Masonry in Montana has a long
history, especially considering that it is a young state. The first Mason
known to have entered what would become Montana was Meriwether Lewis of
the famed Lewis & Clark expedition. The date was early April in 1804.
Some of Lewis’ Masonic relics are on public display in the Montana Masonic
Grand Lodge Building, 426 North Park Avenue, Helena.
The first known meeting of Masons in Montana took place in September of
1862 near the summit of the Continental Divide a few miles West of Helena.
It was then that Nathaniel P. Langford and two other Masons walked a short
distance from their wagon train and went through the Masonic ceremonies.
Langford described what took place in an address he made at the 1867 Grand
Lodge session, in part quoted below:
“When the company, of which I was one, entered what is now Montana - then
Dakota — a single settlement known by the name of Grasshopper (now
Bannack) was the only abode of the white man in the southern part of the
Territory. Our journey from Minnesota, over 1,400 miles, by a route never
before traveled, and with the slow conveyance of ox trains, was of long
duration and tedious (It was one of the Fisk expeditions). It was a clear
September twilight when we camped on the western side of the range of the
Rocky Mountains where they are crossed by the Mullan Road. The labors of
the day over, three of our number, a brother named Charlton, another,
whose name I have forgotten, and myself, the only three Master Masons in
the company, impressed with the grandeur of the mountain scenery and the
mild beauty of the evening, ascended the mountain to its summit, and
there, in imitation of our ancient brethren, opened and closed an informal
lodge of Master Masons. I had listened to the solemn ritual of Masonry a
hundred times, but never when it impressed so seriously as upon this
occasion; such also was the experience of my companions... Never was the
fraternal clasp more cordial than when in the glory of that beautiful
evening, we opened and closed the first Lodge ever assembled in
Montana...” Mullan Pass Historical Site
That meeting in the Rockies has been commemorated for many years by an
annual session on the site. It is also pictured in a painting by Olaf
Seltzer that is on display in the Masonic Grand Lodge Library.
Masonry’s next step, in what was to be Montana, occurred in November that
same year of 1862. William Bell died in the gold camp of Bannack in
southwest Montana. Before his death he asked for a Masonic funeral. At
first this request was believed to be impossible, but an attempt was made.
A notice was sent out for all Masons to gather at the cabin of C.J.
Miller. To everyone’s surprise, so many Masons responded that they had to
move to a larger cabin. Preparations were made for the funeral, but before
they disbanded, someone brought up the notion of forming a lodge. This was
received favorably, with the decision to take up the move later. Langford
presided at the funeral the next day. Langford, again in his report to the
1867 Grand Lodge, explained what happened next:
“From this moment Masonic History commenced its lofty career in Montana.
Other law-loving people, who, though not members of the Order, possessed
the first and highest preparations to become so, united with our brethren
in organized force to vanquish crime and drive it from our borders.”
Langford here was referring to the organization of the famed Montana
Vigilaties. Masonry and the Vigilantes were closely tied. The first
president or chief of the vigilantes was Paris S. Pfouts, who was also the
first master of the first lodge in Montana Virginia City, chartered in
1864. Some other famous Masons who were vigilantes were Thomas Dimsdale,
the scholarly English editor, and Wilbur Fisk Sanders. An old saying:
“While not all vigilantes were Masons, all Masons were vigilantes.”
By way of explanation: There was then really no law in Montana’s gold
camps. Crime was rife. Henry Pluminer and his gang took property and life
almost unscathed. To this day, no one knows how many murders took place in
the camps and on the trails. But they were measured by the scores. Those
who chose the side of law and order truly risked their lives and fortunes,
but they did prevail.
The vigilantes conducted investigations and trials of the culprits. Most,
but not all, of the accused were found guilty. There were but two
punishments - banishment or hanging.
Pfouts relates one story of a vigilante arrest: “...and on the following
Thursday, in the broad of light of day, the vigilantes arrested seven of
the murderers, five of whom were executed. They were all hung on one beam
in an unoccupied house in Virginia City. The other two men arrested were
discharged from the custody of the committee, although known to be members
of the band of murderers, because no positive proof implicated them in any
depredations in the territory.”
