Negro Bill Trailhead renamed to a more sensitive moniker in honor of southern Utah pioneer

Grandstaff Trailhead • BLM installs new signage around the site; meantime, name debate continues.

William Grandstaff settled in what is now Grand County in the 1870s, running cattle up an oasis-like side canyon of the Colorado River. That canyon later was named in his memory, but the black cowboy from the American South likely wouldn't have anticipated the hubbub that has dogged Negro Bill Canyon for decades.

This week, the debate entered another stage when the Bureau of Land Management installed new signage at recreation sites along the River Road corridor northeast of Moab. The signage reflects the BLM's new name for the trailhead used by hikers for a 2-mile trek up Negro Bill Canyon to Morning Glory Natural Bridge. The trailhead formerly known as Negro Bill is now called Grandstaff Trailhead, which features signage describing the life of this pioneer, who was half-American Indian.

"There has been an evolving perspective regarding the best way to honor the canyon's namesake [pioneer] and interpret his history for visitors. BLM has been part of this evolution," said Beth Ransell, acting district manager. "The new sign update along the river corridor [along State Route 128] provided an opportunity to continue this process with the renaming of the trailhead and adding an interpretive sign to honor William Grandstaff's connection to Moab and the canyon."

For years, many Grand County residents have been uncomfortable with the racial moniker attached to the canyon, which some would like to see renamed.

The BLM supports a name change and memorialized that support in a memo filed with the Utah chapter of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

In the meantime, the agency documented the life and times of Grandstaff, one of southern Utah's first settlers. He probably was born a slave and came West as a refugee from post-Civil War South in search of a better life — just like many white migrants from Southern states.

Grandstaff was born in Alabama in 1840 and arrived in Moab in 1877 by way of Louisiana in the company of a man known to history only as "Frenchie," according to the new interpretive sign. They initially occupied the deserted Elk Mountain Mission.

Not much else is known about Grandstaff, not even the correct spelling of his name. He homesteaded, ran cattle and prospected in the area for four years until he left after an Indian uprising in 1881.

"Fearing repercussions, having been accused of causing trouble by selling whiskey to the Indians," the sign reads, "Grandstaff abandoned his home, 40 head of cattle and he left the area."

No one know where he went from there, but he turned up in Glenwood Springs, Colo., where he lived until his death in 1901.

After Grandstaff departed, the canyon where he ran livestock was named for him, initially with a racial epithet unsuitable for publication, and later was changed to Negro Bill Canyon. But the name remains a troubling reminder of America's unfinished business in race relations, suggesting a double standard in geographic naming conventions.

The names of Utah's white Mormon pioneers can be read across the landscape in official place names, but none of these names references the pioneer's race.

Grandstaff lived in Grand County for a relatively short time, but thanks to early Utahns' clumsy, perhaps racist way of memorializing him, contemporary Utahns will be reflecting on Grandstaff's fleeting presence in canyon country for a while.

Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at bmaffly@sltrib.com or 801-257-8713.

Twitter: @brianmaffly