Grand County Council votes against changing name of Negro Bill Canyon
by Jeff Richards
Contributing Writer
Jul 04, 2013 | 3470 views | 0 0 comments | 287 287 recommendations | email to a friend | print
County council members declined to recommend a change to the name of Negro Bill Canyon, located northeast of Moab on state Route 128.                                     Photo by Tom Taylor
County council members declined to recommend a change to the name of Negro Bill Canyon, located northeast of Moab on state Route 128. Photo by Tom Taylor
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  The Grand County Council has unanimously voted in support of keeping the name “Negro Bill Canyon” instead of changing it to Grandstaff Canyon.

  At its regular meeting July 2, the council voted 5-0 to write a letter to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names in support of retaining the canyon’s current name. That vote came after the council heard a presentation from Louis Williams encouraging them to support changing the canyon’s name.

  Williams, a Moab resident, said he has been researching the life history of pioneer settler William Grandstaff for the past year and a half. Williams told the council that he has found no indication that Grandstaff ever preferred being called an even more offensive name that included the racially charged “N” word. The derogatory moniker, Williams said, was applied to him by other settlers between 1877 and 1881, when Grandstaff lived in the Moab area.

  “The community here has told people for years that William Grandstaff proudly called himself [the racially charged name],” Williams told the council during the meeting, noting that the “deeply ingrained” story has been told for well over a century. “However, it’s not true.”

  Williams cited a dozen or more historical documents that support his contention, including accounts written by historians, a mining deed with Grandstaff’s own signature on it, and newspaper articles announcing his death near Glenwood Springs, Colo. in August of 1901. In each of these documents, Williams noted, Grandstaff is referred to only by the name William Grandstaff, Williams told the council.

  Williams said that even though Grandstaff lived in Colorado for the last 20 years of his life, “No one in Colorado knew him as ‘Nigger Bill’.”

  Council member Lynn Jackson, who made the motion to support retaining the name, said at the meeting that while he respected Williams’ position, he did not agree with it.

  Jackson noted that the Grand County Historical Preservation Commission and a number of local residents are opposed to changing the name. Last fall, the president of the Salt Lake City office of the NAACP told the Associated Press she opposes changing the name because the history of the canyon would be lost.

“It’s part of the historical fabric of Grand County,” county council member Jackson said this week. “There are many who would just as soon see it not changed.”

  Fellow council member Pat Holyoak asked whether the name Grandstaff itself could be seen as objectionable, since it was reportedly the household name of the William Grandstaff’s former slave owners.

“Why would he choose that name?” Holyoak asked Williams during the meeting.

  “I don’t know,” Williams responded. “But I do know that is the name he went by.”

  Council chairman Gene Ciarus said the word “negro” is not necessarily offensive in itself.

“I think it’s how you use the word,” he said. Ciarus also joined Jackson in thanking Williams for his research efforts.

  In addition to Jackson, Holyoak, and Ciarus, council members Rory Paxman and Ken Ballantyne also voted in support of keeping the canyon’s current name. The council’s other two members, Elizabeth Tubbs and Jim Nyland, were not present at the meeting.

  Williams said after the meeting that while he is “disappointed” in the council’s action, the setback will not deter him from continuing his efforts to get the name changed.

  Williams said he has compiled a list of more than 600 supporters who want the name changed, including approximately 200 local residents and businesses. Local government entities such as the Moab City Council and the Castle Valley Town Council also have recently voted on or otherwise voiced their support for changing the canyon’s name.

  “You can be historically accurate without being racially insensitive,” Williams said.

Williams said he hopes to form a coalition at the national level that will help remove racially derogatory names from geographic places. According to Williams, there are more than 750 such names still in use across the country.

  “The most important thing is to get it started, and that’s what I’ve done,” he said.

  Prior to Tuesday’s action, the council agenda included the possible action item of rescinding a prior motion or recommendation, if needed. However, Grand County Council Administrator Ruth Dillon said she did extensive research on council actions between 1999 and 2006, and could find no formal action taken by the council regarding a proposed name change during that period. She did note that the matter had been discussed periodically over the years.

In 1999, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names rejected a request by a group of local citizens to change the canyon’s name.

Lou Yost, executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, said during a November interview with the The Times-Independent that the 1999 request was denied because the Grand County Council and the BLM opposed the change. The city of Moab’s mayor and two citizens supported the name change at that time, he said.

Yost said last year that petitions, whether signed in person or online, have no effect on the board’s decisions.

  Although the council’s action isn’t binding, it is likely to carry weight with the U.S Board of Geographic Names, which routinely considers and reviews name change requests.

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