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New research reveals history of Moab pioneer and Black cowboy William Grandstaff

Composer Gerald Elias at the Grandstaff Trailhead in Moab, September 1, 2022. Since 2014 Elias has written three pieces about Grandstaff's life for the Moab music festival.
Justin Higginbottom
Composer Gerald Elias at the Grandstaff Trailhead in Moab, September 1, 2022. Since 2014 Elias has written three pieces about Grandstaff's life for the Moab music festival.

New research has uncovered more on the history of Moab pioneer William Grandstaff.

The Black cowboy made his home on the Colorado Plateau in the late 1800s.

Grandstaff Canyon is an oasis between the sandstone fins and red cliffs on this side of the Colorado River.

There is a perennial stream and lush vegetation, and even on a blazing summer day, it’s cool and shaded.

Gerald Elias first visited the canyon in the eighties with his family.

“We just loved it because it was cool, and the kids could walk in the water and it was just a lovely hike, but that was my first connection with William Grandstaff,” he said.

Elias is a violinist and writer.

He was concert master of the Utah Symphony, and like others in Moab, he was intrigued by the canyon's namesake, a Black cowboy pioneer that ran cattle in this remote area of the country.

“Well, one of the things that intrigued me was that there were so many different stories about him and I didn't know which were true and which were just fabricated, you know, legend,” said Elias.

So he began researching and composing.

Since 2014, Elias has written three pieces about Grandstaff's life for the Moab Music Festival.

Grandstaff arrived in Moab in the mid to late 1870s.

There were few non-native inhabitants of the area at that time.

A Mormon mission was abandoned in the 1850s.

“He had his cattle right here in Grandstaff Canyon, which was perfect because we've got the stream here and also it's a slot canyon, so the cattle couldn't go anywhere, so it was perfect for him,” said Elias.

Eventually there was some tension with the white settlers in the area.

According to legend, Granstaff was accused of selling liquor to the Native Americans.

Pressure got so high, he left everything, including his cattle and hightailed it to Colorado.

“There's one quote, supposedly by him, that when he was told that the white settlers were up in arms to go after the Indians, he purportedly said, ‘I think I'm the Indian that they're after.’ And that's when he left,” said Elias.

Records show he ended up in Glenwood Springs and was a saloon owner.

He then tried his luck at prospecting.

“And over the course of time, he became kind of a hermit and had a little cabin up in the mountains all by himself. And sadly, kind of faded away. His body was found in 1901. He had died there, and no one had known about it for a few weeks til they discovered his body,” said Elias.

This period of Grandstaff's life has largely been a part of Moab lore.

But what was unclear was where he had come from, how a Black cowboy ended up here, not long after the Civil War.

For Elias’ latest composition, he worked with genealogist Nick Sheedy to dive into Grandstaff’s pre-Moab days.

“And so the main record groups that I would search are US censuses, state censuses, vital records, which would be births, deaths, marriage records. When you get back to the slave era, the most important record group are probate record, wills and estate inventories,” said Sheedy.

Sheedy researches ancestry for the PBS show Finding Your Roots.

His expertise is in African American history.

“I would say with pretty good confidence that he was held in slavery by a man named George Grandstaff in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia,” he said.

It's unknown how Grandstaff escaped slavery.

He could have run away, or he might have been freed.

There's evidence that Grandstaff was part white and Sheedy thinks it's possible that the slave owner was his father.

As a free man, Grandstaff ended up in Ohio and joined the Union cause.

“(Grandstaff) served in a company called the Black Brigade in Cincinnati, and that was a local kind of a home guard that local African Americans organized to protect Cincinnati from what was perceived to be a pending confederate attack during the civil war. That was 1862 or so,” said Sheedy.

He married there and had at least two daughters, but then he leaves his family and goes to Nebraska and then further west to Moab.

“But it kind of typifies, I think, some of these guys who got itchy feet and went west looking for greener pastures, and I think that's the case here,” said Sheedy.

Grandstaff's life as a Black cowboy in the western frontier isn't as unique as you would guess by watching old westerns.

 Mary Langworthy of the Moab Museum is seen in front of a new exhibit on the life of William Grandstaff
Justin Higginbottom
Mary Langworthy of the Moab Museum is seen in front of a new exhibit on the life of William Grandstaff

“He's not the only Black cowboy. He's not the only Black frontiersman in the west, and that's a facet of a history that's really gotten a lot more recognition in recent years, and that's really exciting. And something to celebrate,” said Mary Langworthy of the Moab Museum.

A new exhibit at the museum features Elias and Sheedy’s research.

“Historians estimate that across the US, one in four cowboys probably was Black. And that really defies the image that we have in our brain,” said Langworthy.

Visitors can trace Grandstaff's life chronologically along a red ribbon.

Blue ribbons branch off to show copies of documents used in the research.

At the back wall there are some cowboy artifacts from that time period, like a wooden saddle tree.

“There’s kind of a heavy-handed metaphor here, we know one in four Cowboys was likely Black and plausibly maybe one in four of these tools could have belonged to a Black cowboy. Kind of a reminder that the anonymity of these objects kind of parallels the anonymity of the people who used them,” said Langworthy.

Grandstaff's life is just one story from those early Moab days. But the more that is uncovered, the more fascinating it becomes.

“So he started out as a boy, as a slave or freed slave, became a soldier in Ohio, then made his way to Utah, where he was a, a rancher and a farmer, and a trader. And then to Colorado, where he was a saloon owner and a prospector. I mean, that's really remarkable,” said Elias.

“You know, there are probably a lot of people at that time, or even these times, who really have to do whatever they can to survive. And so I think Grandstaff represents someone who really knew how to do things and he accomplished things and he was a survivor."

There are reminders around Moab to make sure his memory survives like the Grandstaff Trailhead.

A couple of the oldest buildings in Moab are tied to him.

That includes an old ice house on the property of Moab Springs Ranch.

That building now houses a modern ice machine.

With this new research, music and exhibit, there will be even more reminders, and Grandstaff's life will move further from legend and closer to history.

This story from KZMU was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Copyright 2022 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio.