Michael Alley: A Quest for Freedom

-by Greg Hoots-

I would like to gratefully acknowledge the contributions and assistance of Brenda Norris in researching this article.  Until I became acquainted with Brenda, I had never heard the life story of her great-great-great grandfather, Michael Alley, a Wabaunsee County, Kansas pioneer. Not only did Ms. Norris provide me a wealth of family photographs, but her vast knowledge of her family’s history has been indispensable in my research.  

Michael Alley was born a slave in Richmond County, Virginia in 1794.  Some accounts of his birth cite a date of 1792, but contemporaneous evidence of the day suggests the former. In about 1800, Michael Alley’s owner, Walter Alley (some accounts list his name as Watt Alley and Matt Alley), moved to Overton County, Tennessee, transporting his family and his slaves to their new home.

For Walter Alley, his slave, Michael Alley was like family to him. In fact, he was family.  The white farmer and family man, Walter Alley, had fathered Michael in an illicit union with one of his slave women.  This was nothing unusual in the new America of the 1790s. In the South, slavery was a way of life, and the practice of owners forcibly impregnating their slaves was a way of life, as well.  The product of that union, of course, was another slave for the white owner. Many slave owners kept their female slaves pregnant, as every child born to them became the property of the mother’s owner, thus increasing their net worth.

Michael Alley, not even ten years of age, settled into the life of a field slave, tilling the ground, planting, and then, harvesting crops.  Initially, tobacco was a major crop raised in the South; however, with the invention of the cotton gin, a new crop became king.  Cotton became the staple of Southern agriculture, a crop that demanded a large labor force to plant and harvest.  The plantation owners found that having a large contingency of slaves to do the farm work without the necessity of paying anything for the labor yielded huge profits for the slave owners.  It became the political position of Southern lawmakers in Washington that the South could not survive economically without the exploitation of slave labor.

Michael Alley

As Michael Alley approached adulthood, he became acquainted with a young female slave owned by Judge Erasmus Gardenhire, a prominent Tennessee attorney, judge, and politician who lived near the Alley farm.  Judge Gardenhire and his family had long been slave owners, and in the 1850 Slave Schedules of the Overton County census, it reveals that Gardenhire owned ten African-American slaves, housed in two “slave houses.”   Judge Gardenhire was a loyal Southerner; in fact, when Tennessee became the final state to secede from the union, Erasmus Gardenhire became a member of the Confederate States of America congress, elected from a district drawn across northern Tennessee.

However, Judge Gardenhire was privately considered a moderate on the issue of human slavery, and it is reported that he was kinder to his slaves than some other slave owners in Overton County.  One of the privileges that Judge Gardenhire allowed was to permit his slave women to take a “partner” from another farm’s slaves; and one of the Judge’s slaves, Rosa, was enamored with Michael Alley, a slave living on Walter Alley’s farm. As slaves, Michael Alley and Rosa Gardenhire, formed a union that produced twelve children and would last for the rest of their lives. Being slaves, it was against the law for the two to marry.

In about 1846 an event occurred which changed the course of Michael Alley’s life.  His owner and father, Walter Alley, died.  As a result of the Overton County farmer’s death, his farm equipment, which included his slaves, was sold, and Michael Alley was sold to Overton County farmer, Richard Poteet.

The first change came in his name.  Michael Alley was no more.  Michael Poteet was the name that Michael Alley was forced to use for the next two decades. Slaves did not have a family name, but instead, they were forced to use the name of their owner, and when they were sold, they took the new owner’s last name.

Michael Poteet was put to work as a field hand; the hours were long and the work grueling. Richard Poteet did not allow Michael the liberty to go visit his family at the Gardenhire farm late at night after his workday was done, a practice approved by Walter Alley for years.  During the 15 years as the property of slave owner Poteet, Michael was unable to see his wife and children for long periods of time. It was a heartbreaking loss for a man who had taken such pride and comfort in his family.  The days, months, and years piled onto Michael Poteet’s ledger as his body grew tired and his hair turned gray.

By 1859, Michael Poteet had reached the age of 65, and his productivity as a field hand had began to decline.  Richard Poteet decided to sell the old man.  It is not clear to whom the sale was to be transacted, but Michael Poteet was to be transported some distance for the sale, perhaps bound for a slave auction. On the first leg of his journey to be sold, the party was preparing to stop for the night, and Michael realized that some longtime friends of his lived in a cabin very nearby. He asked Poteet’s men if he could go to the house and get some food. As the old slave had never demonstrated any desire to escape during Richard Poteet’s fifteen years or so of ownership, they permitted Michael to venture to the house.

