History of Lacrosse
The game of lacrosse has its origins in Native American tradition with most North American tribes engaging in some version of it. However, the Eastern Woodlands Native Americans and some Plains Indians tribes from what is now Canada are most often cited as introducing the game to the Europeans. Its original purpose wasn’t merely recreational since it held both a religious significance and was seen as a means of training for war, which was a central part of pre-agrarian and semi-agrarian cultures found on the Northern American continent.
The names under which it was known in Eastern Cherokee — little war — and the Mohawk language — little brother of war — further underlines the connection, as does the overall brutal character and ritualistic content of the tradition. While the game was regulated, with goals and specific equipment, there was very little technique involved in playing it. Dodging an opponent was frowned upon and passing the ball to other players was not seen as part of the course.
The rituals customary before a match were very similar to the ones conducted before a battle or a raid. The players would decorate their faces with dyes and charcoal and then “go to the water” just before the game was supposed to commence. This involved the teams dunking their sticks in a pool of water while the shaman gave an encouraging speech.
The number of players could range from 100 to 1,000 men, and a game might last up to several days at a time, played from dawn until sundown. The open plains between the two competing villages were used as a playing field on which goals, generally marked by rocks and trees, were set at 500 yards to 6-mile intervals, depending on the space available.
Early versions of the lacrosse stick didn’t feature any netting and had one of their sides carved into the rough shape of a spoon in order to hold the ball. They were generally decorated with various charms and talismans that were believed to increase player performance. In later varieties, the holding end was bent into a hoop via steaming to accommodate the mesh. Balls were initially made of wood and later of deerskin stuffed with hair, but small animal skulls are also known to have been used.
The game is suspected to date back to as early as 1100 AD, but the first European accounts come from the 1630s and belong to French Jesuits in the St. Lawrence Valley region. Jean de Brebeuf is the first to describe the game and give it its current name, which is believed to be a reference to either field hockey (jeu de la crosse) or the staff carried by bishops (crosier).
Due to the presence of wagers and the violent character of the game, the Jesuits weren’t particularly taken with lacrosse, but this didn’t stop French colonists from adopting it around the 1750s, oftentimes placing their own bets on Indian matches.
An account from around this time relates how the game was used by the Native Americans as part of a deceptive strategy to capture Fort Michilimackinac. The Indian chieftain invited the British garrison to watch a game of lacrosse. After working his way to the fort’s lightly guarded gates under the pretext of play, he and his warriors rushed in and massacred everyone inside.
On a more peaceful note, the game was officially demonstrated by a team of Caughnawaga Indians in 1834 to a Canadian crowd in Montreal. Although the initial response was rather lukewarm, this event marked a steady rise in popularity for lacrosse on Canadian soil, culminating with it being declared Canada’s national game during the 1860s.
A Montreal lacrosse club was first formed in 1856, by the dentist William George Beers, who will later draw a set of rules for the game, shortening the length of each match and reducing the number of players, while also introducing a new stick and deciding upon a rubber ball. The game was soon to become collegiate under Beers’ rules, with the first match being played at Upper Canada College in 1867.
Lacrosse will first start getting noticed on the Old Continent in 1876 when Queen Victoria remarked that “The game is very pretty to watch” upon witnessing an exhibition match. This lead to lacrosse being adopted by a large number of all girl’s British boarding schools during the 1890s. The first one was St. Leonard’s in Scotland, whose headmistress previously watched a game between the Montreal Club and a Native team when visiting Canada.
While lacrosse wasn’t particularly unknown in the United States, with some land feature, such as Prairie La Crosse, being named in homage to the game, the first official club on the US side of the continent was founded towards the end of the 20th century in Troy, New York. While it was never going to take off to the same extent as in Canada, lacrosse did rise in popularity as a collegiate sport, and it’s still played to the present day at nearly all Ivy League universities.
On the international circuit, lacrosse first made an appearance in 1904, as part of the Olympic Summer Games, but it was dropped from 1908 onwards. Lacrosse is part of the World Games since 1981, and two minor leagues for box lacrosse and college lacrosse were formed around the same time.
Box lacrosse, an indoor version of the sport, was first introduced to Canada during the 1930s, where it quickly became dominant due in no small part to the harsh winters that the country is known for.