A trail sign at the parking lot for Negro Bill Canyon, near milemarker three on State Route 128. [Photo by Andrew Mirrington/ Moab Sun News]

A petition to change the name of Negro Bill Canyon to “Grandstaff Canyon” has received more than 600 signatures. The petition, posted online at SignOn.org, is meant to demonstrate the ‘overwhelming community support’ needed by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to justify an official change to the name of the canyon.

Louis Williams, a 14-year resident of Moab, started the petition because he believes that the name “Negro Bill” is demeaning and unsupported by history.

Negro Bill was William Granstaff, an African-American settler who lived in the Moab area from 1877 to 1881.

“He was one of the very first non-native settlers to stay for any length of time,” Williams said. “Most of the places and streets and trails that were named after settlers just used their last names. That is what we should do for him.”

Williams is also petitioning to correct the spelling of Grandstaff’s name from Granstaff, the name that is used for the Bureau of Land Management campground at the mouth of the canyon. He said he has dug up history that shows Granstaff’s name was actually spelled with a “d” after the “n.”

Williams became interested in the story of Granstaff after he moved to Moab and began to research the man behind the name “Negro Bill”.

Williams believes that Granstaff was sold as a slave, since census data shows him being born in either Virginia or Alabama. The details of his early life and of the path that led Granstaff west are hazy, but there are records that show he arrived in Moab with a Canadian named Frenchie in the late 1870s.

Upon their arrival the pair discovered the remains from the Elk Mountain Mission, a Mormon fort that was established and abandoned in 1855. Frenchie and Granstaff split up the cattle that had been left behind. Granstaff corralled his herd in the canyon that now bears his name.

Granstaff also brewed whiskey, which he sold to the other settlers and to the native tribes. The new settlers were not happy about Granstaff’s dealings with the natives and after a Native American ambush killed several settlers, Granstaff was forced to flee to Colorado.

“In Utah he was called a renegade, a trouble maker and a possible rustler. But when I tracked him through Colorado I found that there he was quite prosperous and well liked,” Williams said.

Williams said Granstaff worked as a prospector and was a saloon owner in Glenwood Springs, Colo. He was even nominated to be a constable in Leadville, Colo. His death notice from August 1901 made the front page of the Glenwood Springs Post.

“(My research) showed me the difference between the communities (in Colorado and Utah) and how they treated him,” Williams said.

Williams believes it was the Utah settlers’ bigotry that led to derogatory term associated with the canyon that Granstaff had corralled his cattle. The canyon’s name was then changed to Negro Bill Canyon in 1962, when two blanket rules eliminated racial slurs from federal maps.

Williams’ campaign is one of dozens across the country to rename canyons, reservoirs, lakes and other places still bearing names deemed derogatory. There are 757 places with “negro” in the name from Alaska to Florida and Maine to California, according to an analysis of government records.

“This is not the first time a petition has come up to change the name,” said Grand County councilman Chris Baird.

The U.S. Board of Geographic Names turned down a similar proposition in 2001 because of a lack of support by the Grand County Council. The council felt that the name was a part of Moab’s history and thus should remain unchanged.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) also agreed with keeping the name because they believed that the name was an important reminder of black history.

The president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake City chapter, Jeanetta Williams, said her organization opposes the name change just as it did when others tried to make the switch.

“If the name changes, it’s going to lose its history. Negro is an acceptable word,” she said. “We would rather leave it there as it is now and to get information in the curriculum in the schools about the canyon itself to let people know more about the history.”

Petitioner Williams’ response to the NAACP’s justification is that “we should honor Mr. Granstaff and not carry on Jim Crow names. There is no documentation that (Granstaff) ever called himself that.”

As in 2001, whether or not Negro Bill Canyon becomes “Grandstaff Canyon” largely depends on the support of the local government.

“We would ask for recommendations from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Grand County Council and from the Utah Board of State Names before we would make a decision,” said Lou Yost, the executive secretary of the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which has jurisdiction over the decision.

Were the decision made to change the name, then the BLM would make the changes in the next scheduled set of documents it releases involving the canyon, said Rock Smith, the BLM Moab field office manager. The relevant government departments would make the necessary changes to road signs and other documentation involving the name.

With one of the longest natural arches in the country at the end of the four-mile roundtrip hike, the canyon is a popular destination for hikers visiting Moab. So far, the petition has more than 600 signatures as of Friday — many from out of state. The site has been up since Nov. 11.

“My favorite hike in the Moab area, but I always feel sick to my stomach to repeat the name to anyone and explain the puzzled looks,” wrote Linn DeNesti of Kingston, Wash., in the online petition. “PLEASE honor William Grandstaff and rename this beautiful canyon!”

Moab resident Rikki Epperson reflected some of the same angst regarding the canyon’s name.

“Even though the original naming of the canyon was meant to celebrate Bill and by no means was it meant to be racist, how can we be sure our visitors will understand?” Epperson said.

As of Monday morning, a KSL.com poll had more than 1600 responses regarding the name change.

Twenty-two percent said to change the name because it is distasteful and racist.

Seventy-eight percent said to not change the name because it preserves history and culture.

Leslie Purcell Phillips said she doesn’t want the name to change, and that it is a reflection of new people coming into town and changing things.

“They come and say they love it here, but then they change it,” Phillips said. “These yuppies moved in here because they liked the local flavor of Moab and the surrounding beauty, yet they don’t realize that they are changing it with every stroke of their pens. The real locals are becoming fewer and farther between and every year it’s becoming more of a tourist trap. Every trail they rename, close, reroute, change up, fence in, announce in a magazine, bus a bunch of tourists to – kills a little more of the local flavor.”