Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Portrait of a Leader Alone – Fort Laurens during the Ohio Winter of 1778-1779

One hundred and fifty men huddled in the only American fort built in the Ohio Country during the Revolutionary War. The cold, snow and hunger were their constant companions, while raiding British troops and their Indian allies were an ever-present threat. Deep in the wilderness of the day, on a poorly planned and executed mission, the men of Fort Laurens were doomed to failure. But the reasons why Fort Laurens was abandoned in less than a year hold valuable lessons for us in today’s business world, especially the contrast in leadership styles of the two commanding officers.

Genesis of Fort Laurens

The British held Fort Detroit, in present day Detroit, while the closest American fort was Fort Pitt, in present day Pittsburgh. Early in the war, the Americans decided to attack Fort Detroit as part of their Western Campaign. The Ohio Country that lay between the two forts held few white settlers, but many different Indian tribes. Although separate Indian nations were seldom a monolithic political block, the vast majority of Ohio Indian tribes were allied with the British. The British had enacted laws in the pre-revolutionary era that prevented westward expansion of the colonies, so this alliance was the due to self-interest on the part of the Indians. The British also managed to provide many supplies to various Indian nations to help keep this alliance intact.

In the Ohio Country, only several clans of the Delaware Indian nation were friendly to the Americans. These clans had been converted to Christianity by Moravian missionaries, and negotiated a treaty with the officers at Fort Pitt to allow the Americans to cross their land. Since the Delaware were surrounded by the Seneca, Mingo, Shawnee and Tuscarora tribes, all allies of the British, the Americans committed to providing protection for the Delawares.

Although the British staffed Fort Detroit with regular army troops, they also relied on the local Indian population and a few white frontiersmen for operations away from the fort. The Americans stationed some Continental Army troops at Fort Pitt, but also staffed that fort with militiamen. The local militiamen, although knowledgeable in the ways of the frontier, had a looser interpretation of military discipline than the regular troops and had little incentive to travel too far from home.

Border Dispute between Virginia and Pennsylvania

The Ohio Country was claimed by both Pennsylvania and Virginia, so troops raised to fight on the Western frontier were raised from these states. With a mix of these troops at Fort Pitt, General George Washington, at the Continental Congress’s request, appointed Georgia native General Lachlan McIntosh to assume command of Fort Pitt and the organize the planned attack on Fort Detroit.

Washington was a strong supporter of McIntosh based on his performance as a military officer in the regular army, where he was known as a strong disciplinarian. And, by appointing a native Georgian, neither the Pennsylvania nor the Virginia troops would feel they were be slighted by the other’s commanding officer. McIntosh and his expedition troops marched from Valley Forge and arrived at Fort Pitt in August 1778.

Once at Fort Pitt, McIntosh set about acquiring supplies for the expedition to Fort Detroit. With a limited number of settlers in the area and a general disinterest toward selling to the military, McIntosh was forced to delay the start of the expedition due to a significant shortage of supplies. This lack of material was to dog McIntosh for his entire western frontier career, undermining his plans and setting the stage for the resulting failure at Fort Laurens.

Although rarely does an army have a perfect supply system, contemporary accounts point to the supply problem being quite extreme on the frontier. For example, the pack horses acquired by Fort Pitt were so poor in quality that they could only carry a fraction of the usual weight load and for greatly limited distance. Although McIntosh communicated this problem to General Washington, the problem was never satisfactorily addressed.

Onward to Ohio

The expedition to Fort Detroit left Fort Pitt in late October 1778, Their first action was to build a supply fort on the Ohio river, near present day Beaver, Pennsylvania. This fort was named Fort McIntosh, and was just a couple of days march from Fort Pitt.

On November 4, having completed Fort McIntosh, the American force of 1,200 men crossed into the Ohio Country. In four days, the column arrived at the Tuscarawas River, near present day Bolivar. With the deteriorating weather, limited supplies and loose military discipline slowing the advance, McIntosh decided to build a new fort to both serve as the stepping-off point for the Detroit invasion the following year and to protect the Delaware settlements to the south.

The Delawares disputed the location of the new fort, saying it was too far north to protect their towns. Later events proved this to be the case, and this incident started the decline- and the eventual break- in the relationship between the Delawares and the Americans.

The Americans built a French-style timber fort, laying out a rectangle shape with palisades at each of the four corners and an extension to the river. All that remains of the fort today is the outline of the walls, seen here in the December snow:

After naming the structure Fort Laurens, in honor the then-current President of the Continental Congress, McIntosh stationed a garrison of 172 men under the command of Colonel John Gibson to winter at the fort. Contemporary accounts depict Gibson as very astute and personable commander, and his men- drawn from both Pennsylvania and Virginia outfits- were used to life on the frontier.

