When people pore over the maps for Moab’s Slickrock or Porcupine Rim trails or look into hiking near the Colorado River, they’re often stopped in their tracks by the name of a canyon: Negro Bill. The racist nickname was given to a 19th century rancher and it stuck to the area where he ran his cattle. Last week, the Bureau of Land Management made a long-overdue decision to change the Negro Bill Trail to a less racially charged moniker, calling it the Grandstaff Trail and rebadging it with a new trailhead sign. Someone apparently didn’t like the change, as it took just five days for vandals to steal the sign.
The trail was named for William Grandstaff, a black man who moved from the American South to Moab in 1877 to become a cowboy and prospector, and the new name reflects his legacy without trivializing his identity.
The BLM recently updated much of its signage along the Colorado River north of Moab and used the opportunity to update the trail with a name that didn’t acknowledge its namesake’s race. The trail and its canyon were initially named with a much coarser racial epithet, which was changed to “Negro” in the civil rights era. There’s no record of anyone calling Grandstaff “Negro Bill” or its alternative during his lifetime.
The sign has been vandalized in the past, but typically with a crossing-out of the word “negro.” Oddly, the BLM spelled the new trailhead differently–Grandstaff, with a “d”–than they did the nearby Granstaff Campground, and the Salt Lake Tribune speculates that the vandalism could have had something to do with the inconsistent spelling. While it may have been perceived as a misspelling, legal documents from Grandstaff’s life show his name spelled in line with the sign at Grandstaff Trailhead.
While some residents lauded the labeling of his race as an intentional and respectful nod to a black historical figure (rare for Utah), others have felt it to be offensive and demeaning. And while the BLM cannot rename the canyon–they only have jurisdiction over the trail–they are advocating for a name change to Negro Bill Canyon as well.
Photo by BLM