follows:
“Brother William H. Bell, of St. Louis, died November 12, 1862, the first natural death in the camp, and in his last moments expressed the desire for a Masonic burial if possible. Notices were circulated as widely as possible and the cabin of Brother C.J. Miller, on Yankee Flat, designated as the meeting-place. To every one’s surprise, so many answered the call that the cabin could not hold them. They adjourned to a still larger cabin the next day and still more attended. The leadership was conceded to Brother Langford who seemed most familiar with the work. After a general examination of those claiming to be Masons there were seventy-five who dropped the sprig of acacia on the Brother’s grave.”
Seventy-five dropping the sprig of acacia, plus Nathaniel Langford presiding, plus the deceased William Bell yields the 77. While Hedges was not yet in Montana at the time of the funeral, there was only a brief six-week span of time when the Vigilantes of Virginia City and Bannock captured and hanged Sheriff Plummer and his gang (the Innocents).
Hedges wrote of 1865 “. . . for it was the time when we were having the death struggle with the gamblers and road-agents, and every good citizen who wasn’t a Mason wanted to become one” and later “. . . during that time we shared our room with another organization which were establishing law and order by raising candidates in a hundred strong, not all Masons, by any means, had marched a few times into a room full of gamblers with cocked pistols and taken out some victim whose criminal career had been investigated and led him over to the pine tree and there left him in suspense.”
Helena’s Hanging Tree was chopped down by a Methodist minister named W.M. Shippen in 1875. There is no record of 3-7-77 written anywhere during 1864 when the original vigilantes hanged the Innocents. 3-7-77 was first noted in 1879, and not connected with a hanging until 1885. Which brings the research to Granville Stuart:
Granville Stuart started a vigilance committee of 14 Musselshell ranchers in 1884 after his horse and 30some cows were rustled (the numbers varied between 17 and 40, depending on where they were operating). Well, they called themselves vigilantes, but they show up on wiki under the heading of Stuart’s Stranglers. The following year, Stuart was elected president of the Stockgrowers Association. I suspect that 3-7-77 first started with this group (though the records suggest he was associated with the vigilantes earlier in Bannack.