Why do Montana Highway Patrol cars have 3-7-77 markings?

If you've never noticed, Montana Highway Patrol vehicles usually have the numbers 3-7-77 marked somewhere on the vehicle. Don't believe me? Take a look next time you spot a Montana highway patrol vehicle parked somewhere around town. The mysterious digits may also be found on troopers' shoulder patches or elsewhere on official MHP materials.

Theories abound regarding the numerals and what they represent. Does March 7th, 1877 hold significance? Are the numbers some secret code? Is it the Illuminati? Let's explore some of the official explanations, as well as what one researcher believes is the most plausible meaning behind Montana's 3-7-77. 

Credit Canva. Badge image via eBay, seller Rancho Collectibles.
Credit Canva. MHP patch image via eBay, seller Rancho Collectibles.

Official explanations for the meaning of 3-7-77.

The Montana Highway Patrol probably gets tired of curious people pestering them about the meaning of 3-7-77. There's a devoted page on MontanaTrooper.com that provides some insight. All theories involve the legendary Montana Vigilantes in some form. Some of the official 3-7-77 explanations include:

  • It referred to the dimensions of a grave, to be dug three feet wide, seven feet long, and seventy-seven inches deep. The ruffian was ordered to leave town within 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 77 seconds or they'd end up in that grave.
  • The numbers represented the code numbers for the first three vigilantes that came to Montana from California (Vigilante member numbers 3, 7, and 77) to serve frontier-stye justice in Montana's gold camps.
  • The numbers represent the occupations of the Montana Vigilantes when it was founded (supposedly 3 lawyers, 7 merchants, 77 miners).
  • The Vigilantes were founded by the Masonic order and the numbers represent 3 members who were present for the first meeting, 7 in the quorum, and 77 was reportedly the number of Freemasons who were present at the first recorded Mason event in Montana (a funeral for one of the Brothers).

All of the above are plausible and perhaps partly true.

old time wiester town with an assemble of miners
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Necessity was the mother of invention.

During the early days of the gold rush in southwest Montana, there were no formal courts. Montana wasn't even a state for another 25 years or so and recognized law and order were hundreds of miles away in Idaho. While the role of the Vigilantes has been largely glamorized, they essentially executed dozens of people without trial, many for crimes that probably didn't deserve a death.

Credit Canva
Credit Canva

Great day for a hanging?

Maybe you vaguely recall reading about Henry Plummer and the Vigilantes in Montana history class. In A Decent Orderly Lynching, The Montana Vigilantes, author Frederick Allen provides detailed insight into the subject. It's a great read. He also provided what he believes is the most plausible meaning of 3-7-77.

an 1930s MHP cruiser
Credit Michael Foth, TSM

Take the $3 stagecoach at 7 am and get out of town, by order of the 77.

By the late 1870s, the Montana Vigilantes role in serving its form of justice was waning, as courts and juries with due process became more common across the mineral-laden West. However, vigilanteism wasn't quite dead yet.

Allen writes that following the brutal murder of a liquor store owner in Helena in 1879, the community was outraged. A newspaper columnist called for a new vigilance committee, to rid the community of vagrants, suspected criminals, and scruffy characters. A few days after the liquor store murder, 3-7-77 messages were posted around Helena. Based on extensive research for his book, Allen wrote,

The men responsible for posting the numbers did not see fit to give a public explanation of their meaning, but the message appears to have been an ultimatum directed at some two dozen roughnecks to get out of town, using a $3 ticket on the 7 AM stagecoach to Butte, by order of a secret committee of seventy-seven.

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3-7-77 and the Montana Highway Patrol.

The Montana Highway Patrol did not start using the numbers on patrol vehicles and shoulder patches until 1956 when it was introduced by MHP superintendent Alex Stephenson. He explained later, "We chose the symbol to keep alive the memory of this first people's police force."

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