From Opera to Exhibit: Bringing William Grandstaff’s Story to Life

This September, Moabites and visitors have had the opportunity to experience a prominent Moab story in two very different ways: both through a Museum exhibit and as an opera.

William Grandstaff was an early settler of the Moab region- a Black cowboy and frontiersman who once ran cattle in the canyon we today call Grandstaff Canyon in the 1870s. His story has long captivated imaginations and elicited speculation: what would his life have been like? Where did he come from before Moab, and what was his life like after? How would his racial identity have impacted his life experiences as a frontiersman?

Musician and writer Gerald Elias is one of many Moab visitors who have been curious about Grandstaff’s story after hiking the popular Grandstaff Canyon Trail near Moab. Elias began to dig into Grandstaff’s history, curious to learn more about the man behind the canyon’s name. Captivated by the mysteries surrounding his life, The Ballad of William Grandstaff was born- a composition that chronicles the man’s departure from Moab during a time of escalating conflict between Indigenous residents and Euro-American settlers. This operatic was first performed as part of the 2014 Moab Music Festival, and was performed once again this year on September 4th as part of the Music Festival at Red Cliffs Lodge along the Colorado River.

As part of his research efforts and in collaboration with the Moab Museum, Elias connected with Nick Sheedy, Lead Genealogist for the PBS television show Finding Your Roots. Sheedy dove deep into a wide variety of historical records, finding a wealth of new information. As a result of this work, recent research insights into Grandstaff’s story are on exhibit this Fall at the Moab Museum.

As both an opera and an exhibit, Grandstaff’s story is a tale of perseverance, mystery, and inevitable unknowns. The audience of both the operatic and the exhibit are invited to be curious about the inevitable mysteries of Grandstaff’s life that remain, and the questions of how we as a community might interpret this history today. In case you haven’t seen it yet, we hope to see you at the Museum soon to be a part of the story!