In Moab, Pioneer Settler and Cowboy, "Negro Bill" Rides Again
In the Old Testament, the land of Moab, also called “The Far Country”, lay east of the Dead Sea, in what we now call Kerak, Jordan. During the 1855 LDS General Conference in Salt Lake City, forty Mormon men “were called” to establish the Elk Mountain Mission on the banks of the Grand (later, Colorado) River. As memorialized on countless souvenir t-shirts, the “Far Country” would become Moab, Utah in 1902.
One goal of the mission was to minister to the indigenous Ute Indians. After the “missionaries” built a stone fort and planted crops, conflict soon arose between the apostles and the Indians. Having built their stone mission in what is now the Matheson Wetlands Preserve, river flooding, a plague of mosquitoes and rotting potatoes characterized the growing season of 1855.
Depending on which version of history you prefer, either the Indians repeatedly raided the mission’s meager food supply or the Mormon men spurned the offering of Ute women as potential brides. Either way, a gunfight ensued, resulting in the death of three missionaries and the wounding of others. With their hay and corn stocks burned to the ground, the Elk Mountain Mission decamped. The survivors retreated north, seeking shelter at other Mormon settlements.
For the next twenty-two years, only trappers, traders and the Spirit of Kokopelli visited Moab. No one dared settle there until two pioneers, a Canadian fur trapper named “Frenchie” and a cowboy named Bill Granstaff divided the spoils and resettled the area. Since it was a full generation after the missionary debacle, the two men managed to live in relative harmony with the Ute Indians. Frenchie took the ruins of the Elk Mountain Mission as his home. Bill Granstaff ran cattle and lived in a box canyon three miles north, along the Grand River.
Although Frenchie was of Canadian origin, Moab-locals variously identified Bill Granstaff as Black, African American or with the more popular and catchy "N-word" epithet. Years later, the good people of Moab ran Bill out of town, ostensibly for selling liquor to the Ute Indians. As usual, there was an alternate version of Moab history. In the alternate version, the white folks in town trumped up false charges in order to steal Bill’s cattle. Either way, for the next eighty-five years, locals called Bill Granstaff and his canyon home “N-word Bill” and “N-word Bill Canyon”.
By the 1960s, in deference to the civil rights movement, the canyon where Bill had lived was renamed “Negro Bill Canyon”. Somewhere along the line, writers and historians added the letter “d” to Negro Bill’s name and he became Bill Grandstaff. Later still, around 2010, some high-minded Moab folks decided that Bill’s name was actually “William Grandstaff”. The new, politically correct name made no mention of his racial heritage.
In the 1960s, Moab began preparing for the hoard of tourists to come. As part of that plan, the State of Utah paved Highway 128 from Moab to Cisco. This newly paved highway provided easy access to the Colorado River (formerly the Grand River). Other than some tight turns overlooking the river, the automobile trip from Moab to Cisco, Utah and on to Interstate I-70 became easy. Until the late 1970s, travelers on Highway 128 barely noticed the unsigned and poorly identified “Negro Bill Canyon”. In 1979, an incident involving the “Sagebrush Rebellion” changed all of that.
In this case, the “rebels” included a loose coalition of off-roaders, states’ rights advocates and other radical fringe elements. Among the luminaries who expressed sympathy or support for the rebels were then-Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. The collective ire of these loosely affiliated groups and individuals focused on then-President Jimmy Carter. In his attempts to protect precious natural resources, the rebels accused President Carter of usurping state and local power.
In order to open more land to off-roading and prove their point about states’ rights, a small group of rebels used a bulldozer to cut a new dirt road up Negro Bill Canyon. The hiking trail, which bears his name, leads to both Morning Glory Bridge and the Negro Bill Wilderness Study Area. Although now largely rehabilitated, the remnants of that 1979 road are visible to hikers in the midsection of Negro Bill Canyon.
