Yellowstone County MTGenWeb

Yellowstone County History


Origin of 3-7-77 (Autobiography)


Comment: There has been a great amount of speculation and guessing as to the usefulness of the Vigilantes, and the resultant efforts of their members, but very little of actual research detailing the members and their mission. Carrie Adell Strahorn maintained a diary[1] of her travels by stage throughout the western United States between 1877 & 1880 as her husband identified the path for the first railroad to the west coast. During this time, she spent a great amount of time with Col W F Sanders who played a dominant role in the Vigilantes in Montana’s history. This extract is a small portion of what was stated – refer to the notes by Judith Austin who is the compiler and presenter of the diary re-published in this copy of her book. Image from Carrie’s 1911 book cover.



Carrie and her husband, Robert, caught a stage at Virginia City for their return trip to Helena. Riding with them during the ‘all-night’ sojourn was an early pioneer of Montana, Col W F Sanders. He filled their travel time with what is was like when the land was ruled by men ‘who had no fear of penalty for their crimes’, but who were themselves destroyed by other men who sought out justice for the Territory by becoming even more deadly in their mission. In the fall of 1863, over one hundred bodies were discovered; whose deaths the corrupt road agents and Territorial law enforcers administered. Numerous miners, who tried to leave with their gold mysteriously, suddenly disappeared – never having been heard from again.


The strong interest in the discovery of gold in the Territory brought in thousands of men to Nevada City, Virginia City and Bannock areas. There was little government and no law at all. It was here that Col Sanders became a prosecuting attorney. Murders occurred almost daily and rudimentary courts that were held were frequented by regular jurors, there being no other choice. Friends of the defendant would boldly walk into the court proceedings and openingly threaten the jurors with their lives, should the verdict be any other than ‘not guilty.!


At that time, Henry Plummer (sheriff) was head of one of the worst gangs operating within the Territory. This gang consisted of a dozen or so truly bad men, plus a large group of scouts, spies and correspondents. Their secret service network advised the gang about every transaction that was worth robbing. The robbery always took place with black silk handkerchiefs over their faces. Plummer fled California after killing three men in a Wells Fargo holdup, and arrived in a local gold camp. It was reported that he was the best shot in the west. His gang members had no regard for a person’s life, and would shoot at women to scare them, and at Indians simply to kill. When Sam T Hauser, former Governor of the Territory, departed for the east with his possessions, Plummer gave him a red woolen scarf to keep him warm; but the true intend was to let his gang now that this was their target. This demeaning act caught Sanders attention, and he immediately formed the Montana Vigilantes, and became their leader. The campaign against Henry Plummer’s gang started on December 21, 1863 with the hanging of one of its members, George Ives, in Nevada City.


The Vigilantes consisted of five men in Virginia City, three from Bannock and one from Nevada City. They formed a secret tribunal, and operated thus for 20-years. Within two months, they hung 22 members of the Plummer gang, including their leader, Henry Plummer. They took a direct hand in the administration of justice, and they never bluffed. They prepared little white cards, seven by nines inches in size with the numbers “3-7-77” in heavy black ink. These cards were pinned or placed on the belongings or tent of an offender as a one-day warning. If the offender failed to leave, the next day he would be hung – no exception!


Col Sanders explained how his small organization operated: “We would turn to one of members and say: ‘You are a pretty square sort of fellow and we know you to be straight as a string; you shall be our judge.’ And to another: ‘You are a heavily built chap with lots of grit; you shall be marshal.’ I had a smattering of law, and it was agreed upon my affidavits that all warrants were issued.”


Following in Plummer’s footsteps was an even more dangerous man, called Slade, who attempted to replace Plummer’s violent actions. The Vigilante Committee called for a populace vote, and 15,000 miners voted to lynch Slade. Col Sanders advised him of the news, and Slade was promptly hung from a make-shift pole stuck out of a window.


The book also contains numerous details on the formation of Montana, and the men who made it happen.


Cleve Kimmel – ([email protected])

Original Release Date: Feb 29, 2012

Referenced documents that contain current copyrights cannot be copied and submitted in their entirety – only granted excerpts. No file that is downloaded to a recipient can be utilized in multiple-mailing lists; or for a fee or profit. Files downloaded are for the expressed usage by the recipient in pursuit of historical information or genealogical background.


[1] Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage, Volume 1 of 2, 1877-1880, [Univ of Nebraska Press Republished– Drawings by Charles M Russell], Chapter VIII (pgs 101-111), Document released 1988 by Bison Book printing. Originally published in 1911 in New York by the Knickerbocker Press. F595.8’042 – dc19

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