Throughout a portion of one winter the vigilante activity continued.
When it had ended, crime was defeated.
As stated earlier, a Lodge was formed in Virginia City. It received its
charter in 1864 from the Grand Lodge of Kansas. In 1865, another Lodge was
organized in Virginia City and a third in Helena. With this nucleus, a
meeting was held in 1866 to form an independent Grand Lodge of Montana.
This was accomplished between January 25 and 29, 1866.
The meeting was attended by the three principal officers of the three
lodges. The first Grand Master was John T. Hull. His election caused some
problems; he was the operator of a clubhouse and some members took
offense, but the dispute was settled. Within the next four years, the
number of lodges increased from three to fourteen.
This version of the Montana Territorial Seal
was scanned from a book owned by Cornelius Hedges, First Master of
Helena No. 3, Printed in 1884
Several early Masons in Montana
gained preeminence during this period. Wilbur Fisk Sanders, already known
as the prosecutor for the Vigilantes, was one of these. As senior warden
of Virginia City Lodge No. 1, he helped form the Grand Lodge, serving as
its first secretary and third Grand Master.
Sanders became known first because of his prosecution of George Ives and
his statement: “I move that George Ives be forthwith hanged by the neck
until he is dead.” He was one of the original organizers of the Vigilance
Committee and ran several times on the Union ticket for delegate to
Congress. He was to become one of Montana’s first U.S. Senators, in 1890,
the year after the Territory achieved statehood. He was first president of
the Montana Bar Association and president of the Montana Historical
Society from 1865 to 1890.
N.P. Langford also had a distinguished public career. Besides his Masonic
activities, which culminated in his election as fourth Grand Master, he
was nominated by President Grant to be Territorial Governor in 1869;
however, the Senate did not confirm the appointment.
Langford was a member of the Washburn- Langford-Doane expedition which
went into what is now Yellowstone National Park.
He and Cornelius Hedges so publicized the area and lobbied for its
creation that it became a National Park in 1872. Some credit the two men
as initiators of the nation’s National Park system.
Langford served as its first superintendent from 1872 to 1877, and he
served without pay. He became the first collector of Internal Revenue for
Montana Territory, and in 1872 became National Bank Examiner for all of
the Northwest Territories and Pacific states. In 1890, he published
“Vigilante Days and Ways.” The other standard history text for this
movement was written by another Mason, Thomas Dimsdale. It is “The
Vigilantes of Montana.”
Generally referred to as “Father of Masonry” in Montana and most
venerated in its history is Cornelius Hedges. His Masonic career in
Montana began in 1865 when he demitted (transferred) to Montana to help
form the new lodge in Helena. This young lawyer had literally walked to
Montana from the midwest in 1864. He served as first Worshipful Master of
Helena Lodge. He was fifth Grand Master in Montana and later served as
Grand Historian and, finally, Grand Secretary from 1872 until his death in
Mention has been made previously of Hedges’ activity to create
Yellowstone National Park. As an early Montana Superintendent of Public
Instruction, he is credited with establishing the first working public
schools system. He was Supreme Court Reporter, Probate judge and member of
the 1884 Constitutional Convention. He was the first State Senator from
Lewis & Clark County. He is generally credited with initiating work for a
Montana Masonic Home.
The Helena Daily Record of April 30, 1907, wrote in his obituary that he
was “thoughtful, kind, charitable, ever ready to heed the call of the
unfortunate, without selfishness or guile; no better man has ever lived in
Montana, nor to any is there a higher need of praise for what he did and
gave to Montana.”
List of Montana
politicians who were masons:
While some trace Masonry back to Solomon, the Masonry
of today had its beginnings in the Age of Enlightenment in England. It is
an outgrowth of the old craft guilds or lodges of stone Masons that were
in existence during the great cathedral building period of the middle
Some such lodges were formed for just one building. Others, in the cities
were permanent because members were at work most of the time. The lodge
and the craft, as a whole, had a system for teaching young men the
vocation. The first step as a mason was an apprenticeship of seven years.
