Lacrosse: A Short History


Native Lacrosse Players, Circa 1845

Native Lacrosse Players, Circa 1845

According to  National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS),  in the 2000-01 school year there were 74,225 high school boys and girls lacrosse players. By 2010-11, that number had soared to 170,610. Here in Georgia, the sport has seen exponential growth as well.

In ten years (2000-2010)  the state has gone from 487 high school lacrosse players and 36 high schools teams to  4,501 players and 119 high schools.  Impressive growth for a new sport.  But lacrosse  has been around the state for quite a bit longer than one might think.  The town of Ball Ground, Georgia in Cherokee County is named for near fields that the Cherokee Indians used to play stick ball, a rough game similar to modern lacrosse. The large fields and abundance of freshwater streams made Ball Ground an alluring place for the large gatherings of Native Americans because the ball game required large, flat fields, and there were plenty of natural resources to support large groups of people.

Lacrosse is one of the oldest team sports in North America, dating back to the 15th century. Native American communities throughout the Great Lakes region, Mid-Atlantic seaboard, and American South played games called dehuntshigwa’es in Onondaga (“men hit a rounded object”), da-nah-wah’uwsdi in Eastern Cherokee (“little war”), Tewaarathon in Mohawk language (“little brother of war”), baaga`adowe in Ojibwe (“bump hips”) and kabucha in Choctaw.

Ball Play of the Choctaws-Ball Up

George Catlin’s Ball Play of the Choctaws-Ball Up, 1846-1850

Almost exclusively a male team sport, it is distinguished from the others stick and ball games by the use of a netted racquet with which to pick the ball off the ground, throw, catch and pass it into or past a goal to score a point. Howdever, in all of its various incarnations, no player was allowed to touch the ball with their hands.  Contests were often major events that could last several days with as many as 100 to 1,000 men from opposing villages or tribes participating. The games were played in open plains between the two villages. The goals, initially large rocks or trees; and in later years wooden posts, could range from 500 yards to several miles apart.

Rules for these games were decided on the day before. Generally there was no out-of-bounds, and the ball could not be touched with the hands. Playing time was often from sun up until sun down. The medicine men acted as coaches, and the women of the tribe were usually limited to serving refreshments to the players.

Lacrosse served many different purposes; to toughen young warriors for combat, for recreation, as part of festivals, and for the bets involved. Some games were played to settle inter-tribal disputes, particularly among the Six Nations of the Iroquois. Finally, lacrosse was played for religious reasons: “for the pleasure of the Creator.”

During the 1630s, French Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brébeuf witnessed the game and condemned it because it was violent, betting was involved, and it was part of the religion he sought to replace.  Some say the name lacrosse originated from the French term for field hockey, le jeu de la crosse. Others suggest that it was named after the crosier, a staff carried by bishops. But despite Jesuit opposition, many other European colonists were intrigued by lacrosse. Betting on games became common, and around 1740 many French colonists were taking up the game.

In the early 1800s, Europeans in Canada began playing the game and in 1844 Montreal’s Olympic Club organized a team. specifically to play a match against a Native American team. More  games were played in 1848 and 1851. The Montreal Lacrosse Club, founded in 1856, developed the first written rules. sixteen years later, a Canadian dentist, W. George Beers, standardized the game with the adoption of set field dimensions, limits to the number of players per team, and other basic rules. Beers also replaced the deerskin ball with a hard rubber ball and designed a stick better equipped for catching and accurately passing the ball.

Queen Victoria watched a game between a team of Iroquois Indians and Canadians captained by Dr. W. G. Beers at Windsor in 1876. “The game was very pretty to watch,” she said. “It is played with a ball and there is much running.” The Queen’s observation was recommendation enough for England’s larger girls’ schools, which took up lacrosse during the 1890s. By 1883, when a second tour group captained by Beers visited England there were 60 clubs playing regular fixtures in Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Lancashire, Middlesex and Yorkshire. In 1892, the English Lacrosse Union (ELU) was formed.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, lacrosse had pretty much died out in the northern United States, but was revived by the Onondaga tribe in the 1860s, influenced by the St. Regis tribe, which was still active in Canada. White players in upstate New York began playing lacrosse around 1868, and the sport soon spread to the New York City area, where several teams were soon organized. The first intercollegiate game in the United States was in November 1877, pitting New York University against Manhattan College. Philips Andover Academy (Massachusetts), Philips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire), and the Lawrenceville School (New Jersey) were the nation’s first high school teams in 1882.

The U.S. Amateur Lacrosse Association adopted the Canadian rules upon creation in 1879, and seven colleges formed the first Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association *(ILA) three years later. In 1905, the ILA was replaced by the Intercollegiate Lacrosse League, which renamed itself the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA) in 1929. During this time, Baltimore became a major hotbed for the sport when Johns Hopkins University students introduced the sport to the school after watching a lacrosse game in Long Island, New York. In 1926 Rosabelle Sinclair established the United State’s first women’s lacrosse team at Baltimore’s Bryn Mawr School.

old ref uniform
Men’s and women’s lacrosse were played under virtually the same rules, with no protective equipment until the mid-1930s. At that time, men’s Lacrosse began evolving significantly, while women’s lacrosse continued to remain true to the game’s original rules. Men’s and women’s Lacrosse remain two distinct forms of the same game today, but are played under different rules. Men’s lacrosse rules allow some degree of stick and body contact, and the game requires protective equipment, such as gloves, helmet, arm guards, and shoulder pads. Although the two modem versions of lacrosse use different rules and regulations, they utilize the same fundamental skill sets, and stay true to their Native American heritage.

By the 20th century, many high schools, colleges and universities had adopted lacrosse as a league sport. Lacrosse became an Olympic sport for the 1904 and 1908 Summer Olympics, but was then dropped as an official sport. After 1908, lacrosse was a sport in the World Games.

In the 1930s, an indoor version of the game, box lacrosse, was introduced in Canada. It quickly became the dominant form of the sport in Canada, in part due to the severe winter weather that limited outdoor play.

Minor leagues developed for box lacrosse and college lacrosse. Two professional leagues also were created: In 1987 the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League was founded; it eventually became the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, and then the National Lacrosse League (NLL). In the summer of 2001, a professional field lacrosse league, known as Major League Lacrosse (MLL), was inaugurated.


History of Lacrosse.

Lacrosse in England.

“Lacrosse History”. STX. Archived from the original on 2007-05-24. Retrieved 2007-02-24.

Montreal Lacrosse Club.

Rock, Tom (November/December 2002). “More Than a Game”. Lacrosse Magazine (US Lacrosse). Archived from the original on 2007-08-22. Retrieved 2007-03-18.

Vennum, Thomas Jr., Lacrosse: Little Brother of War. Washington:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Thomas Vennum Jr., US Lacrosse, Museum and Hall of Fame/History.

Weyand, Alexander M., The Lacrosse Story. Baltimore: Garamond Press, 1965.

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