The Moab City Council has added its support to a citizen initiative to change the name of Negro Bill Canyon to William Grandstaff Canyon. A heated discussion regarding the name change began in the community several months ago after area resident Louis Williams started an online petition to get the canyon renamed.
Williams was prepared to give a presentation to the city council at its regular meeting on March 12. However, council members decided the presentation was unnecessary. After reviewing the historical material that Williams provided about the life of William Grandstaff, the council directed the city to write a letter in support of changing the canyon’s name to William Grandstaff Canyon.
The canyon is named after Grandstaff, who arrived in the area in 1877. He was the area’s first black resident, according to Williams.
“In this time of expansion and growth of Moab’s trail system, especially along the River Road, Moab must reexamine the name ‘Negro Bill Canyon’ and rename this popular hiking trail,” Williams wrote in his presentation.
Williams said that, despite what local historians believe, he has found no proof that Grandstaff ever referred to himself by the more derogatory nickname that has sometimes been used for the canyon. Williams said he believes it is more likely that Moab’s early settlers gave the nickname to Grandstaff.
“Grandstaff did not use the nickname in Colorado, where he moved in his later years,” Williams said, citing records from the Frontier Historical Museum in Glenwood Springs, as well as census records from Emery County, Utah, and Garfield County, Colo.
The suggestion for the name change has fueled a hot debate in Moab and many residents have voiced either support or opposition to the proposal.
According to Rock Smith, the BLM’s Moab Field Office manager, this is not the first time a name change has been suggested for the canyon. In 1999, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names received a similar request and rejected it two years later after both the BLM and the Grand County Council opposed the change.
Louis Yost, the executive secretary for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, said the board does not pay attention to petitions like the one Williams started. However, the board does heed recommendations from elected officials, such as the city council, he said.
“I feel the canyon was named after a man, a local resident just like many early settlers,” city council member Kirstin Peterson said. “Though the original intent was not necessarily to honor William Grandstaff, the result of such a place name does just that, and I feel he should be honored for the person he was, by his true name.”
Council member Kyle Bailey agreed.
“For me, William Grandstaff Canyon seems to be a more historical and thoughtful name for a beautiful local canyon,” Bailey said.