Michael Poteet had spent almost sixty years in the hills of Overton County, and he knew every farmer and slave for miles around. He had known the family living in the cabin for years, and he asked their help in becoming a runaway slave, never to return to Richard Poteet. The residents of the cabin provided Michael with food and clothing and sent him to another friend’s farm who would be sympathetic to the needs of a runaway slave.  From that farm he moved to another and another, and many times he found himself alone in the Cumberland Mountains, sleeping under the stars at night, ever wary of those who were pursuing him to no good end.

Later, Michael told of being harbored in a home when slave bounty hunters arrived, looking for Michael Poteet or any unaccounted-for slave that they could find.  Michael was hiding behind the door when the wife of the family harboring him spoke to the pursuers from the open doorway, saying that there had not been any runaway slaves in their area.  The men rode away.

In less than two years on the run, the Civil War erupted around fugitive slave, Michael Poteet. Tennessee was a state divided on the slave question.  One in four residents in the state were slaves. The majority of the slaves in the state lived in the western and central portions, while slavery was widely opposed in eastern Tennessee. One in four white families in Tennessee owned slaves. The area of northern Tennessee where Michael Poteet had spent most of his life was divided on the question, but many of the white farmers owned slaves.

Overton County, where Rosa and his children still lived, was a dangerous place for a runaway slave.  In 1861, Camp Zollicoffer, a Confederate induction and training camp where many CSA army regiments were formed, was opened in Overton County.  Not only was Michael Poteet pursued by bounty hunters as a fugitive slave, any runaway slaves discovered by Confederate troops were taken prisoner and ultimately returned to their “rightful owners.”  The Civil War raged in Tennessee, a state where the number of battles was only exceeded by that of Virginia.

For four and a half years, Michael Poteet roamed the mountains of northern Tennessee, moving house to house in the night, living in continual fear of capture.

The world changed on January 1, 1863.  Less than four months earlier, on September 22, 1862, as the Civil War engulfed the South, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order commonly known as the Emancipation Proclamation. The delay between the issuance of the proclamation and its effective date was 100 days, the number of days that Lincoln gave the Southern states in rebellion to rejoin the union. Should they not comply by January 1st, all slaves in those states would be forever free. The news was slow to travel in 1862, particularly in the very rural areas of the war zone. However, the word was passed throughout the slave community, and it was big news, indeed, the announcement that 250 years of enslavement in America was about to end.

January 1st arrived, and no Southern states had returned to the union, and the war had not ended. However, with the issuance of the Proclamation, any slave captured by Union forces was immediately freed.  Any slave who escaped their owner’s custody and made their way to a Union army force was immediately freed.  The institution of slavery was crumbling in the south as more and more slaves were walking away from the plantations.

Michael Poteet’s son, Lebanon Gardenhire, left the Erasmus Gardenhire farm in 1864 and joined the United States Colored Troops, the segregated Black forces of the Union Army. Gardenhire was first assigned to the 9th Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery.  Lebanon’s father still was in hiding in the Tennessee wilderness, but Michael Poteet was ever so carefully working his way back to the Gardenhire farm where he last saw his family.

By 1863, Union forces occupied most of the strategic areas of Tennessee, controlling the cities of Nashville and Memphis.  After the capture of the Confederate state capital at Nashville, Lincoln appointed Andrew Johnson as military governor of Tennessee, and by 1864, the Union army controlled most of the state.

Michael Poteet’s return to Overton County was a dream-come-true for the seventy-year-old, once a runaway slave, now a free man. Michael’s wife Rosa must have been shocked and delighted at Michael’s return.  Rosa, now 64 years old, had seen the ravages of war on the ground and lived in fear for the lives of her children and her long-lost husband.  And now, they were all free, at last.

Finally, Michael could rest after a long four and a half years on the run.  Still, there was much to do.  Freedom suddenly opened the door to new options, never before enjoyed.  Michael, Rosa, and their children needed a place to live, and they relocated to Smith County, Tennessee, some 50-miles southwest of Overton County.  When Michael went into hiding, his daughter, Adeline was a twelve-year-old girl.  Upon his return he discovered her to be a fine young woman.  On December 1, 1865, Adeline (Poteet) married Thomas Douglass in Smith County.  Three months later on March 21, 1866, Michael Poteet married Rosey Gardenhire in Smith County, Tennessee. Michael was 72 years old, and Rosa was 65 years old.

When the slaves were freed, they were given the right to choose their surname, as they had been using their slave owners’ names. Michael Poteet had been forced to adopt Richard Poteet’s name when he was sold to the Tennessee farmer, and in an act of freedom, he shed the name Poteet for his former name, Alley.  The couple began their new life as Michael and Rosa Alley.