Life at Fort Laurens

The tenuous supply line, a six- to eight-day trip from Fort Pitt, prevented meaningful supplies from reaching Fort Laurens. In fact, Gibson faced a constant shortage of food, clothing and other material. After finishing the remaining fort construction duties, the men fell into the routine of life at Fort Laurens. The winter of 1778-1779 was unusually cold, so one of these constant duties was cutting wood for the fort.

By late December, one solider had deserted the fort and small mutiny arose. Gibson was able to quell the mutiny, an event which was never repeated. One possible reason that another mutiny was not undertaken was arrival of the news that British planned to leave Fort Detroit and attack Fort Laurens.

Today, one has to wonder what the men of Fort Laurens felt, well out into the frontier, with limited supplies and essentially no easy escape. Looking out from the fort, day after day, seeing only the bleak, dark Ohio countryside, but knowing an attack was eminent.

To prepare Fort Laurens for the attack, McIntosh sent a supply column from Fort Pitt on February 8, 1779. Indians allied with the British attacked the column, and the re-supply was unsuccessful.

Gibson and his men were all alone in the wilderness.

On February 23, the fort’s wood cutting party was ambushed outside the walls. Seventeen men were killed and scalped within sight of the fort, their bodies to remain there until after the siege lifted, and two men were captured. A British raiding party, made up mostly of Indians, had arrived the day before, and a number of Indians had lain in wait for the wood cutters.

Prior to the attack, the garrison at Fort Laurens was 172 men, with only 100 fit for duty. Now, the weakened garrison faced an unknown number of Indian raiders. As the men looked out from the fort, Indians began parading in the distance. The defenders counted well over 800 Indians. In fact, the number was closer to 180, but the attackers used a ruse to continually march the same fighters around a small bluff.

Within 3 weeks of the siege, the daily ration at the fort was 4 ounces of meat and flour per day. Later, the rations exhausted, the men started to eat roots, gathered at night from outside the fort. When two men died from eating poisonous roots, the men boiled their own moccasins and ate them. Two men were able to leave the fort and kill a deer, which was eaten raw immediately as the hunters returned to the fort.

But the British and Indian force did not fare much better in the deep winter, and they lifted the siege on March 20 after running low on supplies and with American reinforcements from Fort Pitt on the way.

The relief column not only came to lift the siege of Fort Laurens, but also to bolster the American ranks and supplies for a spring offensive. The plan to attack Fort Detroit had been replaced with a plan to attack a concentration of Indian villages in the Sandusky area.

The men of Fort Laurens, no doubt excited to finally see the relief column, fired their guns in the air. This action so frightened the green packhorses that many of them bolted into the woods with their supplies, never to been seen again. With those horses went any hope of launching an offensive against Sandusky.

Gibson and his men were relieved of duty and marched back to Fort Pitt. During the late winter, McIntosh had requested to be transferred to the South, which was granted by General Washington.

The Second Attack

The British were re-equipping for another attack on Fort Laurens, planning on returning with cannon. Since Fort Laurens was of wooden palisade construction, the cannon would have no trouble breaking down the walls.

But, as the British were preparing to launch their attack, Colonial John Bowman and his Virginian troops moved north from Kentucky to attack Shawee towns in Ohio. The gathered Indians returned to defend their villages, and, thus, there was no second attack on Fort Laurens.

Although Bowman’s campaign saved Fort Laurens from the second attack, Bowman’s expedition had another, unintended consequence. As a Shawnee youth, Tecumsah no doubt was deeply influenced by this attack on his people and their lands. In the history of the American Westward expansion, no Native American came as close to uniting the Indian nations and stopping the white settlers as Tecumsah.

With the change in American leadership on the western frontier, the attack on Sandusky was cancelled. Fort Laurens, no longer needed for the attack and too far north to protect the Delawares, was abandoned on August 2, 1779.

Lessons for Today

Certainly, the American expedition into the Ohio Country suffered several setbacks due to plain bad luck. And, the general lack of supplies and resources stymied the expedition as well. Even today, cut off supplies and resources to a business expedition, and it will fail. You can’t boil a fax machine and make it into laptop computer, like the men of Fort Laurens made food by boiling their shoes.

But the most important reason pointing to failure… McIntosh.

