William Grandstaff

William Grandstaff: A Speculative Biography

[On May 2, 2019 my composition, “The Legend of William Grandstaff” for baritone, piano, and string bass will be premiered in Salt Lake City. This short biography gives some background to this remarkable individual, a man of color who braved the post-Civil War West against great odds.]

Much of the little we know about the life of William Grandstaff, the beneficiary/victim of inescapably racially tinged oral history, is speculative. It’s part of human nature to embellish stories as the game of telephone plays out over the decades, though they may have little or no basis in fact. Quotes attributed to Grandstaff may or may not be accurate. They may have never been uttered at all. We do, however, have some “facts” about Grandstaff to work with, like census data, bills of sale, deeds and, ironically, some well-documented reporting of Grandstaff’s death in 1901. (I put the word, “facts,” in quotes because even census data can be inaccurate and contradictory.) When everything is pasted together, our collage of William Grandstaff, made fuzzy around the edges by the passage of time, still contains major blank spots but it at least gives us an idea of the man and his times.

The 1880 census of the Eastern Portion of Emery County (now Grand County), Utah, lists William Grandstaff as a thirty-eight-year-old black male, born in 1842; a farmer born in Virginia to parents from Virginia.1 The 1900 census of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, lists him as a sixty-year old black male, born in January 1840; a coal miner born in Alabama to parents from Louisiana.2 Considering the time and possible locations of his parents, it is highly likely they had been enslaved. There were slave owners named Grandstaff in Shenandoah County, Virginia.3 William, himself, might have been born enslaved. However, that he was “black” is also open to debate. Apparently light-skinned, he was often described as mulatto. He was nicknamed “Old Portugee”4 in his later years, which some have suggested meant he was Melungeon, a sub-racial group of mixed European, sub-Saharan African and Native American ancestry.5 (The difficulty is that Melungeons comprise a very small population, primarily found in the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia, including portions of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and East Kentucky.) It’s also possible Grandstaff’s biological father was a slave owner. As late as 1962, in a retrospective in the Moab Times Independent, Maxine Newell referred to “N—– Bill (William Granstaff [sic]), a big, robust mulatto,” and “an enterprising renegade.”6 That until recent times he continued to be called N—– Bill regardless of his exact racial background suggests that many whites were comfortable maintaining the “one size fits all” derogatory reference.

 There is a William Grandstaff listed in the 1862 Muster Roll (Company A, First Regiment) of The Black Brigade of Cincinnati.7 The Black Brigade was the first organized black militia of the Union Army during the Civil War. Residents of the city, they were pressed into service to build fortifications on the south side of Cincinnati to repel an anticipated Confederate attack. At first they were treated harshly by the city’s white population though they were on the front lines—without weapons—to defend it. As time passed the Brigade was defended by white officers—who improved their salaries and living conditions—and by some members of the local press. After the war the Black Brigade received commendations for serving the Union with distinction. It’s possible that the William Grandstaff in Cincinnati, who would have been approximately twenty-two-years-old  at the time, is the same man who arrived in Utah in 1877. It would make a tidy narrative for Grandstaff to have been a freed slave who fought for the Union and then made his way West. However, history is rarely so neat and there simply is not enough to go on to connect those dots.

Grandstaff’s four years in Moab, Utah, from 1877-1881, are the subject of stories passed down from generation to generation, specifically one white generation to another, to the extent that his life sounds as much like folklore as biography or history. As a result, even in an “official” written history, there is an unmistakable if subtle and perhaps unintentionally nuanced racial bias: “Grandstaff was later said to have run a number of cattle (none of which are known to have been purchased).”8 The consensus is that Grandstaff arrived  sometime in 1877 with a companion named Frenchie, who might have been a trapper. The two men occupied the old Billings fort that had been built in 1855 by Mormon missionaries but was abandoned soon thereafter due to ongoing skirmishes with native Americans.9 Reports suggest Grandstaff and Frenchie were more business partners than friends, because on one occasion Frenchie purportedly pointed a gun at Grandstaff and had it knocked away before he pulled the trigger.10 Frenchie appears to have been a conniving sort, selling his land to two different men who only found out about the duplicity after Frenchie departed Moab.11 (He was never heard from again.)

