Citizens push to change name of local canyon
by Steve Kadel
staff writer
Nov 21, 2012 | 1721 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A trail sign marks the way to the parking lot of Negro Bill Canyon northeast of Moab. A local citizen has launched a petition to change the canyon’s name to William Grandstaff Canyon. Photo by Tom Taylor
A trail sign marks the way to the parking lot of Negro Bill Canyon northeast of Moab. A local citizen has launched a petition to change the canyon’s name to William Grandstaff Canyon. Photo by Tom Taylor
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Some area residents are again urging the public and local officials to support changing the name of Negro Bill Canyon. Moab resident Louis Williams has launched a petition drive on www.signon.org to gather signatures in support of renaming the canyon William Grandstaff Canyon in an attempt to avoid what proponents consider the racist undertone to the current name.

“The use of the moniker ‘negro’ is offensive to many people, creating embarrassment for our community,” San Juan County resident Kiley Miller, and one of the petition supporters, said in a recent email to The Times-Independent.

Although the canyon is on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property just northeast of Moab, the BLM has no jurisdiction over a name change, according to Rock Smith, the BLM’s Moab field office manager.

“We don’t have a role,” he said. “BLM is neutral and would support whatever decision is made.”

He said the issue is up to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in Reston, Va. That agency received the same request in 1999 and rejected it two years later, Smith said.

Lou Yost, executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, said it was turned down because the Grand County Council and the BLM opposed the change. The city of Moab’s mayor and two citizens supported it, he said.

Yost said petitions, whether signed in person or online, have no effect on the board’s decisions. Instead, the board pays attention to recommendations from elected bodies such as the county council, he said.

Other attempts have been made over the years to alter the name as it appears on maps, Smith said, but he did not have exact dates.

He noted that BLM did have the authority to change the name of the nearby campground, and did so a number of years ago. That facility is now called William Granstaff Campground, but Smith said it will be changed at some point to William Grandstaff Campground, reflecting the correct spelling as determined by Williams, who has researched the issue for several months.

Williams said Grandstaff, the area’s first black resident, came to the Moab area in 1877.

“The story goes that he was run off because he was trading whiskey with the Indians,” Williams said. “The Mormon settlers were upset with that.”

Grandstaff feared for his safety and fled to Colorado, said Williams.

“As I started tracking him down, I found he made his way to Salida, Colo., and started a shoeshine stand,” he said. “From there I tracked him to Glenwood Springs, Colo. He lived there a year or two and had a couple of mining claims.”

Williams said Grandstaff later moved to Leadville, Colo., to work in the mining industry. Williams found an article in the Leadville newspaper reporting that Grandstaff was nominated to run for town constable on the Independent ticket.

He said the newspaper article spelled the last name “Grandstaff.”

Grandstaff later returned to Glenwood Springs, where he owned a house and also a cabin in the mountains near his mining claims, Williams said. He also owned a saloon in town named “Grandstaff Landing,” according to the researcher.

“He lived in his cabin in the mountains,” Williams said. “I think he was a bit of a recluse – a tiny bit, not much.”

Grandstaff died of natural causes at his cabin and Glenwood Springs citizens buried him on the mountain.

Williams noted that the local canyon near Moab, for more than 100 years, was commonly referred to by an even more offensive name that included the racially charged “N” word.

“I don’t think he ever introduced himself [by that name],” Williams said. “Even if he did, it is no reason for our county, state or city to perpetuate this system of racism.”

Williams emphasized he doesn’t blame anyone or any group for doing something wrong as far as the site name.

“I am just trying to get at the truth and do justice for Mr. Grandstaff,” he said. “Why can’t we just name this place the name his parents gave him? That would be the proper thing to do.”

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