A 3,000-Year-Old Game: The History Of Lacrosse
Lacrosse has its beginnings as far back as one thousand years BCE, emerging from a Native American game, and developing into the modern sport we all know.
from Sarah Peterson
The 3,000 Year History Behind The Sport Of Lacrosse
Today, lacrosse is widely known across the USA and Canada. It’s a fast-paced game that involves a combination of speed and stamina, combining teamwork and individual skill. But what’s less widely known is how the sport began. In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of lacrosse and some of the changes, developments and reinventions it has seen over the years.
Ancient origins in North America
Lacrosse is understood to have originated from various similar sports played within indigenous North American societies, as long ago as 1,000 BCE. Multiple sources cite names such as the Mohawk “begadwe,” Oee “dehuntshigwa’es” and Choctaw “kabucha” as being associated with games similar to lacrosse, which were often used to train young men in battle tactics.
These types of games were most prevalent among people living around the Great Lakes, what is now the Southern USA, as well as the East Coast region. Traditionally, games would be played between large groups of men numbering in the hundreds or even thousands who would represent opposing tribes or settlements.
Original rules of the game
Each game could last for a whole day, from sunrise until sunset, and the playing field was often the open ground between each team’s settlement, sometimes several miles apart. Goals would be created from landmarks such as rock formations or tree trunks, and the aim was for participants to carry the ball to the opponent’s goal without being tackled.
Contact with European settlers
The earliest witnesses to such games from Europe were early missionaries from France, one of whom, Jean de Brebeuf, gave the first written account of the game in which he also gave it its modern name. He called it “la crosse” in French (or “the cross” in English), from which we get the current term “lacrosse.”
These early missionaries were not particularly supportive of the game, being opposed to the gambling which went alongside it, and generally suspicious and misunderstanding of the culture they had encountered. However, as other European settlers arrived in North America and learned of lacrosse, many were intrigued. By the mid-1700s, games between the indigenous players and the settlers became more commonplace.
Writers from the 1750s described the type of lacrosse stick used at the time as being around 5 feet in length, with a hoop-shaped net on the top, and the lacrosse ball as a wooden ball about 3 inches in diameter.
The beginnings of the modern rules of lacrosse
By the 1830s, demonstrations of the game were being given in Canada, such as the one which was held in Montreal in 1834 by members of the Caughnawaga tribe, resulting in greater public interest in the sport.
In the mid-1850s, a dentist from Montreal by the name of William Beers founded a lacrosse club in the city and worked on developing a set of written rules for the game. Among them were shorter time limits on each game, restrictions on the number of players on each team, and new designs for the lacrosse stick, as well as the replacement of the traditional wooden ball with one manufactured from rubber.
Growth in popularity as a sport
During the next decade, lacrosse would develop to become first a popular game in Canada and eventually the national sport, with players exhibiting their skills abroad, including once during an audience with the English Queen Victoria, who reportedly enjoyed the experience immensely. Her patronage led many girl’s schools in the UK to adopt the game, and this popularity continued into the 20th century.
In the United States and Canada, the sport remained popular with male clubs, as well as colleges and schools. However, it began to attract criticism for what some people saw as violent elements involved in the play. It was first recognized as an official Olympic sport during the 1904 and subsequently, the 1908 Olympic Games, although it had lost that status by the time of the Games in 1912.
Lacrosse in the 20th century and onwards
The twentieth century saw a number of new developments to the sport, including further codification of the rules, the introduction of protective equipment and the use of new materials in the manufacturing of lacrosse sticks and balls.
In the 1930s, “box lacrosse,” an indoor version of the game was developed in Canada in response to the limitations placed on outdoor games by poor weather conditions.
It wasn’t until 1987, however, that the first professional box lacrosse league was founded, and this was followed in 2001 by the first professional league for field lacrosse teams. In 2019, due to pressure from players for better wages and conditions, the Premier Lacrosse League was founded, which represents the highest competitive standard in the sport to this day.
So as we enjoy today’s modern game, with lightweight, protective gear, carbon fiber lacrosse sticks, practice equipment such as the lacrosse rebounder or the artificial grass surfaces and floodlit fields available to many high school, college, and professional players, it’s interesting to take a look back at the distant traditions on which the sport was built. As a modern lacrosse player, it can be a point of pride to be involved in a game that may be one of the oldest anywhere in the world.