Washington • A federal board voted Thursday to rename Negro Bill Canyon in southern Utah, saying the race-based moniker was offensive and citing local support for changing it. It will now be called Grandstaff Canyon.
The decision is final, and the name change will be entered into the government database almost immediately.
The Grand County Council requested the change to honor William Grandstaff, a black man who ran cattle in the area just north of Moab, by using his real name instead of the pejorative term that had been the canyon’s name in recent years. The canyon’s name once included the far more derogatory N-word.
“His name was Grandstaff; it was not Negro Bill,” said Wendi-Starr Brown, a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and who represents the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. “I’m pretty sure that’s not how he wanted to be addressed in life.”
The board — made up of officials from various government agencies — had previously voted in 2001 to keep the Negro Bill Canyon name when locally elected officials objected to changing it. The Grand County Council reversed itself earlier this year to support the Grandstaff Canyon name and the Bureau of Land Management backed that effort.
“We have to look forward,” said board member Elizabeth Kanalley, manager of National Geospatial Services at the Forest Service. “Keeping that name labeled the way it is is kinda like we’re just not recognizing this is hurtful to people.”
Grandstaff (some accounts use the spelling Granstaff, but historians and the board said Grandstaff is the correct spelling) may also have been part Native American. He was reportedly born an Alabama slave and came in 1877 to Grand County, where he took over an abandoned fort and raised cattle and prospected. He later fled the area after being accused of selling whiskey to American Indians in the area.
The 1941 Utah Writer’s Guide said the valley was named “N----r Bill Canyon” in the late 19th century and that name appeared on Army maps in 1959 and 1960, although the moniker was apparently changed to Negro Bill Canyon in the 1940s or 1950s.
Mary McGann, vice chairwoman of the Grand County Council who drove the effort to rename the canyon, said she was “very happy” with the results and believes it will make the community better.
“It needed to go because it was enabling,” she said. “It was the right thing to do.”
Jaylyn Hawks, the council chairwoman, said she was “ecstatic. I think that’s terrific. I really didn’t think it was going to happen.”
The Tri-State NAACP branch, which covers Utah, Nevada and Idaho, had opposed the change, and its president, Jeanetta Williams, noted that the word has been accepted by groups like the National Council of Negro Women and the United Negro College Fund.
“I’m disappointed because the history of it will be lost,” Williams said Thursday. “If they go back and look into the history, they will find that Negro is not an offensive word.”
Williams said she hopes the signage for the canyon will still include an explanation of the original name. A BLM sign at the trailhead does detail Grandstaff’s history and the original name.
The new name was not welcomed by everyone in the community.
“Why do we need to change the historic canyon name? This is similar to removing historic statues to appease a few,” said Moab resident Donna Jordan, a member of the Grand County Historic Preservation Commission. “History is history. If we hide those lessons and are not reminded of them, we do not learn from them.”
Others don’t see the name as historic since no one ever calls the canyon’s namesake pioneer “Negro Bill,” which is itself a sanitized version of an offensive racial slur that white settlers gave him.
“There is no indication he ever called himself by that name, so there really is no reason the canyon he ranched should be called Negro Bill Canyon because it was given that name by those who stole that land from him,” musician and author Gerald Elias wrote in an email.
According to Elias, who has researched Grandstaff’s life, he constructed two of the oldest buildings still standing in Moab, but later fell out with settlers there.
“After he was forced to flee Moab in 1881, he became a well-liked and respected member of the Glenwood Springs, Colorado, community, where he died in 1901,” Elias wrote.
Reporter Brian Maffly contributed to this story.