The Grand County Council chose to not recommend changing the name of Negro Bill Canyon to Grandstaff Canyon at their Tuesday, July 2 council meeting.
Louis Williams, a 14-year resident of Moab, has been advocating the name change for the past year. While the county council can’t change the name of the canyon, which is on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a recommendation from the county is needed to petition the United States Board of Names, a department within the United State Geological Survey (USGS).
Moab’s city and Castle Valley’s town councils both voted to recommend changing the name of the canyon after presentations by Williams during the last year.
“We need to remove the reference to Negro. The word is no longer used. There are many places around the U.S. that started with ‘negro’ that have been changed, or are in the process of being changed,” Williams said.
Councilman Lynn Jackson made a motion to not change the name because of recommendations made by both the Grand County Historical Commission and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to retain the name.
The Board of Geographic Names does not consider the word “negro” to be offensive, said Lou Yost, its executive secretary. There are now 757 places within the U.S. that have the word “negro” as part of the name. Many of these places previously used an offensive word in place of the word “negro”, but in 1962 the names were changed when two blanket rules eliminated racial slurs from federal maps.
The U.S. Board of Geographic Names turned down a similar proposition to change the name of Negro Bill Canyon 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 People (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 Idaho, Nevada, Utah State Conference, 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.”
Williams made a presentation before the county council regarding using the term “negro” and the history of William Granstaff, the man who ran cattle in the canyon 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 documentation 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 it was the Utah settlers’ bigotry that led to the 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.
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.
He said Granstaff 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.
Councilwoman Pat Holyoak asked Williams how Granstaff received his last name. Williams said that it may have been the family name of Granstaff’s slaveowners before he had his freedom after the Civil War.
“Why would he want his legacy to be from the people he was owned by?” Holyoak asked.
The Grand County Historical Preservation Commission sent a letter to the council that recommended against changing the name.
“The Commission is in accordance with the recommendation by National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s to keep the Canyon’s name as it is,” stated the letter to the council. “The Commission further comments that the name Negro Bill Canyon is supported by through historical remains at the site through the accounts of early Grand County Pioneers.”
There was a rock carving at the mouth of the canyon that used the racial slur before the name “Bill” and a picture next to it that was believed to be a carved portrait of Granstaff.
“We assumed it was made by him,” said Travis Schenck, the director of the Museum of Moab and a member of the historical commission. “It has since eroded away.”
The commission went on to say that the name highlights the importance that Grand County was settled by men and women of different ethnicities, creeds and origins and that “the name was not given to demean or degrade William Granstaff.”
“This is the same conclusion that was reached by the Grand County Council ten years ago when the topic was brought up then. We feel that it is still valid,” the letter from the historical commission stated.
County administrator Ruth Dillon said that she couldn’t see any resolution or even a letter from the council opposing the name change of Negro Bill Canyon.
“There have been citizens to be heard regarding this, but no county action. There is no need for the county to rescind any motions,” Dillon said. “You can make a motion as you say fit. The recommendation would be to the board of names. They do recognize our recommendations.”
Jackson made the motion to send a letter to the Board of Geographic Names to retain the name of Negro Bill Canyon.
“I respect Mr. Williams hard work and position and respect the people to sign the signatures, but I don’t agree with the opinion. I am primarily concerned with the NAACP’s position. They recommend the name remain the same,” Jackson said. “Some may find the name to be offensive, but it is apart of Moab’s history. While there are many who would like to see the name changed, there are many within the community that want it to remain the same.”