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Discovery of Lacrosse & Its Fascinating History

Discovery of Lacrosse & Its Fascinating History

The Northeastern variation of the game was the one first encountered by Europeans in the 17th Century. Jesuit missionaries from France observed the Huron Indians playing the game, and called it “la crosse,” because the Natives’ sticks resembled the crosier carried by French bishops as a symbol of office. Another argued origin of the name comes from the French version of field hockey, which they called le jeu de la crosse. The first use of the term la crosse was written in 1636 by French missionary Jean de Brebeuf, the first to document the game.

At first, the Europeans saw the game as very savage. One French settler wrote, “If one were not told beforehand that they were playing, one would certainly believe that they were fighting.” The Jesuit missionaries were shocked that the Natives were playing lacrosse for religious reasons. The Europeans believed playing a game to bring good weather or to honor the dead was rather innocent. But to play the game for the purpose of curing the sick was considered a sacrilege.

Although Europeans initially saw the game as savage, they soon began to enjoy watching it and often placed bets among themselves on the winner of a match. In one dramatic incident in 1763, English settlers, who had recently occupied the Native Fort Michilimackinac near Lake Michigan were so occupied in watching the Natives play their game that at the same time that their fort was overtaken by Native warriors. This has been called the Conspiracy of Pontiac.

One reason why the English may have been so attracted to this game was that it was their first introduction to the concept of team sports. Before the discovery of this game, the only sports ever played in England were individual sports, such as boxing, golf, fencing, or tennis, in which one person competes against one or more others. However, some have disputed this fact and believe that England did in fact have a history of team sports at that time.

Early reports of the game did not describe in any detail team strategy or rules, but instead only team size, equipment used, duration of games, and length of playing fields. The reports of the European missionaries were so uninformative and vague that Lacrosse historian Thomas Vennum says “we may never have a definitive history of the game.”

More than a century after they first discovered the game, the European settlers began to play the game themselves. As early as 1740, as some reports say, French pioneers competed with the Natives at their own game. It was widely believed then that a team of whites could never match the skill of a Native team.

Not much has been recorded about this early competition between the Natives and the French, but it is likely that, because there is not much evidence about the game being played by whites for the next 100 years, the French were not particularly successful at playing the game. One documented example of the Natives’ early domination of their own sport is that in 1844, a team composed of five Native Americans, easily beat a team of seven whites.

The Birth of Modern North American Lacrosse 1850-1900

More than 100 years after the game was first played by whites, a non-Native American lacrosse team was formally organized. Dr. William George Beers, a Montreal dentist, who is described as the father of modern lacrosse, created the Montreal Lacrosse Club in 1856. In 1867, when the number of Canadian lacrosse teams rose dramatically to 80, Dr. Beers finalized his uniform code of rules for modern lacrosse when he created the Canadian National Lacrosse Association.

The development of Dr. Beers’ rules was the first step in the modernization of the game, including replacing a hair-stuffed deerskin ball with a hard rubber ball which is still used today. Two years later, Dr. Beers published the first book on lacrosse, Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada.

Although the game experienced a quick growth in Canada in the middle of the 19th century, it took a bit longer for it to gain popularity in the United States. The first collegiate lacrosse team in the U.S. was not created until 1877 at New York University, ten years after the first Canadian collegiate team was created.

After this, the popularity of the game grew quickly. In 1879, the United States National Amateur Lacrosse Association was formed by John R. Flannery. It was composed of eleven college and club teams. In one of the first competitive inter-club games in the U.S., 4,000 people showed up on May 29, 1879 to witness the Ravenswood Club beat the Baltimore Athletic Club 3-1. Two years later, in 1881, the first ever intercollegiate lacrosse tournament was held, with Harvard defeating Princeton 3-0 in the final. In 1894, the Crescent Athletic Club was formed to “play for pure enjoyment and raise the standards of the game.”

This team became a catalyst in the development of lacrosse in the United States, because over the next forty years, the Crescents’ domination over their opponents increased fan support and the popularity of the game.