The family had set their sights on a new goal. They wanted to become homesteaders, and Michael and Rosa Alley and Adeline and Thomas Douglas had decided to move to Kansas.  The trip would be a long one, 750 miles, all overland.  The families would require two wagons and two teams of oxen to make the journey.  They all began working in earnest to make and save enough money to purchase their teams and supplies for the trip.

This 1885 plat map shows Michael Alley’s homestead, located a mile west of the Alma City Cemetery.

In the summer of 1869, Michael was anxious to leave for Kansas. There were rumors that the good land was being snatched by a flood of homesteaders from Missouri who only had to travel a short distance to be in Kansas.  Thomas and Adeline Douglas had two children when it was time to head to Kansas, including two-year-old, William, and one-year-old, George.  More concerning, Adeline was pregnant with their third child.  They decided that it would be best to wait until the child was born to begin the long trip by wagon to Kansas.

Michael and Rosa decided that it would be best for them to leave Tennessee in the summer of 1869 to allow them to stake their claim as soon as possible. The elderly pair and a sixteen-year-old granddaughter, named Rosa after her grandmother, left for Kansas. The trip was long and hot, but the feeling of freedom made the journey a pleasure for the hopeful homesteaders.

Alma, Kansas, 1869

Michael and Rosa Alley arrived in Alma, Kansas, the county seat of Wabaunsee County, in the summer of 1869 to find a town with three buildings.

They traveled a mile and a half west of the newly constructed Wabaunsee County courthouse where they claimed 80 acres of land with steep rolling hills.  This would be their home. One of the first tasks at hand was to build a shelter as the couple knew that the Kansas winters were not kind.  The first home the Alleys built was a dugout, a ditch dug into a ravine on a hillside, lined with limestone walls, and covered with a primitive log roof. This is where they spent their first winter.  The property had a small stream that ran through it when the water wasn’t frozen or during a drought, but it would supply them until a well could be dug the following spring.

This sinkhole was once the dugout home of Michael and Rosa Alley.

Adeline Douglas gave birth to a son in December of 1869, and the couple named him after his father, Thomas. As soon as the winter broke in early 1870, Thomas and Adeline Douglas and their three sons departed Tennessee for Alma, Kansas. Their excitement must have been great as they drove through Alma before turning west for the final mile to Michael and Rosa Alley’s homestead.  As soon as the Douglas family arrived, a second dugout was built about 25 yards west of the first, and a well was dug just to the south of the first home. This was a life that had only lived in prayers and dreams for Michael Alley just ten years earlier.  Life was still difficult for the Alley family.  The ground was rocky and required considerable work to till even a small field. The winters were cold; the summers were hot.  There were droughts and plagues and storms, but for the Alleys, there was freedom.

Less than ten years after being freed, Rosa Alley died at her home in rural Alma, Kansas.  The September 19, 1889 Alma News published an obituary reporting on Michael Alley’s death, and it mentions that his wife had died in 1874.  Cemetery records of the Alma City Cemetery list a burial date of 1878.  Neither source had demonstrated great reliability in their reporting, but this author defers to the published obituary. Rosa Alley is buried in an unmarked grave in Section 04, Lot 20, Space 02 where she has laid anonymously for 147 years.

In 1877, Michael Alley traveled home to Tennessee to visit for the only time since his departure.  He had left children, grandchildren and other relatives behind when the Alleys moved to Kansas, and he knew that this would be his last trip. The Alma News of December 26, 1877 reported on the trip, noting, “On Monday of last week, Michael Alley, an old colored hero of 83 years, who lives near Alma, for the first time in his life saw inside of a “steam-car.”  He boarded the train at Wamego, destined for a visit to his old home at Oak Hill, Tennessee, where he has several children and other relatives.  “Uncle Mike,” as they call him is an intelligent old gentleman and talks knowingly of events of days buried in long, long past: remembers Washington and the revolutionary fathers.  He was born in Virginia but went to Tennessee when quite young. Was for 53 years the slave of Watt Alley who died 30 years ago.  Was freed by Lincoln’s proclamation, and came west soon after the war…We wish a happy re-union with friends in the old home. He will return to Kansas again when his visit is out.”

In 1879, Michael and Rosa Alley’s son, Lebanon Gardenhire brought his family from Tennessee to Kansas to live with his father. Lebanon Gardenhire had joined the United States Colored Troops in 1864 when he left the Gardenhire plantation. He served seven years in the heavy artillery and the infantry before returning to his family in Tennessee. Lebanon, his wife, Margaret and their five children, James, Porter, Samuel, Maggie, and John moved to Kansas, coming directly to Alma to his father’s homestead.  Within a year of arriving in Kansas, Margaret gave birth to a daughter, Mary, their first child born in Kansas.  Thomas and Adeline Douglas homesteaded property in Newbury Township in the late 1870s, and by the time the Gardenhires had moved to Alma, the Douglas family had moved to the Paxico, Kansas area.  Interestingly, Michael Alley was enumerated twice in the 1880 census; he is shown living at his homestead in Alma Township with Lebanon Gardenhire and family while also residing with Thomas and Adeline Douglas in Newbury Township.

In 1888, Michael Alley had reached a ripe age of 94 years, and he knew that he was unable to care for himself.  So, he transferred ownership of his homestead to his grandson, John Gardenhire (and his wife, LuElla), the son of Michael “Big Mike” Gardenhire, with careful guidelines established for Michael Alley’s care in his final years.  In the agreement filed with the deed, John Gardenhire promised to care for his grandfather, provide him shelter, food and medical care, and the use of a buggy and a horse for the remainder of his life.

Graves of Michael and Rosa Alley, Block 4, Lot 20, Alma City Cemetery.

The Alma Enterprise reported the August 3, 1889 death of Michael Alley.  He was buried next to Rosa in the Alma City Cemetery where he has rested in an unmarked grave in Section 4, Lot 20, Space 01 for 132 years.












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9 replies »

  1. Thank you Mr. Hoots so much for taking the time to write this biography for Michael Alley. My name is Perry Gardenhire, and Mike Alley is my 4th Great Grandfather, this biography has been a joyful delight. Thanks again….

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is wonderful information. Thank you.
      I am Robert Gardenhire, in Nashville TN. Mike Alley is my 3rd Great Grandfather. His son, Big Mike is my 2nd Great Grandfather (buried in our family cemetery in Overton County TN.
      I look forward to gettng connected


  2. Thanks, Greg, for this fascinating family story of survival and freedom. I’m sure there are other such stories among the Black families who relocated to Wabaunsee Co. after the Civil War. I know that Eskridge had quite a group of Black high school graduates from the time the Eskridge schools were established in the late 1800’s up through the closing of the Eskridge schools with unification in the 1960’s (Mission Valley opened in the fall of 1971, but the grade school continued for years beyond). Quite a few of Eskridge’s Black families were originally farmers near the now ghost town of Bradford.

    On a different note, as soon as I read the Gardenhire name in your story, I recognized it and then the name of John Gardenhire, although, I’m sure it was a descendant of the John who you reference.

    Keep up the great work of telling the Wabaunsee County history.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was fascinating. My grandmother is Goldie Gardenhire,my grandfather is Owen Gossett. I am amazed by my family history and love reading about it. Thanks to all who search for& take the time to do the research and share it with all of us!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, Mr. Hoots. I read this amazing story of Mr. Michael Alley gratefully! He is my great, great, great grandfather. I am a descendent through his son , “Big Mike” Gardenhire, the father of “Little Mike,” the father of Herbert Gardenhire (my grandfather), all of whom are buried, along with my father in our family cemetery in Tennessee.

    I would like to make more family connections and explore deeper into the history of Michael Alley’s father, Matt Alley and the enslaved woman who is my great x 3’s mother.
    A more fascinating, while tragic, story remains to be told.

    Robert Gardenhire, Nashville TN


  5. This story is amazing! Michael is my great-great-great grandfather through his son, Michael”Big Mike” Gardenhire Rickman , TN (Overton County
    Michael “Mike” Alley (Potett)Gardenhire
    Mike “Big Mike” Gardenhire
    Mike”Little Mike” Gardenhire
    Herbert Gardenhire
    Charles Gardenhire


    • Hello Charlene, Michael Alley is my 4th Great Grandfather also through his son Michael ” Big Mike Gardenhire” my 2nd Great Grandfather is Richard Gardenhire the son of “Big Mike”. I have been trying to locate someone from this lineage to find out more about the family, as I just learned about this part of the family about 2 years ago.


    • I’m very intrigued by our family’s history! Thank you for this! Mike Alley is my 4th great grandfather through Big Mike’s son William Vincent Gardenhire Sr.
      Highland Park, Michigan (Detroit)


  6. Mr. Hoots: What a fascinating story! Michael Alley is my great-great-great grand father on my mother’s side. Her father’s name was Leslie Gardenhire. Brenda’s mother is my mother’s sister. The photo’s of the old homesteads are my keepsakes. Thanks you very much!


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