I can’t help but think that, being from Georgia, McIntosh had no idea how an Ohio winter would affect his troops. As a strong disciplinarian from outside the region, he seems to have had trouble relating to the local men under his command. Rightly or wrongly, the standards of the trained Continental Army did not apply to the frontier militiamen. Whether due to his command presence or just his personality, McIntosh was unable to earn respect from his soldiers and, more importantly, his officers. McIntosh believed there was a cabal of senior officers working against him in Fort Pitt, and contemporary accounts suggest this may have been true.

Although the business world has less chance of the hostilities that occur in warfare, it does have expeditions. A new product launch, the acquisition of another company or a sales goal well above organic growth is a business expedition. And one of the key determinates of success is the leadership team, especially the chief executive or team leader.

McIntosh was originally chosen because of his solid military career in the traditional army and because, as a Georgian, he was impartial in the Pennsylvania and Virginia border dispute. At first glance, he seemed like the perfect choice. However, as he was unused to operations on the frontier, he made and stuck with some bad decisions surrounding his relationships with his officers and men.

He, as a Georgian, also did not account for the severity of the Ohio winter. Although we have no historical record, I’m sure that he was warned by his subordinates- who lived on the frontier- that an expedition into Ohio late October was foolhardy.

These types of problems are common today in the business world. A stellar team leader choice fails in a new assignment, as their magic formula for success does not apply to this new situation. Or, think of the number of CEOs who discover that, just because they ran one company extremely well, that success doesn’t mean their skill sets apply to every company.

Another example is Katie Couric. She excelled at the morning television show format but is underperforming in the evening news format. Most likely, she could return to the morning show format and re-gain her past success. By all accounts, McIntosh had a successful career in the American South after leaving Fort Pitt.

Of course, in war as in business, incompetent leaders can destroy an expedition pretty quickly. However, that is separate (and very rich) topic.

As the pressure for success builds, a business leader can become more internally-focused, preparing to drive the company to success though sheer will. In fact, that leader should be doing just the opposite at that exact moment, looking outward to their team, working to have others buy into their vision for success. As the business leader becomes more and more distant from their team, they lose the respect and admiration of their people, leading to the exact opposite of the success they crave.

During the original invasion of Ohio, McIntosh was unable to move his troop columns prior to early afternoon. This daily delay was due to rounding up the pack animals and packing up the overnight camp, so daily marches were of limited distance. Although, again, we do not have a historical record, I’d imagine his troops could have move farther and faster had he been a well-respected leader.

The Personality of Leadership

To prove that idea, in a historical context, let’s examine John Gibson. Contemporary documentation indicates Gibson was a man of character and ability. He suffered from the same limited supply problem as McIntosh. In fact, if you are boiling your own shoes for food, your supply problem is pretty dire. Gibson was able to put down a mutiny in the fort and then successfully defend against a siege party thought to be eight times larger than his force of active defenders. In the end, he and his men successfully held Fort Laurens until relieved.

Prior to the American Revolution, Gibson fought in several wars on the American western frontier. In times of peace, he was a merchant based in Fort Pitt, trading with the Indians. He was well respected by the Indian tribes in the area and spoke several Indian dialects. In fact, he married a Mingo woman, who was later murdered by white settlers in 1774. After the Revolution, Gibson was one of Pennsylvania’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1790 and, at an advanced age, was appointed Secretary of the Indiana Territory by President John Adams. For several years, Gibson was on the Federal official in that territory. After serving in various levels of government in the Indiana Territory, he returned to Pennsylvania when Indiana became a state many years later.

In short, Gibson was a man who could get things done. He was respected by the various tribes of the Fort Pitt area, had deep experience in frontier warfare and obviously had command presence. McIntosh’s failure would have been even greater without Gibson in place at Fort Laurens.

Applying that lesson to today’s business climate, team members like Gibson can make or break a business expedition. “Gibsons” can be a wonderful asset, with large pools of experience and original thinking to draw on to create success. However, team leaders can be wary of a Gibson, since Gibsons can appear to be a threat to fragile egos or self-aggrandizing team leaders. The wise team leader learns to support the Gibson to ensure success, while the unwise team leader treats the Gibson as a threat. In the end, the wise team leader knows that the Gibson’s success is also their success. The unwise team leader discovers, usually after the fact, that the Gibson’s failure becomes their failure.

Don’t overlook the Gibson.

In the eyes of history, Fort Laurens is a footnote in a much larger war. But, had it been a successful expedition, taking Fort Detroit from the British would have opened up the entire frontier, as well as been an enormous blow to the British relationship with their Indian allies.