During this period of growth and modernization, Native tribes continued to play lacrosse as they always had. The Natives’ game was modernized in that it was not played so savagely. However, it had not modernized as much as the game played by whites. In the early 20th Century, the Great Lakes and Southeastern variations of lacrosse were very rare, but the Northeastern version of the game was still played.

The Six Nations of Iroquois played the game competitively against other countries, including Canada, and once toured Europe. However, American Indian lacrosse in all areas but the northeast was experiencing a demise because the games had become too violent and too many people were gambling on them, thus impoverishing and damaging the Native way of life. In 1900, lacrosse was banned among the Oklahoma Choctaw when it was found that they were attaching lead weights to their sticks to crack another’s skull.

The Growth of Lacrosse 1900-1970

Although it was still a rather obscure sport, lacrosse had grown considerably by the turn of the century from an almost unheard of sport played only by Native Americans, into a sport that was played by many European Americans, mostly on the East Coast. When it was featured as a Olympic sport at the Olympics in St. Louis in 1904 and in London in 1908, lacrosse gained more recognition in the U.S. and the world.

In 1904, Canada won the gold medal by defeating the St. Louis AAA Club team, which was representing the U.S. Canada once again won the gold in 1908, defeating England. The Johns Hopkins University team, which was to represent the United States, did not go to the Olympics that year due to lack of funds. Although the Olympics provided lacrosse with more national and international exposure, the sport did not return to the Olympics until it was an exhibition event in 1928.

Intercollegiate lacrosse also grew considerably after the turn of the century. In 1905, the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse League (USILL) formed when the Intercollegiate Association and the Inter university Lacrosse League merged. These two organizations had different rules, so at the time of their merger, they agreed upon a new set of rules to govern the newly-formed USILL. Johns Hopkins University, coached by Bill Schmeisser, dominated the league, winning the Southern Division four times in a row and defeating the Northern Division champion three times.

The emergence of the USILL, along with lacrosse’s inclusion in the Olympics, increased its recognition in the U.S. The American Press began to give more attention to the sport. In 1921, W. Wilson Wingate of The Baltimore Sun, called the game “the fastest game on two feet,” a term which is still widely used today. The popularity of the game was further advanced in 1922 when President William Taft attended a lacrosse game between the Crescent Athletic Club and the Montreal Lacrosse Club.

Ten years later, in 1932, the largest crowd ever watched a lacrosse game when 80,000 witnessed Johns Hopkins University, representing the United States, defeat Canada in the exhibition tournament at the Los Angeles Olympics. To this day no lacrosse game has ever attracted so many people.

The growth of lacrosse continued steadily and, in 1950, there were 200 college, club, and high school teams. After 1950, lacrosse not only continued to grow in its hotbed of the east coast, producing superstars like Billy Morrill and Jim Brown, but it was also now starting to grow in the west. In 1959, lacrosse was officially started in California when the California Lacrosse Association was formed, representing two high school teams, one college team, and one club team.

In the same year, the Lacrosse Foundation (now U.S. Lacrosse) and the Lacrosse Hall of Fame were formed as a nonprofit organization committed to the development of lacrosse

The NCAA Era 1971-1998

One of the biggest milestones in the history of collegiate lacrosse occurred in 1971. In that year the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) created the NCAA lacrosse championship, in which the top 12 Division 1 lacrosse teams compete in a tournament each year to determine that year’s champion. Previously, the championship was awarded by the USILL and decided by a vote. In the first NCAA championship, Cornell defeated Maryland 12-6.

The NCAA tournament is a tradition which continues today and has grown considerably since its beginning. At the 1997 NCAA Championship at the University of Maryland, the championship game was attended by over 30,000 fans, a big jump from the first tournaments of the early 70’s, when there were never even close to 10,000 spectators.

The major surge in popularity of NCAA lacrosse started in the late 80’s, when attendance to games first began to rise. This is largely due to the Gait twins, Paul and Gary, who played for Syracuse University, winning three consecutive NCAA Championships from 1988-91. Paul and Gary were excellent athletes and did many amazing moves, such as the Air-Gait, lacrosse’s version of basketball’s slam dunk. The Gaits’ ability to execute such maneuvers helped the game of lacrosse because they were the first lacrosse players that were given extensive media attention throughout the United States.

