Tracing the history of Black frontiersman William Grandstaff

A deep dive into new insights about Grandstaff’s life

The story of William Grandstaff, a Black frontiersman who once called Moab home, has long held a prominent place in our region’s history, and the incomplete record of his life in the Moab Valley has long invited question and controversy. Records recently uncovered by musician and writer Gerald Elias (formerly of Utah, now a resident of Seattle) together and Nick Sheedy, Lead Genealogist of PBS’s Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., have helped paint a fuller picture of Grandstaff’s life, adding rich detail to what we know about his life before arriving in Moab. A recent virtual program with Elias and Sheedy by the Museum introduced these findings, outlined thoroughly here.

Grandstaff’s Early Years

Where was Grandstaff born? This simple question has taken patience and significant sleuthing to answer. A thorough review of census records yields a patchwork of accounts about William Grandstaff’s origins, including inconsistent records of his birthplace and age. However, according to Sheedy, this is not uncommon for Black Americans, both during the years of slavery and in the decades after. Thanks to Sheedy’s thorough records review and interpretations, we now have documentation that allows us to conclude that William Grandstaff was likely born into and held in slavery by George Grandstaff in Shenandoah County, Virginia.

According to all available records, Grandstaff was born in the 1830s or 1840s in the South, and since he is not found on the 1850 US Census, we may assume that he was born in slavery. Based on available records, it is unclear whether he escaped slavery or was willfully released by his owner.

While existing census records for Grandstaff cite that Grandstaff was born in Alabama or Virginia, three of five census documents naming Grandstaff indicate a Virginia birthplace. Indeed, Sheedy’s genealogical research found a large family named Grandstaff in Virginia, but none in Alabama that held slaves. This evidence supports the conclusion is that William Grandstaff very likely was born in Virginia.

The slave schedules of the US Censuses typically list slaves only by the enslaver’s name, age and color. Of nine slaveholders named Grandstaff (spelling variations considered), only two in Virginia and two in Tennessee held enslaved males who were the right age to be Moab’s William Grandstaff. One of the Virginia slaveholders reported two mulatto (mixed race) boys aged about 12 and 16, and based on Grandstaff having no known connection to Tennessee and also subsequent census listings identifying him as mulatto, we can conclude that William Grandstaff was likely born into and held in slavery by George Grandstaff of Shenandoah County, Virginia. Based on available records, it is likely that Grandstaff escaped or was released from slavery sometime in the 1850s.

A Life of the Times

The westward movement of the 1880s and 1890s encouraged the adventurous – and those with little else to lose – to pursue their fame and fortune in a largely undeveloped region. A variety of historical resources evidence that Grandstaff lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he married, had two children, and volunteered in the military, and then potentially moved Omaha, Nebraska prior to making his way westward to Utah.

A marriage record indicates that a William “Dranstaff” and Isabella Bond married in 1857 in Hamilton County, Ohio. By 1868, William Grandstaff appears to no longer have lived with his wife Isabella in Cincinnati, since a “Bell” Grandstaff is listed as a widow in directories that year. According to 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.”

Records also list William Grandstaff as a member of Cincinnati’s Black Brigade during the 1860s. The Brigade was composed of local Black men organized to defend Cincinnati from an anticipated Confederate attack in 1862. The men of Cincinnati’s Black Brigade were the first recognized Black volunteers in the Union Army during the Civil War, and William Grandstaff was listed among the 44 men mustered into the Brigade’s Company A.

William Grandstaff ceases to appear on Cincinnati records in the late 1860s. A thorough search of the 1870 US Census found one possible candidate who could be the William Grandstaff who later moved to Moab: one W. “Granstaaff” or “Gransdorff”, aged 30 (born about 1840), was listed on the census in Omaha, Nebraska that year. He was listed as Black and born in Missouri (a clear discrepancy with other birth records) and worked as house servant and lived with other roomers (both white and Black) in a hotel operated by Philip Rumsy. Again, Sheedy notes that people who lived in hotels often did not self-report their statistics directly to a census enumerator, and so the information may be less reliable. Despite the birthplace discrepancy, this man is a viable (and the only) candidate from the 1870 census considered plausibly to be the William Grandstaff who showed up in Utah within the decade.

Grandstaff’s Time in Moab

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 Mission, established in 1855, was a short-lived attempt by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to colonize the Moab Valley, which failed after a few months due to violent conflict between LDS missionaries and the local Ute people. Later settlers reported noticing a small garden at the fort, suggesting that Grandstaff and Frenchie had grown food there. Grandstaff was one of the very first non-Native residents to settle in this region, which began to see settlement by prospectors, frontiersmen, misfits, and explorers of all sorts who were venturing west in the 1880s.

After living in the mission’s remains and then in a building that he constructed at what is now Moab Springs Guest Ranch, 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.

Remains of the Elk Mountain Mission fort in 1906. Grandstaff briefly occupied the abandoned building during his time in Moab from 1877-1881.

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 (presumably the Ute) 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 hard to substantiate. Grandstaff purportedly left Moab so quickly that he left behind his cattle.

Grandstaff Moves to Colorado

After leaving Moab, and after a subsequent stint in Salida, Colorado, Grandstaff moved to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. There he married a woman named Rebecca (the marriage certificate has not been located, but she is listed as co-owner on multiple pieces of property), operated the Grandstaff Landing Saloon, worked as a miner, and owned a sulfurous hot spring. He lived in a small cabin on Red Mountain on the outskirts of town. Land sales records and multiple newspaper articles chronicle his land dealings and affairs in and around Glenwood Springs. Rebecca likely died around 1895 (she ceases to appear on census records) after which Grandstaff lived alone. Though his Red Mountain cabin was remote and his lifestyle somewhat solitary, Grandstaff had a circle of friends and was civically engaged – even running for Constable in Leadville, Colorado in 1889.

