Grandstaff Canyon will now replace Negro Bill Canyon on all future geographic maps and official documents after the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) overwhelmingly supported the name change Oct. 12.
The U.S. Geological Survey has officially logged Grandstaff Canyon into their database with a note explaining that “the name commemorates William Grandstaff (1840-1901), prospector and rancher in the area in the late 1800s.”
Opinions on the name change have varied drastically between interest groups as well as local, state and federal government bodies. While the Utah Committee on Geographic Names and representatives from the NAACP opposed the change, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Moab Field Office and the Grand County Council supported the change to Grandstaff Canyon.
Lou Yost, executive secretary of the BGN, said the federal board, made up of representatives across many national agencies, based their decision on the local testimony of the BLM Moab Field Office and the Grand County Council.
“I would say that the board normally follows the recommendation of the state board, but [they] have gone against state boards in the past. It’s happened before, it will happen again,” Yost said. “In this case, the land management agency, the BLM, supported the change and they’re the ones on the ground along with the county.”
William Grandstaff, an African-American man, ran cattle in the Moab area from 1877 to 1881. An interpretive sign at the canyon’s trailhead, installed by the BLM in 2015, describes Grandstaff as a “cowboy who was half-black and half-Native American” and “one of Moab’s first settlers.”
Since her term on the Grand County Council began in 2015, Mary McGann has worked to change the canyon’s name. She says the BGN’s vote — 12 in favor and one abstention — shows that they truly listened to the voice of African-Americans in the Moab community.
“The name change is great news,” McGann said. “I sent them all the history, the editorials … I felt like they heard that the majority of the African-Americans in Grand County wanted it changed.”
McGann attributed the recent name change to the historical research of Louis Williams, an African-American man and former Moab resident who several years ago petitioned to change the canyon’s name. Although she “carried the torch at the end” on this issue, McGann said that she “carried it because of [Williams].”
The Times-Independent was unable to reach Williams as of press time. However, in 2015, Williams’ presented The Times-Independent with several historical documents, including copies of deeds signed by Grandstaff as well as Grandstaff’s Glenwood Springs, Colo. obituary.
According to Williams, historical records show that the canyon’s initial racial epithet was a moniker used by white settlers, not Grandstaff, who used his first and last name and no other when describing himself.
“People will say that William Grandstaff wanted you to call him ‘Ni**** Bill,’ but he never called himself that word,” Williams said in 2015. “Why can’t this man have a name that he’s used and signed? He never used the one that somebody gave to him.”
Many local officials have said the canyon’s original racial epithet changed in the 1960s to “Negro” as part of a nationwide, sweeping reform of racially charged geographic names.
Although BGN representatives found no evidence of this historical removal — instead noting that the name Negro Bill Canyon appeared “sometime in the 1940s or 1950s” — they found the racial epithet for the canyon remained on U.S. Army service maps until 1960.
In 2015, the Grand County Council voted 4-3 against a motion to change the canyon’s name, with the majority opinion citing the opposition of NAACP Salt Lake Branch President Jeanetta Williams.
“Changing the name to Grandstaff would take away all of the history,” Williams said a 2015 interview with The Times-Independent. And in a 2017 letter to the Utah Committee on Geographic Names, Williams said, “sanitizing a name change only allows folks to feel comfortable.”
But a packed county council meeting in 2015 revealed local opposition to the NAACP’s opinion.
“I’m sorry, NAACP, but I speak for a younger generation, one for whom polite substitutions for a name borne of hate no longer works,” said then-Grand County High School student Kayla Weston, who is African-American.
Weston then promised the council that if they do not change the name now, “then we will do it next year or the next year or the next. But it will happen.”
Approximately one year later, the BLM changed their trailhead and campground signs to “Grandstaff.” At the time, representatives attributed the change to an “evolving” thought process within the local field office about how best to recognize Grandstaff and his place in Moab’s history.
Several days after the BLM installed the trailhead signs, they were stolen and later found dumped into the Colorado River.
McGann said actions like these, including the various “disturbing” messages she has received through social media and personal email, are proof that this issue is racially charged.
“[They’re] calling me names, wishing me dead, and calling me a ‘cancer.’ It’s really ugly,” McGann said, adding that she will report the behavior to the Moab City Police Department.
Although she is bothered by these messages, McGann says they prove advocacy efforts for Grandstaff Canyon was the “right” path to take.
“It makes you realize that the anger is due to hanging on to a moniker,” McGann said. “If anything, the hate mail makes me realize I did the right thing, because this definitely has some racist undertones. People don’t go insane over name changes … people don’t wish people dead and go up in arms. It’s driven by racism. [The name] needed to go.”
In 2017, a new makeup of the Grand County Council voted 5-2 to support the name change to Grandstaff Canyon.
Council member Curtis Wells cast one of the two dissenting votes. Although he disagrees with changing the name of the canyon, Wells categorizes the threatening behavior towards McGann as ignorance.
“While we rarely agree on the issues or solutions, I’ve found [McGann] to be tough, persistent, and determined,” Wells said. “It took her two years to get that motion passed. For anyone out there that doesn’t agree with [her] efforts to change the name of this canyon, I’d say to them that the answer is not rhetoric and certainly not threatening behavior.”
Instead, Wells encouraged local residents to participate in local elections, noting, “The answer is democracy, not ignorance.”
In Wells’ opinion, this issue “was never about racism” but rather cultural and historical preservation.
“History is not often perfect, nor is it morally sound, but rather chapters in the book we’re writing,” Wells said. “Rewriting chapters in the book in the name of political correctness doesn’t bring any benefit to past, present, or future generations.”
An interpretive sign at the Grandstaff Trailhead currently describes the cattleman’s connection to the canyon and his life as a “homesteader, farmer, rancher, and prospector.”
Lisa Bryant, Canyon Country District Public Affairs Specialist for the BLM, said that the local field office would welcome any ideas about how they could “do more” when it comes to honoring Grandstaff.
“There are multiple ways of honoring him and honoring our history,” Bryant said. “We welcome historical research.”
She encourages groups like the Grand County Historical Preservation Commission or the NAACP to come forward with information to further Grandstaff’s historical legacy.
“If there is interest in putting together some more information about Grandstaff … we’re open to partner and have people bring forward their ideas about how to do more,” Bryant said. “We would welcome other ideas or ways of sharing information whether that be with pamphlets or on our website, as long as it’s historically accurate.”