William Grandstaff: Black Frontiersman and Moab Settler
Early Moab settler William Grandstaff has long occupied a prominent place in Moab's history, and today, the scenic Grandstaff Canyon hiking trail draws many thousands of visitors annually.
In many ways, Grandstaff was a prototypical frontiersman of his time. Seeking better opportunities out West, he dabbled in many quintessentially Western vocations during his life: he ran cattle, owned a saloon, and worked mining claims as he bounced between dusty, remote and hardscrabble towns.
In other ways, Grandstaff defied the image of a pioneer or settler that many might expect. Grandstaff was Black and was likely born enslaved. Though records are spotty, historians work like investigators to piece together all available evidence. A patchwork of Census records, property deeds, city directories, newspaper articles, and other documents help us trace his journey westward and understand as much as we can about his life. In Fall of 2022, a temporary exhibit at the Moab Museum showcased recent insights into Grandstaff's genealogy.
Composer Gerald Elias speaks at the Grandstaff exhibit opening in September 2022
Unravelling Grandstaff's Story
Grandstaff's story has long been the subject of speculation and legend. Questions about where Grandstaff was born, whether he was born into slavery, and where his name comes from have long intrigued Moabites, and genealogical insights provide helpful new clues.
Where was Grandstaff born?
The simple question is tricky to answer: a review of Census records yields a patchwork of accounts about William Grandstaff's origins. All records indicate that he was born in the 1830s or 1840s in the South, and three of five census records list Virginia as the birthplace. Since he was not found on the 1850 or earlier US Census records, genealogists conclude that he was likely born enslaved. There was a large slaveholding family named Grandstaff in Virginia, but none in the other states cited as his birthplace on other Censuses. This suggests that William Grandstaff was likely born in Virginia, and retained the surname of the people enslaving him, as was common at the time.
Before 1870, enslaved people were identified by only their age, color, and their enslaver's name in the US Census records. Of nine slaveholders named Grandstaff in the US in 1850, only one in Virginia held enslaved individuals who were the right age, sex, and racial description to be William Grandstaff. From analysis of Slave Schedules of the US Census, it is concluded that William Grandstaff was likely born into and held in slavery by George Grandstaff of Shenandoah County, VA.
Based on available records, it is likely that Grandstaff escaped or was released from slavery sometime in the 1850s. A variety of historical resources evidence that William Grandstaff lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he married, had two children and volunteered in the military.
The Black Brigade:
Records list a William Grandstaff as a member of Cincinnati's Black Brigade in 1862. The Brigade was composed of local Black men organized to defend Cincinnati from an anticipated Confederate attack. This group is recognized as the first formal organization of Black volunteers in the Union army during the Civil War- though many of the Black Brigade members had previously already been forced into aiding the Union military prior to forming their own regiment.
Making Sense of the Murky Details
In 1868, William Grandstaff appear to no longer have lived with his wife Isabella in Cincinnati, since a "Bell" Grandstaff is listed as a widow in city directories that year. According to genealogist Nicky Sheedy, "it should be noted that women who had been abandoned or divorced often reported that they were widowed to avoid a stigma when asked by census enumerators or persons who compiled city directories. As such, we might take the 'widowed' status with a grain of salt."
Onward to Omaha?
William Grandstaff ceases to appear on Cincinnati records in the late 1860s. A through search of the 1870 US Census found one possible candidate who could be the William Grandstaff who later moved to Moab: one W. "Grandstaaff" or "Grandsdorff," aged 30, was listed on the census in Omaha, Nebraska that year. He was listed as Black and born in Missouri - a discrepancy with other birth records - and he worked as a house servant and lived with other boarders in a hotel.
Could Grandstaff in Omaha in 1870 be the same one that ended up in Moab? If so, why are the details of this census record at odds with others? One possible explanation: people who lived in hotels often did not self-report their statistics directly to a census enumerator, and so this information may be less reliable. Despite the birthplace discrepancy, this man is the only candidate from the 1870 census considered plausibly to be the William Grandstaff who showed up in Utah within the decade.
Moab and Beyond
William Grandstaff reportedly arrived in Utah around 1877 and briefly occupied the abandoned Elk Mountain Mission fort along with a Canadian fur trapper nicknamed "Frenchie." The two were among the very first non-Indigenous residents to settle in this region, which began to see an influx in settlement by prospectors, frontiersmen, homesteading families, and explorers of all sorts in the 1880s. Grandstaff is credited with building a structure later used as an icehouse at today's Moab Springs Ranch, which is situated near a lush spring.
Grandstaff reportedly ran cattle in the canyon that now bears his name. Grandstaff’s canyon was one of the few in the Moab area that had year-round running water, making it highly desirable “real estate” at a time when the region began to see an influx of cattle ranchers and settles vying for water and food for their stock.
According to accounts of numerous early Moab settlers, Grandstaff ran cattle in the canyon that now bears his name. Grandstaff's canyon was one of the few in the immediate Moab area that had year-round running water, making it highly desirable "real estate" at a time when the region began to see an influx of cattle ranches and settlers vying for water and food for their stock.
Onward to Colorado
Grandstaff's time in Utah was brief: He reportedly fled Moab in a hurry in 1881 when tensions between white settlers and local Native Americans were turning violent. Rumors circulated that Grandstaff had supplied the Native Americans with alcohol, which angered the settlers, though the truth of these allegations and the backlash Grandstaff faced are impossible to substantiate nearly a century and a half later. Grandstaff purportedly left Moab so quickly that he left behind his cattle.
After leaving Moab, and a subsequent stint in Salina, CO, Grandstaff moved to Glenwood Springs where he likely married a woman named Rebecca (the marriage certificate has not been located but she is listed as a co-owner on multiple pieces of property). He held a number of mining claims, bought and sold land and businesses, and even ran for Constable. He died in his home on the outskirts of Glenwood Springs in 1901.
A Legacy Lives On...
Community members buried Grandstaff on the mountain near his home, reportedly under a tree fashioned into the shape of a cross. After the tree eventually fell down, a replacement cross was installed by the Glenwood Springs Electric Department and illuminated with power from the nearby ski resort. In 1991, a new larger, cross was erected on a nearby private easement, and the Red Mountain Cross Preservation Association was formed to preserve
and maintain it.
"The old man lived a solitary life on the top of the mountain where he had several mining cliams which he has been working for the past six or seven years. He was accustomed to making regular trips to this town for the purpose of obtaining fresh provisions and visiting his friends, and when his absense became prolonged, they became alarmed."
-Avalanche Echo, August 22, 1901
Hear from the Genealogist
Virtual Program - March 2021
Gerald Elias provided valuable resources, leads, enthusiasm, and music that empowers this account of Grandstaff’s life. Elias brought the story of Grandstaff to Nick Sheedy, Lead Genealogist at PBS’s Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who generously conducted a thorough review of available resources and shared a summary of his efforts to the Moab Museum in January 2021. The Moab Museum extends tremendous thanks to Nick and Jerry.
The Moab Museum also extends a special thanks to Sharon Haller of the Frontier Historical Museum in Glenwood Springs for generous assistance and a thorough records review.