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McEntee: 'Negro Bill Canyon' not only Utah site with questionable name

Published December 5, 2012 12:08 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Louis Williams has good reason to object to the name Negro Bill Canyon, a cleaned-up version of an earlier moniker for a popular feature near Moab.

Williams, himself a man of color, has posted an online petition, which already has more than 600 signatures, and plans to ask the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change it, according to The Associated Press.

A new name certainly would remove the stain of racist language, particularly in its earlier iteration, and erase the revulsion felt by many visitors who can't believe what they're hearing.

He'd like the new name to be Grandstaff Canyon after William Grandstaff, a black cowboy who lived in the area in the 1870s.

Makes sense.

But Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP's Salt Lake City chapter, says that if the name is changed, the site will lose its history.

"Negro is an acceptable word," she told the AP.

It's also one used frequently around the nation and in Utah. Here, there's Negro Dan Hollow, Negro Hollow, Negro Liza Wash and Negro Mag Wash.

But again, like many other states, Utah has its share of questionable place-names.

Once there was a Shitamaring Creek in Garfield County, although its name was softened years ago. (The name stemmed from its water, which led to bouts of diarrhea in those who drank it, writes John W. Van Cott, who wrote Utah Place Names, last updated in 1997.)

There was Marys Nipple in Beaver County and Lady Laird Peak in Juab County, named for a "well-known lady of dubious reputation," as Van Cott put it.

And there are all kinds of "Devils" — chair, garden, gate, hole, playground and slide.

Lousy Jim Creek is named for a Beaver sheepherder with a nasty infestation of lice.

Butch Cassidy got his own draw. Summit County has a Bourbon Lake.

It's clear, however, that Utah's monikers are much milder than, say, Cat House Creek in Montana and Whorehouse Meadows in Oregon, described by Mark Monmonier in his book From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame.

In the 1960s, the federal Bureau of Land Management changed the name to Naughty Girl Meadow, Monmonier reports. But by the '80s, locals pushed to restore the original name, and the feds caved.

Cruise the Internet and you can find all kinds of place-names in various countries, most of which can't be printed in a reputable newspaper. I will say the mildest was Brest, France.

Back here in Utah, there are a couple of names that tease the imagination. The Confusion Range — named because it was, well, confusing — spans Juab and Millard counties.

My favorite, though, is Carbon County's Interplanetary Airstrip. Its name origin, Van Cott writes, "is conjectural."

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook/pegmcentee and Twitter: @pegmcentee.