Over the course of the four years, Grandstaff raised cattle, farmed, and traded with the Native Americans. To say he thrived might be an exaggeration, because when settler Fred Powell arrived in 1878, Grandstaff was all too happy to trade his produce for basic staples like a sack of flour.12 However, he did manage to survive quite handily as evidenced by the forty head of cattle he had to abandon when he fled Utah.

That happened in 1881, when range warfare between white settlers and Native Americans resumed. Grandstaff was accused of having sold liquor to the Native Americans, thus hypothetically fomenting the violence. When a local, armed posse returned from Colorado, heading in his direction, Grandstaff was quoted as saying, “The men are gathering up guns to go on the mountain to hunt Indians, but I think I’m the Indian they are after.”13 He departed Moab, apparently in great haste, as he left his valuable herd of forty cattle behind.  It should be noted that the canyon where Grandstaff kept his cattle in Moab had the only permanently flowing stream in the area, making it very desirable real estate indeed.

Arthur A. Taylor of Moab related an 1884 encounter with Grandstaff in Salida, Colorado, claiming he was a shoe shiner at that point in time.14 I haven’t discovered any corroboration of that so it may or may not be true. However, there’s a relative treasure trove of documentation of Grandstaff in the final phase of his life in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. While in Glenwood Springs he married a woman named Rebecca, who died in 1895. Other than a marriage certificate and her name on various deeds there’s no other record of her. For a time, Grandstaff was the owner of the Grandstaff Landing Saloon, for which there are signed bills of sale.15 After selling the saloon he turned to prospecting, for which there are well over a dozen mining claims and a deed in his name.16 17 He built a cabin on Red Mountain outside the town and became something of a hermit, though a well-liked one. “The cabin was only about six feet square and the door only about eighteen inches wide. Inside the door, Grandstaff, who was very superstitious, had built a narrow passage, in the belief that the devil would be frightened off and not enter the cabin.”18 When he died in 1901 his body wasn’t discovered for several weeks. Town leaders and friends attended a tearful burial, mourning the passing of a respected and valued member of the community.19

Postscript: After Grandstaff fled Moab, the canyon where he kept his cattle was referred to as N—– Bill Canyon. Until the 1950s, it was privately owned, and much of the canyon had been staked for uranium.20 Around the time it became public land, the name was changed to Negro Bill Canyon. In 2017 after long community effort, the name was changed yet again to William Grandstaff Canyon, in recognition of the man’s name.21 However, as an indication that bigotry dies a slow death, in 2016, five days after the BLM installed a new William Grandstaff Trailhead sign, it was vandalized,22 reminding us that whatever lessons we’ve learned from the life of William Grandstaff need to be continually taught.



  1. US Census, Eastern Portion of Emery County, Utah, 1880. Page 1, Line 12.
  2. US Census, East Glenwood Precinct, Garfield County, Colorado, 1900. Sheet 3, Line 57.
  3. Shenandoah County in the Civil War: Four Dark Years. Hal F. Sharpe, 2012.
  4. Avalanche Echo, August 22, 1901. “Found Dead”
  5. Melungeon Heritage Association
  6. Moab Times Independent, March 22, 1962. “Canyon Carries His Name, Rugged Early Resident”
  7. The Black Brigade of Cincinnati, Peter Clark, 1864.
  8. History of Grand County, Chapter Six, Pages 104-105, Richard A. Firmage, Utah Historical Society. 1996.
  9. The Moab Story. Otho Murphy, 1965.
  10. Moab Times Independent, October 6, 1955. “Name ‘N—– Bill’ Canyon for Pioneer”
  11. Moab Times Independent, August 3, 1967. Prof. Wayne McConkie. “The Early Settling of Moab Was Difficult Experience for Hardy Band of Pioneers”
  12. A History of Moab, Utah. Chapter 5. Faun McConkie Tanner, 1937.
  13. A History of Moab, Utah. Chapter 6. Faun McConkie Tanner, 1937.
  14. A History of Moab, Utah. Chapter 6. Faun McConkie Tanner, 1937.
  15. Bill of Sale, February 11, 1887.
  16. Pre-Emption Records, 1888-1902, Garfield County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
  17. Mining Deed, October 14, 1889, between W.J. Grandstaff and R.E. Palmer (With what appears to be a signature in Grandstaff’s own handwriting.
  18. Glenwood Post, “Gruesome Find,” August 24, 1901, front page.
  19. Avalanche Echo, August 22, 1901. “Grandstaff Buried”
  20. Moab Times Independent, October 6, 1955. “Name ‘N—– Bill’ Canyon for Pioneer”
  21. Salt Lake Tribune, October 12, 2017, Thomas Burr. “Utah’s Negro Bill Canyon Renames Grandstaff Canyon by Federal Board”
  22. Salt Lake Tribune, September 29, 2016, Brian Maffly. “Vandals Steal BLM’s New Grandstaff Trailhead Sign at Moab’s Negro Bill Canyon”