The Gait twins started a trend in lacrosse because now many NCAA players show athletic talent as well as stick skills, probably because the Gaits attracted more skilled athletes to the sport. They were so good that during their careers at Syracuse, record crowds showed up to see them play. The Gait twins, who grew up playing in western Canada, were lacrosse’s first bona-fide stars because they were the first to attract extensive fan and media attention. After the Gaits’ college career, the popularity of lacrosse grew both in fan support and player participation.

As mentioned earlier, the Gaits helped Syracuse win three consecutive national championships and dominate the NCAA in the late 80’s. Before then, only Johns Hopkins University (1978-1980) had ever won three NCAA titles in a row. This feat remained unmatched until May 25, 1998, when Princeton defeated Maryland 15-5 to win its third consecutive title and its fifth under Coach Bill Tierney (also coach of 1998 Team USA) since 1992. So after Johns Hopkins dominated the late 70’s decade and Syracuse ruled the late 80’s, Princeton now owns the 90’s decade.

In fact, the NCAA era has been dominated by only a select group of schools, and one good example of that is that only four different teams (Johns Hopkins, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Princeton) have won the last 21 championships dating back to 1978.

The MILL and NLL Lacrosse Becomes a Business

Throughout the history of lacrosse, the game was played outside and on a field. It’s modern incarnation is played by ten men on each team on a field 120 yards long.

However, another form of lacrosse, box lacrosse, was created in 1931 and played inconspicuously in Canada. Box lacrosse is different from field lacrosse in that the field is much smaller, usually a hockey rink covered with astroturf, and there are six players on a team. The Canadians developed this variation of lacrosse and played it more than traditional field lacrosse so that they could make use of idle hockey rinks in the summer.

This form of lacrosse was not played or even well-known in the U.S. until 1987, when two businessmen from Kansas City, Chris Fritz and Russ Cline, formed the Eagle Box Lacrosse League in search of a sports promotion. The two men, who usually promoted rock concerts and mud races, were searching for a fast-paced game to be played indoors. .

They did not know anything about the origins of lacrosse, so their first idea was to play the game on roller skates, thus producing an action-packed game. After all, Roller Derby and “Wild World of Wheels” truck shows were among their earlier successful ventures. Soon they decided to play the game without roller skates, and the Eagle Box Lacrosse League started competition with teams in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Jersey.

The first year of competition, in which Baltimore won the championship by beating Washington, the Eagle League was very violent and promoted just that. This was what Fritz and Cline intended when forming the league as a way to attract fans and make money. Television commercials for the Eagle League glorified the violence and promoted the object of the game as to “not only win, but survive”.

The violent play in this league resembles the way lacrosse was first played in Native American tribes, when the strategy was to disable as many players as possible. The way this league was described in the media, lacrosse had become “only slightly less violent in the centuries since then.”

Many lacrosse purists felt that the Eagle League was detrimental to the game of lacrosse as a whole because of its violent play and its vast differences from traditional field lacrosse.

Famous Baltimore Sun lacrosse columnist Bill Tanton said that, “In the beginning it was pure savagery…I still prefer field lacrosse.” The league’s violent play has subsided since its first year, but it is still far more violent than field lacrosse. Although the league had a shaky beginning, it soon changed its name into the Major Indoor Lacrosse League (MILL) and grew into other cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Charlotte, and Boston. In the early 90’s the league still experienced financial problems, and many teams, such as in Detroit, Washington, and Pittsburgh, were forced to stop operation or merge with other teams.

Because of the financial problems of the MILL, players who played in the games were paid very little. At the beginning the salaries were between only $125 to $300 per game per player, depending on the number of years a player had served. However, this small amount was more than enough to attract lacrosse’s best athletes, including both Gait twins. Lacrosse players play for the love of the game, not the money.

As Jim Huelskamp, author of Indoor Lacrosse and former MILL player, says, “the rush that players get playing in front of a full arena is payment enough”. Teams only practiced at night, so players could handle day jobs, thus financially supporting themselves.