A man was then an entered apprentice. In another seven years he attained
the status of fellow of craft. The man in charge of the building project
was called a Master Mason. These are the same names as those applied to
the three basic degrees in modern Masonry except the “of” is deleted in
“fellow of craft.”
In the lodge or guild, rules were some of the guides from which Masonry
today gets its moral teachings. There were, of course, secrets of the
craft to make sure that only those in the guild did a certain kind of
work, a sort of early-day patent or copyright.
With the Reformation, practicing masonry took a sharp decline. It appears
that in this period, separate lodges were founded for (and perhaps by) men
who were not Masons by trade. In Edinburgh, Scotland, for example, there
are records of admission of honorary members as early as 1600. By 1670,
the Aberdeen lodge was composed of four noblemen, three “gentlemen,” 15
tradesmen other than masons and only 10 working masons. Then a real
landmark came with the formation in London of a parallel body called “the
“Acception” in about 1619. The members were known as “accepted masons” or
“gentleman masons,” and they did not belong to the company proper, though
they paid double the regular initiation fee.
Secrecy inherent in the guild attracted some. Many thought they would
learn ancient mysteries, since some attributed the beginnings of Masonry
back to the days of King Solomon. Also, there was a growing interest in
antiquity and architecture.
By 1717, Speculative Masonry, or the fraternity as it substantially is
today, had begun. The first Grand Lodge of Masons was formed that year in
London. It was during this time that the symbolism behind the working
tools of stone masons was developed.
The first or Entered Apprentice degree in Masonry thus came to be
symbolic of rebirth. The candidate receives light while dressed in a
simple uniform, divested of metal and blindfolded. The spotless uniform
denotes the candidate’s innocence. Being divested of metal followed the
rule of Solomon’s temple but also showed that all were born without
worldly possessions, and that when we die we cannot take these things with
The first thing a man does on entering the lodge is to kneel at prayer.
He is next asked in whom he places his trust, and he then takes an
obligation. By having his blindfold removed, he symbolically receives
The first three symbols of the lodge are brought to his attention. These
are the Holy Bible, square and compass. The altar in the center of the
lodge signifies the emphasis on homage to God, the Great Architect of the
Universe. Each officer wears a “jewel” representing his office. The lodge
master wears the square.
The entered apprentice is presented with a white apron, the Mason symbol
of innocence. He is also given the working tools of an entered apprentice,
which are the 24-inch gauge and common gavel. The first is emblematic of
the 24 hours of the day and also teaches division of the day for eight
hours of usual vocations, eight hours for the service of God and eight
hours for refreshment and sleep. The gavel also has symbolic lessons:
divesting our minds and consciences of the vices and impurities of life.
The second degree, the Fellow Craft, has working tools of the plumb,
square and level. The plumb teaches us to walk uprightly before God and
man, squaring our actions by the square of virtue, ever remembering that
we are traveling on the level of time and that all mortals are equal
The last or Master Mason degree teaches the practical application of the
first two. New symbols are the sprig of acacia, denoting immortality, the
allseeing eye of God and many others. The degree also dramatizes an
important Masonic belief: immortality.
This is explained by the death of Hiram, who died rather than give up the
secrets of Masonry.
The first three degrees form the Blue Lodge, or the basis for Masonry.
Attached are two rites (York and Scottish), which claim higher degrees,
but in reality are but two appendage organizations. After attaining the
highest degree in either of these rites, a man may go into the Shrine.
Masonry and organized religion have been at odds at times. Masonry is not
a religion. It does not reuire any religious belief other than a belief in
a supreme being.
Masonry in the United States had its beginning in the early 1700’s. The
first lodge was organized by Henry Prince in Boston in 1733. Benjamin
Franklin headed the movement in Pennsylvania and brought its lodges into
uniformity with England. Growth has been steady, and there are more than
four million Masons in the United States today.