As it was, the Ohio and Erie Canal dug though the eastern wall of Fort Laurens in 1832, a not uncommon example of a more successful later venture consuming the remains of a failure. In the same fashion, a failed product launch, business acquisition or sales goal creates the opportunity for someone else to use that work to their own benefit in another fashion. If your competition is focusing on a failing business acquisition, than that is the time to use the situation to your company’s advantage.

Many American companies inadvertently create this situation with their expatriate staff. An example, from when I was studying expatriate programs for a business school team consulting project, is a TRW expat. After a successful domestic career, our subject expat transferred to Australia to lead the local division. Out on the frontier, this expat learned to adapt to the local culture and worked with much fewer resources than the US-based headquarters staff. He was successful, achieving sales and market share goals, but he had to deviate from central office procedures in a different culture.

After his tour of duty, he returned to TRW headquarters. Does he have another job awaiting his even more valuable skills? No, he’s relegated to whiling away his days in Human Resources, waiting for something to open up for him. I don’t know what happened to that particular executive, but most leave their company to take their expat skills to another company that rewards their pioneering spirit.

Or, in another way of saying it, he most likely went to another company that appreciates a Gibson.

Remember Tecumsah? He was stopped, in large part, by…you guessed it…John Gibson, in his role as Secretary of the Indiana Territory, many years after the winter at Fort Laurens.

Don’t overlook the Gibson.


Personal Site Visit, December 2009.

Fort Laurens: The Revolutionary War in Ohio 1778-79, by Thomas I. Pieper and James B. Gidney, Published 1976 by Kent State University Press







Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Business Lessons from a Ghost Town - Pithole, Pennsylvania

Just off a dirt road in the Western Pennsylvania mountains is a large, slightly overgrown field alongside Pithole Creek. Today, it could be mistaken for any old, out-of-use field. But 150 years ago, a city of 15,000 sprang up on this farmer’s field, and then largely died out within a year’s time. Events of that year, in this city known as Pithole, still affect our daily lives today, including the genesis of one of the world’s largest companies. Can we apply these lessons to today’s social media boom?

Economic History of Pithole

Pithole, Pennsylvania doesn’t sound like an enticing locale, but it is one of the best examples of an economic boom town created by a new technology, in this case the discovery of oil at the dawn of the oil age. Due to its exceptionally rapid rise and fall, Pithole provides a window into how people of the era adapted- or failed to adapt- to rapid economic, industrial and societal change.

After Colonel Drake and “Uncle Billy” Smith sunk the first successful drilled oil well in 1859 in the Crawford and Venango County area of Western Pennsylvania, the local farmers started to drill for oil on their own properties. In January 1865, one farmer discovered oil on his land near Pithole Creek, with the first well producing 250 barrels of oil a day. With the rapid influx of drillers into the surrounding area, oil wells started to sprout up all around Pithole.

By April 1865, 3,000 Teamsters, using horses and wagons, were hauling oil barrels out of the valley. By May 1865, Colonel AP Duncan and George Prather purchased the land around Pithole creek from the farmer landowner for $25,000, and then laid out the 500-lot city of Pithole. By September, Pithole was home to 15,000 people, along with 57 hotels, a newspaper and the third-busiest post office in Pennsylvania.

At its peak, Pithole area oil production was 6,000 barrels a day. Soon, a 1,000 seat theater was built and featured a constant retinue of sold-out shows performed around the clock. Saloons, stores, brothels and a Methodist church were all hastily established in the town.

But the increasing number of closely-spaced wells drained the oil reserves very quickly, and by January 1866, there were only 4,000 residents of Pithole. From a farm field, to a city, and then back to a town, all in one year.

After fires consumed much of the poorly-constructed buildings in town and with new wells being discovered in adjacent areas, Pithole’s population declined to 2,000 people by December 1866. By 1870, only 281 people still lived in Pithole, and it ceased to exist by 1877, being purchased by the county government for $4.37.

Why did Pithole disappear so quickly?

Today, Pithole, reached by driving down a small and winding country road, reveals only the rough outline of streets and foundations.

But by looking over the fields, walking down the still-visible outlines of the streets and studying the historical markers, a snapshot of industrial history emerges…and many business-related questions spring to mind.

Beyond the shear fascination of exploring a unique site that sprang from nothing to a full-fledged city and back to a field in a surprisingly short period of time, what about the people who came to find fortune, either by drilling wells or selling items or services to the drillers and others in the burgeoning population?

