“Men, do your duty.”
If history has any say in the matter, that duty entailed killing upwards of 100 thieves and murderers (in the day, road agents, one of whom was the local sheriff) by what came to be known as Montana’s Alder Gulch Vigilantes.
A passion for Western history prompted the Boveys to buy the first of over 100 mostly abandoned houses and shops in Virginia City following their initial visit to the area in 1944. Recognizing the importance of preserving Montana’s heritage and history, Bovey enlisted the help of historians and local citizens to save the town from self-destruction (many of the empty, old dilapidated buildings were systematically being used for scrap lumber or for firewood).
Holy history! Time can be such a brutal beast.
Of course, not all those zeroes belonged to Bill Fairweather. Seems Bill and his five prospecting buddies had a hard time keeping a lid on their good fortune. And just like that, in the time it takes to rustle up some grub, upwards of 10,000 people were camped out along a 14-mile stretch of Alder Gulch under Montana's Big Sky or in mud huts, ramshackle tents and lean-to shacks.
Seems all that gold even caught the attention of the federal government and one Abraham Lincoln, then President of the United States; a Civil War raging on the east coast made Virginia City’s gold very attractive to both sides. Did I mention the great majority of the Territory’s inhabitants were secessionists?
As the story goes, the claim filed on June 16, 1863 to establish a township in the midst of all the mining activity was to bear the name Varina. Varina Howell Davis was the first and only First Lady of the Confederate States of American, wife of Jefferson Davis, then President of the Confederate States. Seems Dr. Gaylord Bissell, the Connecticut judge (and staunch Unionist) entrusted with recording the deed, objected to the choice. Records of that transaction bear the city name Virginia. Ah, yes, the pen is always mightier than the sword.
Between June, 1863 and May, 1864, the battle for Virginia City’s gold also ensued between Virginia City “road agents” and the secret organization known as the Montana Vigilantes. Travelers heading into and out of Virginia City with all that gold were easy prey for thieves and murderers thought to be part of Sheriff Henry Plummer’s gang from nearby Bannack. With the law on their side, justice hardly prevailed.
Enter frontier justice on December 23, 1863. The secret organization of Montana Vigilantes followed the model of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance. Sheriff Plummer was hanged on January 10, 1864. With the ensuing deaths of more than 20 members of his “Innocents” gang, order was restored, at least as much as could be expected in the Wild West.
By October, 1864, Hezekiah L. Hosmer, a lawyer from Ohio, arrived to serve as the first Chief Justice for the Territory of Montana. On December 6, 1864, in a bold move, Hosmer announced during a Grand Jury session in Virginia City that the vigilantes had served their purpose and from this day forward unilateral actions by the vigilantes would be considered criminal acts.
In a nod to Montana’s vigilante justice, the mysterious combination of numbers associated with the vigilantes, 3-7-77, were added in 1956 to the patch worn by Montana Highway Patrol troopers. The following was lifted directly from the website, Association of Montana Troopers.
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).
Here's to another 150 years, Virginia!
You Might Also Like: