Lacrosse History

Once dubbed "the fastest game on two feet" by The Baltimore Sun, lacrosse has come a long way since the stick was used to crack skulls open.

Believed to have been named by the early North American French settlers, lacrosse is one of the oldest and most unique games played in North America, and could stretch as far back as the twelfth century. It dates to the American Indians who played not only for recreational reasons, but to settle disputes and prepare young warriors. They played also for religious, ceremonial, and curative purposes. Once the European settlers caught on, and it spread up into Canada, over into Europe and other parts of the world, there was no slowing it down; its popularity was infectious. Today lacrosse is enjoyed by about a half a million players worldwide.

There are different theories about the origin of its name. Some say it came from the French word for field hockey, le jeu de la crosse, while others says the game may have been named after the staff the bishops carried, called a "crossier". The term "la crosse" was first recorded in 1636 when a French missionary first began to document the game. Originally the natives called the game by things that described it, such as "Tewaarathon" ("little brother of war") and "Baggattaway" ("they bump hips").

Unlike most popular ball sports, lacrosse involves a racquet. Players use the racquet to lift the ball off the ground, and throw and catch it, with the aim of moving the ball into or past a goal for points without ever touching the ball with the hands.

It's said that lacrosse may have been the Englishmen's first introduction to team sports, as the only sports said to have been played in England before it were one-on-one games, such as fencing, golf, or tennis, but this is disputable.

One thing historians know for sure is that the game was played in North America long before the Europeans arrived, perhaps at least a century prior to them playing in the 1800s. It was played by the native American Indian tribes throughout the Unites States and Canada, from the Bungi in Manitoba, to the Seminole in Florida, and the Passamaquoddy in Maine, to name a few.

Records left by early seventeenth century French Jesuits in the St. Lawrence Valley in the 1630s, and eighteenth century English explorers, tell of the game, but offer little information about its play. In fact, it's said that the missionaries were adamantly opposed to the game for a long time, because they believed it to be too savage and violent. But within a hundred years, they too were enjoying a good fast-paced game of lacrosse.

It's said that around 1740, French pioneers began to compete against the natives, but the skill of white men could not compare. A record of five natives having easily defeated a team of seven whites was documented a century later, in 1844.

Mid-to-late nineteenth century writings by historians and anthropologists offer a look into its scant history (Lacrosse - 1869, and American Anthropologist - 1890). More detailed records show that it began with tribes situated in the eastern half of North America near the western Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Valley regions, and from there moved west of the Mississippi in the nineteenth century.

The natives played the game for various reasons other than for recreation, or to settle disputes. They played for religious and curative reasons. Many natives played to ceremonially reenact the Creation story and the struggle between good and evil, the results of which were believed to have been controlled by the Creator. They played to honor the dead, and also to cure the sick, believing it will "please the Creator".

Depending on the occasion, the natives played different versions of lacrosse, using different kinds of sticks. Authors note three basic versions of the game; that of the Iroquoian, Great Lakes, and southeastern tribes of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and others. The southeastern tribes played a kind involving two sticks, one held in each hand, which retrieved a small deerskin ball. The Great Lakes teams used a single three-foot stick made of charred, scraped wood, with a small pocket slightly larger than the ball. The northeast Iroquois played a version using a stick resembling the one used today (although today's stick is aluminum and not wood) only it had a large triangular-shaped pocket comprising about two-thirds the length of the stick.

The game had few rules if any, and the object was simple. Goals were marked by rocks or trees, and could be several miles apart. They wore no protective gear.

Traditionally, a tribal game of lacrosse could last from sunup to sundown for up to several days, and involve several hundred men (there was a milder version for women that involved a shorter stick) in open spaces between villages, and there might be several miles between goals. There was a role to be played by many. Generally, medicine men served to coach, women served refreshments.

It wasn't until the mid-nineteenth century that non-natives began enjoying the game. Canadians began to give the Iroquois version a set of rules. They organized clubs, and the game spread throughout Canada and over into Europe where the first matches were played between the Iroquois and the non-natives. It's interesting to note that because the natives had to charge a fee in order to travel, they were considered professional players and were excluded from competing in international games for more than a century, until they petitioned the judgment and were finally allowed to play in 1990.

In 1856, the first non-native lacrosse team was organized when the "father of modern lacrosse", Dr. William George Beers, founded the Montreal Lacrosse Cub. By 1867 there were 80 Canadian teams, and Dr. Beers formalized a set of rules for modern lacrosse under his creation of the National Lacrosse Association. Shortly thereafter he published the first book on lacrosse titled, Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada. The deerskin ball was replaced by a hard rubber ball, still in use today.

Growing rapidly in, and largely dominated by Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, lacrosse took a little longer to catch on in the US. The first collegiate lacrosse team in the US was begun in 1877 at New York University sparking huge interest and its rapid growth in the country. The United States National Amateur Lacrosse Association was founded by John R. Flannery and consisted of 11 teams. Thousands appeared in 1879 to watch the first interclub game in the US between the Ravenswood Club and the Baltimore Athletic Club, and two years later the first ever intercollegiate game was held between Harvard and Princeton. More and more teams were formed after that.

Meanwhile, tribal teams continued to play as usual but less violently. Some variations on the game died out, but the Northeastern tradition of play was still in use. The Iroquois nations played against Canada, and some European countries. By the end of the nineteenth century however, governments and missionaries were opposed to the game on the grounds that it was too violent and destroying the native way of life in all but the northeast areas. In 1900 it was banned among the Oklahoma Choctaw when skulls were being broken by led weights attached to the sticks.

The turn of the century found intercollegiate lacrosse growing very rapidly. Lacrosse had gone from a sport almost unheard of by the whites, and one played almost exclusively by the Native Americans, to one that was spreading very quickly on the eastern seaboard. Lacrosse gained considerable notoriety when it was introduced at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, and then in London in 1908. Canadians continued to dominate the game, winning the gold in two consecutive Olympic tournaments. The sport continued to gain international exposure, but lack of funds in the US did not support the US lacrosse team's involvement in the Olympics again until 1928 (which was for demonstration only, as well as its involvement in the 1932 and 1948 games).

In 1905, the United Sates Intercollegiate Lacrosse League (USILL) combined two organizations, the Intercollegiate Association, and the Inter-university Lacrosse League, which formed a new set of rules. The John Hopkins University lacrosse team headed by Bill Schmeisser dominated the league with multiple wins in the Southern and Northern divisions.

The USILL and Olympic exposure propelled the game and its popularity forward.

In 1932 a record-breaking 80,000 spectators showed up to witness John Hopkins University defeat Canada in the Los Angeles Olympics exhibition tournament. There was no turning back, lacrosse had won the people over as a sport, which continued to grow steadily and by 1950 there where 200 teams in the US. The game made its way west into California, which formed an association of lacrosse teams.

History of the sport was made again in 1971 when the lacrosse championships under the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) were created which, up until then, was determined by the USILL. By the late 1990s, championship spectators had literally tripled.

In 1987, a once rather obscure way of playing lacrosse, known mainly to Canadians, came on the scene and that is "box lacrosse". That year, the first men's professional box lacrosse league called the "Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League" was created. Different from outdoor field lacrosse, and created by the Canadians in 1931, this wilder indoor version was played on a smaller field, such as a hockey rink covered in Astroturf, and involved six players per team. This fast-paced game created by two businessmen was a clever way to make use of hockey rinks not in use during the summer months. But the game tended to be more violent than field lacrosse, and was slow to gain the respect of those who preferred the outdoor version. And funding was an issue. But lack of finances didn't keep the best box lacrosse athletes from playing it for the sheer love of the sport. After some interleague rivalry and struggles to keep the game alive, leagues were reorganized, and under a newly revamped, more financially secure indoor league, the game drew more spectators than ever.

The turn of the new century found lacrosse having gained considerable respect as an international sport, having been played in the World Championship tournaments since 1967, and every four years since 1974. The game was no longer dominated by the Canadians but by the US, having won the World Championship every year but one in a shocking loss to the Canadians.

In recent decades, the number of championship teams jumped from six in 1994, to eleven in 1998, and included Canada, Australia, Czech Republic, England, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Scotland, the Iroquois Nation, the US, and Wales. However since 1948, the last year lacrosse participated in the Olympics, the Olympic charter has excluded lacrosse since the sport does not meet the criteria for being accepted as an event. The sport falls short of being played in at least 75 countries. By the end of the 1990s only eleven teams participated in the World Championships, and a few more competed in the 2002 championships. About a dozen others played a game called "intercrosse", a co-ed version played by rules borrowed from the women's game. The game still is not an official Olympic event, is expected to fall short of qualifying for the next half a century.

But win or lose, the Iroquois still enjoy the game for their own reasons. Winning the battle over being banned from the world championships for a century was their victory. But it's not so much about the score, but the satisfaction they derive from play. In the words of the 1998 Iroquois National Team captain Tony Gray: "We play to please the Creator, so there is no pressure on us to win or lose."



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