Interestingly, town “fathers” Duncan and Prather did not sell the land lots in Pithole, but rather leased them for only a few years. At the end of the lease, the land and whatever improvements were left at that time reverted to Duncan and Prather. As a result, period photos of Pithole show a ramshackle combination of hastily-assembled wooden buildings, towering oil wells and very muddy streets.

The main street featured the banks, the higher-end hotels and other proper businesses, while streets higher up the hill featured lower-end hotels, boarding houses, saloons and thinly-disguised whorehouses. The water reservoir was nearby, and was quickly overwhelmed by the population growth. It was said that, in Pithole, whiskey was both cheaper and cleaner than the local water.

This rental land market, with the resulting lack of motivation to improve the buildings and property, attached very few Pithole residents to the town. Further, the lack of a scalable town infrastructure created less-than-desirable living conditions, increasing the incentives to move on to the next oil discovery. And, when a fire burned down much the shoddily-constructed town, there was no incentive to rebuild.

On a societal level, the rule of law was not firmly established, with a committee of vigilance melting out a skewed form of justice and sometimes violent business conflicts.

Why did Pithole rise and disappear so quickly? On one hand, the lack of basic society-reinforcing elements such as land ownership, rule of law and abuse of the “commons” structurally doomed Pithole’s future. But, on the other hand, the flow of people from well discovery to well discovery created an economic incentive to maximize the wealth-creation from the transient population, which would move along quickly in many cases.

Of course, the most important reason for the fast decline of Pithole was the decline in oil production. But many other towns in the region continue to exist to this day, so the lack of societal building elements certainly played a role.

Pithole Innovations That Still Affect Our Lives

Another striking characteristic of Pithole was the intense competition to both drill for oil and transport the oil. The Teamsters originally hauled the 42 gallon leaky wooden barrels of oil over the mountains for $1 a barrel, with a 25 cent return fee. This soon rose to $3 a barrel as the standard 6 barrel load quickly broke down the livestock hauling the wagons.

Previously, oil discoveries were fairly close to established towns, rivers or railroad lines. Pithole was the first oil field that was located far from standard transportation routes.

Seeing a new market in moving oil over rough terrain, several groups started to build oil pipelines to Pithole from established towns or rail depots. Samuel Van Syckel solved the technical problems by lap-welding a 2” cast iron pipeline, using pressure-tested joints to keep the oil from leaking. By adding steam-powered pumps, his line could efficiently move 2,000 barrels of oil a day over the five miles to the Miller’s Ferry railroad station.

Since the pipeline charged only $1 a barrel for transport and could transport 81 barrels of oil in an hour, the Teamsters were quickly forced out of business. Almost as quickly, the oil pipeline started to suffer mysterious calamities. Soon, armed men patrolled the oil pipeline by day and night. This dynamic played out on the other oil pipelines which quickly sprung up in the region to take advantage of the new technology.

The oil pipeline right-a-way soon carried a telegraph, to both help with documentation of oil volumes from specific clients and a means of emergency communications. And, since the railroads were no longer transporting oil only in wooden barrels, they quickly developed the oil tank car.

One remnant of the old wooden oil barrels of the Teamster era is that, in the US, a barrel of oil is still a 42 gallon measurement.

Many of the new oil pipelines of the day ran into financial difficulty, but the new concept of oil pipeline transport was proven at Pithole. This created the impetus for improved industrial communications and accounting methods, as well as creating a new method of transport for the railroads and, later, in competition with the railroads.

One man was studying these developments at the time. He decided that transporting the oil, a constant business, was preferable to drilling for the oil, a boom-and-bust business. By using the new technology of the day, he founded The American Transfer Company in 1874, which later became The National Transit Company. He also ran a better-known company, Standard Oil. His name was John D Rockefeller. The National Transit Company building, built in 1890, still stands in nearby Oil City.

Fast forward to today, was the Dot Com boom of the late 1990’s setting the stage for an entirely new form of distribution? Not oil distribution through pipelines, but rather information distribution through the online pipeline of social media? And, just as Standard Oil grew out of the ashes of the oil boom, is Google on its way to becoming the next Standard Oil?

Looking over the cold, scrubby hillside at Pithole and reading the worn historical displays, it’s hard to imagine the radical industrial economic changes that emanated from this boomtown, changes that continue to impact the world we live in today. But, even though industrial history sites tend to be overlooked today, a little digging reveals that their impact still resonates through the years.

Personal Site Visit, October 2009
Titan: The Life of John D Rockefeller Sr, Ron Chernow, Published 1998