After the rebels defiled the canyon with their bulldozer, no one knew quite what to do. Over the years, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) gated the trail, paved a small parking lot, installed pit toilets and erected signage identifying the place as the “Negro Bill Trailhead”. By then, participants in the Sagebrush Rebellion had moved their activities to other parts of Utah and the West. Still, with the recent advent of smaller quad-type off-road vehicles, more land has fallen prey to motorized destruction than the Sagebrush Rebels ever imagined possible.
Around 2010, some high-minded residents and politicians in Moab and Grand County, Utah decided to sanitize several historical places and names in the area. The first to go, they decided, was the offensive name, “Negro Bill”. It was demeaning and inappropriate in the twenty-first century, they said. Three times during the next five years, the Grand County Council voted narrowly to keep the name. When they could not eliminate all references to Negro Bill, the political elite of Moab settled for defiling and destroying old Lions Park, three miles downstream.
Old Lion’s Club Park stood on the spot where the 1855 Elk Mountain Mission first camped on the Moab-side of the Grand River. Stately cottonwood trees that may have shaded the missionaries at their first campground disappeared on March 31, 2015. Along with any vegetation in the park, all of the classic stone and wooden signage around the intersection of Highways 191 and 128 disappeared, as well. In place of the historical wooden signage was a hodgepodge of sanitary looking metal signs.
Like a plague of rats, the sanitizing of Moab history was on the march, heading upstream toward Negro Bill Canyon. This culminated on September 27, 2016, when the all-knowing BLM Moab Field Office “pulled a fast one”. In the grand tradition of destroying old Lions Park, the BLM made a stealthy move. Overnight, and without warning, the BLM changed out the historical “Negro Bill Trailhead” signage and all the road signs referencing the site. If the motto of the United States is, “In God We Trust”, the motto of the Moab BLM Field Office might be, “The BLM Knows Best”. Two nights later, the new “William Grandstaff Trailhead” signs disappeared. As of this writing, no one knows who or what spirited the new signs away.
Without a vote or any public comment, the Moab Field Office had dealt with the issue directly. In their infinite wisdom, they had relegated Negro Bill and his former canyon home to the dustbin of history. Thank you, Moab Field Office for saving us from our own history. Thank you, “Monkey Wrench Gang” for removing and safely storing the new trailhead signs for the edification of future generations. Because of your actions, Moab Field Office and you, the politically correct members of the Grand County Council, we are now closer to the treeless, sanitized history that you crave.
Then, on August 4, 2017, like a thunderbolt from Mt. Olympus, the Utah Committee on Geographic Names voted 8-2 in favor of retaining the name, “Negro Bill Canyon” as its official geographical "place name". Since the BLM controls the trailhead and parking area, they can keep their newly sanitized signage in place, unless the “Monkey Wrench Gang” or some ancient spirit steals them again.
The three-mile stretch of Colorado Riverway from Moab to Negro Bill Canyon is of both historical and spiritual significance. In that area, the Spirit of the Ancients is still active, as seen by the image of ET (The Extraterrestrial) recently carved by nature in the sandstone cliffs. In addition, Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone have been active in the area. As seen in the accompanying photographs, everywhere Plush Kokopelli and Coney go, the names on roadside signs spontaneously change. “William Grandstaff Trailhead” reverts to “Negro Bill Trailhead”. Various arches fall, spiritual paths begin and end. According to the signs, a new “Moab Jim Canyon” also appears, just half a mile south of Negro Bill Canyon.
Author’s Note - Although the mischievous Plush Kokopelli and his shy partner, Coney the Traffic Cone were photographed near the scene of the William Grandstaff Trailhead sign-disappearance in September 2016, there is no evidence that either character played a role in that theft. In fact, Plush Kokopelli and Coney were there to install a new Kokopelli Federal Credit Union automated teller machine (ATM) at the trailhead parking lot. All fees collected by that new Moab Bank ATM will be used to install new "Negro Bill Trailhead" signs, should the need arise.