The history of Lacrosse began among North American Indian tribes. As early as the 1400s, the Iroquois, Huron, Algonquin and other tribes were playing the game. In its beginnings lacrosse, then called baggataway, was a wide-open game that was part religious ritual and part military training.
A Whole Lot
The game has always required tremendous athletic skill. In early games, just running up and down the field was a great feat. Goals could be as far as 500 yards to half a mile apart and no sidelines limited the playing area. Games lasted two to three days with “time outs” between sundown and sunup. Teams had as many as 1,000 players vying to move a small, deerskin ball past their opponent’s goal. Players used three- to four-foot long sticks with small nets on the end to throw, catch and carry the ball. With all of those sticks and only one ball, a lot of extra-curricular activity occurred.
Lacrosse had spiritual significance for the Native Americans. A match started with a face off during which players would hold their sticks in the air and shout out to get the gods’ attention. Games were sometimes played to appeal to the gods for healing or to settle disputes between tribes. A game of lacrosse was even once used as a military ploy.
The Sauk and Ojibway Indian Tribes staged a lacrosse match outside the gates of Fort Michilimackinac in what is now Michigan. The Indian women stood near the fort with weapons hidden under their shawls and blankets. The men moved the action of the game toward the fort and, whoops, sent the ball over the wall. The Indians threw down their lacrosse sticks, took up the weapons and stormed the fort.
French missionaries are responsible for giving the sport its name. Missionaries thought the stick used by Canadian Indian tribes looked like the crosier, or le crosse, carried by bishops.
In the 1840s, French settlers in Canada took up the game. A match between a French team and Indian team was played at Montreal’s Olympic club in 1844. The Montreal Lacrosse Club was founded in 1856 and established the first written set of rules. These rules set standard field dimensions (no more 880-yard fields) and team size. (Hundreds of players were just a few too many for umpires to keep track of. Ten per side worked better.)
A Canadian dentist, George Beers, is designated the father of modern lacrosse. He revised the rules and it was his set of rules that was adopted by the National Lacrosse Association of Canada when it was in 1867. Lacrosse became so popular in Canada that it was named the national sport. (Bet you thought Canada’s national sport was hockey. Ice hockey actually patterned its rules after lacrosse and most early hockey players also were lacrosse players.)
From Canada, lacrosse spread to the United States, England, Ireland, Scotland and Australia. The first international lacrosse match was played in 1867 between Canada and the United States. Eight years later a Canadian touring team went to Britain. Olympic medals in lacrosse were award in 1904 and 1908. Canada won both golds. Though lacrosse was a demonstration sport at the 1928, 1932 and 1948 Olympics, it has not returned to medal-sport status.