Little is known about William Grandstaff other than the color of his skin and the derogatory nickname Moab locals once gave him.
Even the spelling of his last name is in dispute 136 years after the African-American cowboy and prospector historically known by the racial slur “N----r Bill” was chased out of Utah’s Grand County, never to be seen there again.
But the fight over the place named after him — Negro Bill Canyon — remains a sore point of contention in Utah, one that may finally be put to rest this week.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is expected to vote Thursday whether to change the canyon’s name, using the pioneer’s surname rather than a race-based nickname that no one ever called him during his lifetime. The change is proposed by the Grand County Council, which argues the name Grandstaff is more historically accurate.
“The present name tarnished Grand County’s image,” wrote council Chairwoman Jaylyn Hawks to the federal place-names board. “For many, the word Negro is a symbol of oppression.”
The move reopens a debate about how racist aspects of America’s past should be memorialized. But renaming the canyon could erase an important element of Utah’s pioneer history, according to the Grand County Historic Preservation Commission, which “staunchly” opposes the name change.
“Negro Bill (William Grandstaff) was one of the first settlers of this area. Our commission and the majority of longtime residents feel it is necessary to retain the name as a tribute to Grand County history,” wrote commission board member Donna Jordan. “History needs to be recognized and preserved; not changed to appease the current whims of a politically charged social concept.”
Jordan’s letter spells the man’s surname without the “d,” a form that many locals believe is correct, although a Utah historian has found records in Colorado spelling it with the “d.”
Grandstaff was probably born an Alabama slave in 1840 and wound up in Grand County in 1877. He ran cattle and prospected in the canyon named for him, but a few years later he fled after being accused of selling whiskey to American Indians.
The Board on Geographic Names, part of the U.S. Geological Survey, voted down a name change in 2001, citing a lack of support. But officials with the Bureau of Land Management and Grand County have since reversed their stances, while the Utah Committee on Geographic Names voted against a name change.
“This is not the scenario that the board like to gets into where you have the federal agency saying one thing and the state stating the opposite,” said U.S. Board on Geographic Names spokeswoman Jennifer Runyon. “The board is going to be wrangling between opposing opinions. The attitude is to leave a name alone unless there is a compelling reason to change it.”
Also on the board’s agenda is a proposal to change the name of a Nevada peak named for a Mississippi statesman who would lead the secessionist South during the Civil War. At 12,775 feet, Jeff Davis Peak towers above Great Basin National Park’s ancient bristlecone forests in the Snake Range.
Critics argue the peak’s name commemorates a racist traitor and want it renamed in honor of a Native American or African-American leader. However, the highest peak was named for Davis in 1855, when he was the U.S. secretary of war. After the Civil War, the mountain was renamed after explorer George Wheeler and Davis’ name was shifted to the smaller peak to the northeast, in a kind of topographical demotion.
Nominal changes are already underway near Negro Bill Canyon. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the 12-mile-long side canyon off the Colorado River, has installed new signs in recreation sites along the river corridor using the name Grandstaff and last year changed the name of the canyon trailhead.
But the canyon itself — a popular hike that leads to Morning Glory Arch — remains named Negro Bill. And even if the canyon’s name is officially changed, ”Negro Bill” will remain fixed to the longstanding BLM Wilderness Study Area until Congress decides whether to designate the land as wilderness.
The NAACP said it is fine with the current name, viewing it as a celebration of an African-American’s role in the settlement of the West.
“Changing the name would erase a very important history for the sake of making a few people more comfortable; a history that deserves to be preserved,” Hilary O. Shelton, NAACP’s national senior vice president for policy and advocacy, wrote in a letter to the names board. “We need to preserve the name ‘Negro Bill Canyon,’ so Americans visiting our state, and especially those living in and around Moab, are reminded of the history and culture of the state of Utah.”
President of the NAACP Salt Lake branch Jeanetta Williams has also opposed the change, saying the word “Negro” is not offensive “in any way.”
“Changing the name would erase history,” Williams wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to the Utah Division of State History.
But the Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission, an arm of the state’s Department of Heritage and Arts, holds an opposite view.
That panel noted that “Negro Bill” is hardly the canyon’s historic name. It was changed during the civil rights era when the offensive moniker “N----r” was systemically scrubbed from the American landscape, including several places in Utah.
According to author John Van Cott’s “Utah Place Names,” five Utah geographic features use the word, including Negro Dan Hollow in Rich County, Negro Liza Wash in Iron County and Negro Mag Wash in Beaver County.
Cott’s 1990 book reports a black couple named Lee operated a boarding house in Fort Cameron near Beaver in 1873. Mrs. Lee, known by the racial slur “N----r Mag,” later ran a sanitarium at the hot springs in the Mineral Mountains, northwest of town. Her nickname wound up attached to the wash that drains from Bailey Spring to Beaver Bottoms. It was later renamed Negro Mag Wash.
Replacing an offensive N-word slur for a less racially charged one is not a real solution, according to a letter to the state names board drafted last June by then-MLK commission chairman Jasen Lee.
“Today it [the word “Negro”] is no longer is an appropriate designation — particularly since it is meant to honor the man for which it was named, Mr. William Granstaff, who happened to be African-American,” the letter states. “To remove the racially offensive descriptor from the official title of the popular geographic feature would express to the world that Utah has progressed to a place where such flagrant insensitivity is no longer tolerated or acceptable in our community.”
Citing a lack of unanimity among its members, the MLK commission has declined to weigh in further.