            Special thanks to Louis Williams of Moab, Utah, and the Glenwood Springs (Colorado) Historical Society.

Grandstaff structure, Moab Springs Ranchjpg

This stone cabin, built by William Grandstaff, is theoldest standing structure in Moab, Utah.
(Located at the Moab Springs Ranch)

“The Legend of William Grandstaff” will be premiered at 7:30PM on May 2, at the Urban Arts Gallery in downtown Salt Lake City, on a program presented by the Salty Cricket Composers Collective.







3 thoughts on “William Grandstaff

  1. OhMyGod! Will you have a link to this or will they be making a recording? I would loooove to hear this – and play it????!!!
    I hope you’re well!
    ~Susan 🙂

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sue, Thanks for your interest. I suppose you’ve got your eyes out for anything that has a bass part! I do hope it gets recorded and will let you know if it is. In the meantime, here are the program notes. Maybe it will pique your interest.

      The Legend of William Grandstaff: Introduction, Meditation, and Ballad
      Text and Music by Gerald Elias

      An outdoor enthusiast, I was introduced to William Grandstaff in a very oblique manner many years ago. Looking for a new place to hike, north of Moab along the Colorado River I saw a sign that said Negro Bill Canyon. When I was commissioned by the Moab Music Festival to write a composition based on local lore, I thought it might be interesting to find out just who this Negro Bill was. Little did I know that this idea was the beginning of an ongoing project that has so far resulted in three compositions. The first, in 2014, was called “William Grandstaff,” a fictionalized operatic scene for three voices and three instruments in which I imagined the moment in Grandstaff’s life [see the accompanying biography] when he had to decide whether to stay in Moab and fight for his land and liberty, or whether discretion should become the better part of valor.

      A second composition for the Festival—for baritone, string bass, and piano—was called “The Ballad of William Grandstaff,” and was sung by James Martin there in 2015. After the performance, James made some recommendations to provide the piece a broader context. The result of that effort is tonight’s world premiere, “The Legend of William Grandstaff,” which incorporates the Ballad (greatly revised), preceded by an Introduction and Meditation.

      The baritone represents the soul of Grandstaff looking back on his life, which ended in 1901. Using tantalizing bits and pieces of information we have about Grandstaff, the music provides more questions than answers. With a combination of irony, humor, bitterness, and hope, Grandstaff comments upon the tribulations he endured being a person of color in a white man’s world. The music reflects his varying moods, moving from a witty nightclub style introduction (Grandstaff was a saloon owner in real life) with snippets of familiar tunes; to a dreamy, reflective meditation; to a driving, sometimes cynical ballad, ending with the statement, “Who you think I was is who you really are.”

      Special thanks to the musicians, James Martin for his amazing portrayal of William Grandstaff, and Salty Cricket Composers Collective for making tonight’s performance possible.


  2. Fascinating.

    My classes in Greek and Roman Studies taught me to distrust numbers ending in 5 and 0………………….

    Rev. Fran Dearman,
    newly retired from active ministry, at home in Victoria BC.
    I read e-mail at random intervals, at the Public Library;
    if your message is time sensitive, please telephone:
    home study land line: 250.592.4835
    dire emergency cell phone: 1.778.835.8616



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