William Grandstaff ran for Constable in Leadville, Colorado on the Independent ticket in 1889. (Source: The Aspen Daily Times, October 13, 1889.)

Glenwood Springs residents reportedly referred to Grandstaff as “Old Portugee,” a nickname that historians speculate may have indicated a mixed racial background: an identity corroborated by multiple census records that record his race as “mulatto” or even, in one instance, as white.

When Grandstaff died in the summer of 1901, an obituary published in the Avalanche Echo supplies perhaps the most human snapshot into his life available in historic records. Community members had noticed Grandstaff’s absence in town for several weeks and sent a young boy to check on him. The child found Grandstaff’s body, evidently having been dead for some weeks, with no sign of foul play.

“The old man lived a solitary life on the top of the mountain where he had several mining claims 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 absence became prolonged, they became alarmed.”

-Avalanche Echo, August 22, 1901

Community members buried Grandstaff on the mountain near his home, reportedly under a tree fashioned into the shape of a cross, and his cabin was burned as a health precaution. The local newspaper, the Avalanche Echo, reported a sobering account of Grandstaff’s death with a touching account of his burial:

“Old Deacon Jones…quietly wandered away from the balance of the party and just a Mr. Bullis was about to begin the burial service, Jones reappeared in a very unobtrusive manner and gently placed a [bouquet] of beautiful wild flowers. This little act of esteem was so in contrast to the other unfortunate conditions that it brought the tears to eyes of the onlookers, who mutely completed the burial and returned home impressed with the beauty of this touching evidence of brotherly affection.”

Avalanche Echo, August 22, 1901

From the slave schedules to the census records, from the land deeds to the newspaper articles, the account of Grandstaff’s death provides perhaps the best, most intimate window into his personal life and as a valued member of his small community.

Crosses and canyons

After several years the old cross-shaped tree on Red Mountain fell down; a replacement was installed by the Glenwood Springs Electric Department and illuminated with power from the nearby ski resort. In 1991, some local residents and the American Civil Liberties Union objected to having a religious symbol on public property so a new, larger cross was erected on a nearby private easement where it was more visible to town. The Red Mountain Cross Preservation Association was formed to preserve and maintain it, and today the cross is lit on certain holidays, including between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, and occasionally in observance of significant events.

Moab, meanwhile, has experienced some friction dealing with Grandstaff’s legacy in the community. Originally referred to with an unprintable racial slur both colloquially and on official maps of the region into the 1940s or 1950s, the canyon that today carries Grandstaff’s name came to be known as Negro Bill Canyon. After much debate, including a statement from then-president of the Tri-State NAACP branch, Jeanetta Williams that the canyon should remain ‘Negro Bill Canyon’ so as to avoid erasing Grandstaff’s legacy, the canyon was designated Grandstaff Canyon in 2017. Leading proponents of the name change included Moab resident Louis Williams and Mary McGann, the then vice chairperson of the Grand County Council (now Commission).

Today, an interpretive plaque at popular Grandstaff Canyon hiking trail managed by the Bureau of Land Management provides visitors with a brief history of Grandstaff’s life.

Interpreting Grandstaff’s History Today

As is always the case with history, many details of William Grandstaff’s life remain a mystery. While Elias’ and Sheedy’s research has added significantly to what we know about him, many questions remain about the first Black semi-permanent resident of what we now know as Moab: What was life like for Grandstaff? What were his day-to-day interactions like, as a Black rancher, prospector, and citizen in the Western US in the late 1800s following the tumultuous and painful years of the Civil War and reconstruction? Were the rumors of his alleged misdeeds in Moab credible? Did racism or, as some have suggested, jealousy over his possession of the finest, wettest canyon in Moab fuel his quick departure?

Beyond the canyon that bears his name, traces of Grandstaff’s story live on tangibly in Grand County. Today, an ice house constructed reportedly by Grandstaff survives on the property of the Moab Springs Ranch, and interpretive signage on the property celebrates his legacy there. Old charcoal graffiti at a cowboy camp in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park also makes reference to Grandstaff: a crude sketch depicts a face, and a proclamation that Grandstaff was “wanted dead or alive” with derogatory comments and unprintable racial slurs appear on the cliff walls too. It is unknown whether these drawings are contemporaneous with Grandstaff’s presence in Utah, but they evidence strong hostility toward him by the people who wrote it.

While research can illuminate some truths about Grandstaff’s life, much of what we do know invites questions that may never be answered. His story is remembered in both Moab and Glenwood Springs. So, what if anything does Grandstaff’s story contribute to the expansive history of race in America?

Gerald Elias commemorated Grandstaff’s life in an operatic composition that was performed for the first time at the Moab Music Festival in 2014. The words imagine Grandstaff’s deliberation about the decision to leave Moab or stay, wondering if the angry settlers who forced him to leave were motivated by access to his canyon’s water rather than any claims that he was bootlegging liquor.  

As millions of Americans have protested persistent racism, many Moabites are eager to learn more about the history of William Grandstaff. “When you see the kinds of comments that were made about Grandstaff in the early 1900s and compare them with comments that are still made now, you can see that in some ways, things haven’t changed all that much,” said Elias in a 2020 conversation with the Museum. Elias, whose curiosity and research sparked Nick Sheedy’s involvement with Grandstaff’s history, suggests that “we still have a really long way to go.”

We’ll never know all the biographical details of Grandstaff’s life, let alone who he was as a human being or the stories he could tell about a formative time in Moab’s early days. However, rich new insights into Grandstaff’s origins and how his different communities experienced his presence invite us to explore a rich range of questions that are relevant to our past, our present, and our future.


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.