Construction has commenced on multi-million dollar improvements to Moab’s bike path. This project will link the town of Moab to Negro Bill Canyon. In this time of expansion and growth of Moab’s trail system, especially along the river road, I encourage Moab to consider renaming “Negro Bill Canyon” as Grandstaff Canyon. In doing so, we still acknowledge its history, while respecting the man: William J. Grandstaff. And we honor Grandstaff’s story, not just his race.
The new bike path will closely follow the same trail that one of Moab’s first non-native settlers traveled. William Grandstaff, the area’s first black settler and likely freed slave from the South, used this route from 1877 to 1881 to corral his cattle three miles up the river to the magnificent canyon. Some local historians claim that Grandstaff referred to himself as “Nigger Bill,” however, the evidence fails to demonstrate that Grandstaff used this nickname or defined himself by his race.
More likely, Moab’s early settlers named Grandstaff “Nigger Bill” when he appeared in town. However, Grandstaff did not use the nickname in Colorado, where he moved after he left Moab. For example, the records on file at the Frontier Historical Museum in Glenwood Springs, Colo., the 1880 Census in Emery County, Utah, and the 1900 Census in Garfield County, Colo., and the three articles published about him in Colorado papers refer to him only by his full name without emphasizing his race.
The Frontier Historical Museum maintains detailed record-keeping about Grandstaff because, as one staff member explained, “we love all of our pioneers.” There is no emphasis there on Grandstaff’s legacy being defined by his race. Instead, Grandstaff’s Colorado history revolves around his efforts prospecting in the area, his involvement in a local saloon, Grandstaff Landing, his nomination as a constable in a local election and his warm relationship with his community there.
Further, the nickname Nigger Bill is not referred to in the only three published articles about him in the region, an article describing his nomination as an independent candidate for constable in 1889 in a Leadville newspaper, and his death notices in 1901 in the Glenwood Springs Post and Avalanche Echo. In fact, his death notice and honorable burial made the front page of the Glenwood Springs Post on Aug. 24, 1901, in a heartfelt and respectful story. As described in the Post, Grandstaff’s death on Red Mountain in Glenwood was discovered after he had not been seen in town for several days. The Glenwood community sent someone to look for William Grandstaff, not “Nigger Bill.” Upon his burial, the community erected a cross in his honor to mark his grave – the precursor to the current large cross on top of Red Mountain visible throughout the town of Glenwood to this day.
In the 1960s, the USGS renamed the canyon from “Nigger Bill” to “Negro Bill” Canyon. This action followed similar efforts for several other locations in Utah and another 100-plus locations across the U.S. that bore the racial label “Nigger” in the 1960s. This reexamination of the name was appropriate for the 1960s, but it is no longer enough. Ultimately, we have achieved nothing more than replacing one racial handle for another.
It is true that the NAACP does not support the rename application publicly. The NAACP’s voice is important, but it should not control the desires of the Moab Community. It is time to reexamine this issue again, in this supposed post-race era. Using the term “Negro” in a historical landmark is inappropriate. Moab, an international destination, should show its visitors respect for all people. Moab need not perpetuate racial labels instead of true stories that create the fabric of our history.
In 2008, the BLM named its new campground just northeast of Negro Bill Canyon “Granstaff Campground.” In doing so, the BLM rightly rejected the notion that history must be preserved through the continued use of an inappropriate moniker, but it used the local spelling of Grandstaff’s last name instead of the true spelling. Grandstaff spelled his name with a “d” on the 1880 Emery County census. And after at least 1881, when he left Moab, he spelled his name with a “d” on every legal document recorded in Colorado, including various documents related to his four mining claims in the Hot Springs Mining District and the bill of sale for his saloon, Grandstaff Landing, in Garfield County, Colo. History does not reflect why his name was spelled Granstaff during his four years in Moab but, any effort to honor William Grandstaff must include the correct spelling of his name.
The best way to honor one of our first pioneers, a strong man who overcame challenge and adversity in the South and became well-loved out West, is to tell his story by changing the name of the trail to Grandstaff Canyon and placing an updated biography of one of Moab’s first settlers at the trailhead.
Louis Williams has long had an interest in history. A native of Dallas, Texas, Williams operates a window cleaning business in Moab.
ByBy Louis Williams