Outside the town of Moab, Utah, nestled between Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, is a lovely canyon, perpendicular to the Colorado River, that since the 1960s has officially been called Negro Bill Canyon by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Before that it was called something much worse.
Negro Bill was, in fact, a man of mixed race named William Grandstaff. A freed slave, he was probably a soldier in the Black Brigade of Cincinnati during the Civil War, after which he migrated west and set himself up in Moab in 1877 as a successful farmer, rancher and trader. Some years before, white settlers had founded the town, but after ongoing conflict with the Ute and Paiute Indian tribes, they abandoned it. When Grandstaff arrived all that was left of the settlement was a ruined fort. The canyon that eventually bore his name was ideal for herding cattle. It was a slot canyon, meaning there was only a single egress and the cattle could be easily contained. And it was the only canyon in the region that had a permanently flowing stream.
When the white settlers returned in 1881, armed skirmishes with the Native Americans quickly reignited. This time they accused Grandstaff of inciting the Indians, having sold liquor to them. More likely, they wanted his canyon. Grandstaff, in fear of his life, left his herd of cattle and headed to Colorado. He spent much of the rest of his life in and near Glenwood Springs, where he was both a respected saloon owner and a prospector. Though he died in hermit-like conditions in 1901 his death was mourned by the entire town.
In recent years there has been an ongoing effort to rename the canyon. As part of that effort I composed two vocal pieces generously commissioned the Moab Music Festival. The text is based upon the few tantalizing details of the life of Grandstaff that we know about. Happily, the push to change the canyon’s name has finally borne fruit, as reported in today’s Salt Lake Tribune.
I invite you to listen to my 2014 composition, William Grandstaff, and an interview about it on KSL-TV. With the explosive racial turmoil we’re currently experiencing in our country, it’s gratifying when there are positive steps forward, however small.