Grandstaff legacy: Glenwood cross, Moab canyon |

Grandstaff legacy: Glenwood cross, Moab canyon

Will Grandbois

In an era when people of color rarely made the history books, William Grandstaff’s memory endures in two Western communities — though not without controversy.

He’s perhaps best known for the canyon that bears his name — albeit with a reduced racial epithet — outside of Moab, Utah, where he was an early pioneer. In Glenwood Springs, few even among locals realize his connection to the large, lit cross on Red Mountain, where he lived out his final years.

Grandstaff was born in March 1840 in either Alabama or Virginia, but his story doesn’t really begin there. His exact background is uncertain, but his Glenwood nickname of “Old Portugee” suggests that he may have been what was once described as melungeon — of mixed European, African and Native American descent. A man of such a heritage would likely not have had a birth certificate or much of a paper trail during the chaotic years before, during and after the American Civil War.

It’s somewhat telling that he arrived in the Utah in 1877, the year that reconstruction ended in the South. According to “A History of Moab, Utah” by Fawn McConkie Tanner, he took up residence in an abandoned fort north of town with the trapper “Frenchie,” whose real name is lost to time. In a region most settlers had avoided since the Elk Mountain Mission ended in bloodshed in 1855, the pair had comparative success. Later settlers noted a small garden at the fort, and Grandstaff built up a herd of cattle, which he grazed in a side canyon.

It was far from idyllic, though. The book also records an incident in which the Frenchman tried to kill Grandstaff and was foiled thanks to intervention of another rancher. The real trouble came to a head in 1881, when Grandstaff was accused of selling whiskey to the natives and decided to leave town.

Aside from a report that he was running a shoeshine stand in Salida, most Moab-based histories leave him there.

“They don’t talk about him any more after that,” observed amateur Grandstaff scholar Louis Williams. “I think that shows what kind of disrespect they had for him.”

Williams came to Utah in 1989 as a self-proclaimed ski bum in Alta and first encountered Grandstaff’s canyon on a map the same year. Though the racially charged name had been downgraded somewhat to “Negro Bill Canyon,” the more derogatory term still appeared in print.

“It always kind of stuck with me,” Williams said. “The story from the local people was that William Grandstaff wanted to be called that, but it never made sense.”

When Williams moved to Moab in 2000, he discovered that several attempts had already been made to get the name changed altogether, without much success. Backed by all the research he could glean in the Internet age, Williams petitioned the Board on Geographic Names to make it simply “Grandstaff Canyon.”

“The name is just a watered down version of the original name, which was about hate and anger and dislike and never about honoring anybody,” he said.


According the Moab Times-Independent, the Grand County Council considered supporting the change in April 2015, but opted against it in a 4-3 vote. A major factor in the decision was apparently the opposition expressed by Jeanetta Williams, the president of the Tri-State NAACP.

“Changing the name to Grandstaff would take away all of the history,” she told the Times-Independent.

Resistance resurfaced more recently, when the Bureau of Land Management opted to change the marking trailhead — though it lacks the power to alter the name on official maps — and the “Grandstaff Canyon” sign was almost immediately stolen.

For Louis Williams, it’s an argument that doesn’t hold weight.

“The history of William Grandstaff was changed already,” he said. “It’s part of a cover-up of African-American history. In lieu of telling what the stories are about these areas, we’ve just racialized them.”

He disputes the narrative of why Grandstaff was run out of Moab.

“The Mormons had tried to live there for 22 years and weren’t able to, then he came along and claimed the valley. Then they came back looking for Native Americans to pick a fight with, and they lost the battle,” he said. “They were pissed off, and William Grandstaff got word of it and decided to get out of there.”

“There were no black cowboys for a long time, but during the Civil War, the owners had to leave the slaves in charge of the cattle, and after the war they had a new skill,” he added. “It became a tradition to separate black men from cattle.”


Indeed, Grandstaff appears to have steered clear of cattle ranching after that, and when he arrived in Colorado, the tone of his life seems to have changed.

“When he got up to Glenwood Springs, I guess there were already other black people there, and it was very accepting,” Williams said. “It was impressive to me how much they cared about him.”

Local records show a reference to a Grandstaff Ferry in South Canyon by 1887, when the mining community there was booming. He appears to have opened a tavern and tried to improve the hot springs there without much success. An Aspen Times article places him in Leadville for a while in 1889, where he was apparently named a constable.

He married Rebecca Grandstaff in 1891, but she died just four years later.

“She just disappears off the census records,” observed Patsy Stark, archivist for the Frontier Historical Society. Rumors of the manner of her death have proven difficult to substantiate.

Regardless, it wasn’t long after that he moved up onto a cabin on Red Mountain, where, according to the Glenwood Post, he “located a number of claims which he insisted contained fabulous riches.” By the summer of 1901, the Post asserted, he was in poor health but refused to go to the hospital.

On Aug. 22, the Avalanche Echo records, he hadn’t been seen for three weeks, and local youngster George “Luther” Kinney was sent up the mountain to check on him.

“From the boy’s account, there was plenty of evidence that he had been dead for some time,” the Echo read.

The coroner was out of town, so it was Judge Hedden who declared the cause of death to be starvation. After some difficulty removing the body through the small cabin’s narrow entrance, they lit the cabin on fire and buried the body under a cross-shaped tree.

“Old Deacon Jones, who had been Grandstaff’s friend in the town, went away and picked a handful of flowers, and without a word laid them on the crude coffin just as it was lowered into the grave,” the Echo recorded.

“This little act of esteem was so in contrast to the other unfortunate conditions that it brought tears to the eyes of the onlookers,” the Post added.


The cross-shaped tree blew down sometime before 1951, and a crew from the Glenwood Springs electric company replaced it and added electric lights using power from the nearby Red Mountain Ski Area. The new cross stood for 40 years, until a group of locals and the ACLU objected to having a religious symbol on public property. A new cross was erected farther up the hill on a private easement, and the Red Mountain Cross Preservation Association was formed to maintain it. Donations can be made in the organization’s name at Alpine Bank.

Just a few years later in summer 1998, it fell to vandals. The community outpouring of donated materials and labor was so immense that it was replaced with a more robust version well before it would traditionally be lit. It now shines down on Glenwood between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, as well as on Veterans Day and Easter Week.

It looks down on Stark in her house, built by the father of the kid who found Grandstaff’s body.

“Every time I see it lit, I think of Luther finding him up there,” she said. “Most people don’t know the background of it. They just like the symbol.”

For Bruce Lewis of the cross preservation group, the story adds to the symbol.

“It’s carrying on the torch of what was done,” he said. “It’s an honor to be part of something that is true to my heart as a Christian. It shines the light of what we are.”

Thanks to the canyon and the cross, Grandstaff’s memory has endured and even grown. Salt Lake City musician Gerald Elias has written two compositions inspired by Grandstaff. One, commissioned by the Moab Music Festival, imagines Bill, Frenchie and Rebecca talking about what the land means to them as they’re being forced off. A follow-up piece may be performed at the upcoming opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

“I tried to take the disparate information I had about his life and compress it into a short musical drama. It’s based upon the general historical facts, but the specific plot is something I just made up,” Elias observed. “Unfortunately, we still don’t know that much about him, but I think he shows a great deal of resourcefulness and intelligence. There was material there for writing dramatic music.”

He believes that Grandstaff’s story of adversity and perseverance is an important one.

“If we look at the state of race relations today compared to 1870, things have changed on the surface but some of the underlying tensions are still there,” he said. “I just hope that maybe the music that I’ve written or the efforts of all these other people, will shed more light on not only Grandstaff as an individual but the times he lived in.”

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