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History of Lacrosse: Where It All Began

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History of Lacrosse

The lacrosse game has a fascinating history with its origins stretching back over 3000 years. It forms one of the oldest team sports in North America. A better understanding of the origins of lacrosse helps us to connect more closely with it and offers a rich insight into the game we’ve been playing till today.

What Is Lacrosse?

  • Lacrosse is a team sport.
  • It is played using a lacrosse ball and a stick.
  • The number of players consists of 2 teams - 12 players on each.
  • Each player uses the stick to catch, carry, shoot and pass the ball, with the aim to score a goal in the net.

How Old Is The Game?

The lacrosse game is thought to be around 3000 years old and was originally enjoyed by the Native American people.

However, when we ask - who invented lacrosse? - we are actually exploring vast, diverse nations, each with its own rules, motivations, and preferences.

The Early Days

Lacrosse owes its origins to the Native American people of the area now described as Canada and the United States and was originally enjoyed by the Plains Indians tribes, and eastern Woodlands Native Americans.

Depending on the region, lacrosse game used to have various names:
  • ‘dehintsigwaehs’ (they bump hips),
  • ‘tewaaraton’ (little brother of war),
  • ‘baaga adowe’ (bump hips),

It’s important to note, that lacrosse game rules were also varying among different regions - in some, it would consist even of hundreds of players, divided into two sides from opposing tribes, or villages, who would rush to catch a single ball after it was thrown into the air.

However, the focus of all the variations of lacrosse remained quite the same - chasing and obtaining the ball.

Rules and place of the game

  • As a symbol of the competition, games were typically enjoyed on green space, located between the two villages, and the playing space was vast, with goals ranging from between 500 yards and 6 miles apart;
  • These spaces were typically constructed from trees or large, clear rocks in the early days.
  • Rules were sparing: out of bounds was not an issue, but it was important that the ball was never touched with the hands.
  • The play would occur from sunup to sundown, with the victor determined at this point.

The Purpose of Lacrosse

As well as offering a recreational activity, lacrosse had other interesting purposes:
  • It was used as a means to settle disputes between tribes: Iroquois lacrosse is a key example of this.
  • It could also be used to prepare players for combat, ensuring that their physical fitness and strength were maintained.
  • It was also forming part of a festival or ritual.
  • In some cases, native American games even had a spiritual component, and would be played as a form of collective prayer, “for the pleasure of the Creator.”

Before The Match

The early days of lacrosse came with specific rituals and practices akin to those associated with war.
  • Appearance. Players on either side would decorate themselves and their stocks with paint and charcoal, as well as attributes to represent the qualities they wished to demonstrate in the game, such as strength or bravery.
  • Food. There were rules on what could and could not be eaten prior to a match.
  • Pre-game nights. The night before a game there were huge events, with ceremonial regalia, dances, sacrifices, and the expression of sacred expressions: medicine men helped with rituals before and on the day of each match, including the tradition of ‘going to water’ - as the name suggests, this involved dipping sticks in water, while a medicine man delivered a spiritual talk.
  • Betting. Wagers were also an important pre-game ritual, and this was required of every player. These involved key items including knives, handkerchiefs, trinkets, and even horses, and bets were clearly displayed. Winners would receive a share of these after the game if successful.
In the Southeastern version of the game, players had three areas to score, demonstrated by marks on the stickball pole, with each area offering a different number of points:
  • Anything below the first mark - around chest height - would not be scored while hitting the first mark earned one point.
  • At the top of the pole - you received two points per hit.
  • The very top of the pole - three points - this would typically be embellished with a figure, such as sacred animals.

Though most games wrapped up at around twenty points for one team, scoring was not tightly monitored; the thrill was in the game, rather than a strict outcome. Immediately after the game, there would usually be another huge ceremony, with dances, feasts, and celebrations.

It is worth noting that women’s lacrosse was also a popular pastime in many areas in addition to the male lacrosse game. This female version of lacrosse was known as ‘amtahcha’. Sticks tended to be shorter, and sometimes a double ball was used.

Evolution Of Lacrosse

Lacrosse has developed from the style of the native American athletes, and the introduction of Europe is an important consideration in the history of lacrosse timeline.
  • According to history, there was a version of the lacrosse sport present in the 17th century, in the area now known as Canada.
  • French Jesuit missionaries are said to have witnessed the game being played by American Indians, and condemned the violent nature, as well as the inclusion of gambling and betting, and vowed to eradicate the sport from the area.
  • Despite their disapproval (or perhaps because of it!) European colonists visiting the area became fascinated by the game, and it was popular amongst French colonists by around 1740 - though it was noted that their skill level was not equal to that of the American Indians.
  • Texts from James Smith in 1757 suggest that by this time, a wooden ball was being used, manipulated by a strong staff with a hooped net at one end - the forerunner of our modern day lacrosse sticks.
  • From here, the popularity of lacrosse spread across the European colonists, resulting in the game being taken back to Europe and enjoyed across the continent.
Meanwhile, interest in lacrosse was growing across Canada, after a team of Caughnawaga Indians demonstrated the game in Montreal in 1834, lighting the spark of intrigue, and resulting in the creation of the Montreal Lacrosse Club in 1856 by William George Beers.

He then went on to modify the game creating uniformity:
  • The length of the game was shortened.
  • The number of players was reduced.
  • Rubber ball and stick were introduced.
The first game in this style occurred in 1867, and lacrosse became the national game of Canada.

The Royal Seal Of Approval

Lacrosse enjoyed the royal nod - thanks to a visit by Queen Victoria in 1876. Upon observing an exhibition game, she said that “the game is very pretty to watch.” This resulted in an explosion in popularity amongst English schoolgirls, with most schools adopting lacrosse from the late 1890s.

This moment brought women’s lacrosse to the forefront, helping it to be recognized, established, and appreciated on the same level as men’s lacrosse.

At around the same time, the first organized lacrosse club appeared in the United States - again, both sexes were recognized. Lacrosse was well on its way to serious world domination.

Modern Lacrosse

By the 20th century, the majority of schools, colleges, and universities had adopted lacrosse as a league sport - in 1904 it gained official Olympic status. In 1908 it formed a sport in the World Games.

Later on, various adaptations and variations started to appear:
  • An indoor version of the sport appeared in Canada as a response to the cooler climate.
  • Both minor and professional leagues began to spring up, including the National Lacrosse League, Major League Lacrosse, and, most recently, the Premier Lacrosse League.
The lacrosse game continues to be a popular sport around the globe, and the development of the Premier Lacrosse League is only enhancing this.

Players are considering going pro, college students are making the most of their skill set, and the reputation and status of lacrosse are only increasing.

As the popularity increases, more and more players discover and enjoy this fast-paced, exciting game - and one which has one of the most fascinating histories of team sports across North America. The history of lacrosse is ongoing; fans can only watch and wait, to see where the next development takes us.

    Katherine Holden

    Katherine Holden

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