By 1997, a few teams were owned by individuals other than the Fritz-Cline group, but they still controlled most of the teams and the league itself. The monopolistic management and player discontent finally clashed in a major players strike in 1997, while a new league, called the NLL (National Lacrosse League) was being formed by some of the individual MILL owners and some outside investors. With the strike getting nasty, most of the players, led by the Gait twins, who signed the first substantial player contracts in lacrosse history, jumped to the new league. This forced the MILL to merge with the NLL, giving up the league ownership structure for an individual team ownership model.

A few years later, all of the NLL teams would be under autonomous management. The league is now in a stable financial position in its 12th season and is attracting more fans than it ever has before.

International Lacrosse and the Olympic Goal

In the late 20th Century, lacrosse has also experienced growth on the international level, especially in the last decade. The first international competitions between countries in lacrosse were at the Olympics in the early 20th century. However, lacrosse did not remain an Olympic sport, and so the International Lacrosse Federation started the World Championship tournament in 1967, and it has been played every four years since 1974, similar to soccer’s World Cup.

International lacrosse has been dominated by the Americans, who have won the World Championship every year except 1978, in which the Canadian team rebounded from a 28-4 loss to the Americans in the early round to beat them 17-16 in the championship. This was an upset of nearly epic proportions. The accomplishment by the Canadians was so great, Canadian player Dave Huntley says, “…that the American players were happy for us”.

The World Championship has multiplied in size, in terms of teams competing, because eleven teams participated in the 1998 championship, up from six in the 1994 competition and only four in 1986.

The countries taking part were Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, England, Germany, Iroquois Nation, Japan, Scotland, Sweden, United States, and Wales. Although lacrosse has gained popularity internationally and is played in more countries, the United States was still expected to dominate in the 1998 competition, retaining possession of the Turnbull Trophy. However, they did not do so as easily as they did winning 21-7 in the 1994 final over Australia.

In the 1998 final, the United States defeated Canada 15-14 in an historic overtime battle. The United States jumped out quickly and led the final 11-1. Canada then came back from this huge deficit and tied the game at 13 with two goals in the final minute, forcing overtime. In the two overtime periods, the U.S. scored two goals to Canada’s one, thwarting one of the greatest efforts in the game’s history.

One of the teams that competed in the 1998 World Lacrosse Championship was the Iroquois Nation, composed of the Oneida, Onondoga, Cayuga, Seneca, Mohawk, and Tuscarora tribe members. The Iroquois, as well as many other Native American tribes in the northeast, continue to play the game and value it as much as they always have.

However, they have modernized the rules and do not play the game the same as they did centuries ago. The Iroquois tribes have often competed against white teams, using modernized rules but still not the same rules as the whites. In one game between the Iroquois and Hobart University, the Hobart players, thinking that the game was played with sidelines as under the white teams’ rules, lost track of the Native ball carrier, who hid in the woods adjacent to the field. He emerged minutes later at the other end, where he scored the winning goal.

The Iroquois have been competing against other countries since the 19th Century, but they were not allowed to participate in the World Championship or Olympics until 1990 because the box lacrosse leagues they played in were considered professional in nature and therefore ineligible for amateur competition. However, after petitioning the ILF in 1990, the Natives were finally allowed to compete. Although they did not win any games in that competition, the Iroquois had a symbolic victory in that they were able to compete.

The Iroquois’ winless streak in ILF World Championships did not last long. Their first win came in the 1994 games, when they defeated newcomer Japan twice. They surpassed another milestone defeating England in the 1998 games 10-9, finishing an all-time high fourth place out of eleven teams. Although they enjoyed victory against England, as well as all the others, the Iroquois put little importance on winning and losing. Tony Gray says, “We play to please the Creator, so there is no pressure on us to win or lose.”

Because of the success of recent ILF World Championships, especially the 1998 games, many people in the lacrosse community talk about attempting to re-include lacrosse in the Olympic games. But the reason for lacrosse’s exclusion lies in the Olympic charter, which has evidently changed since the days that lacrosse was played in the Olympics. It states that a men’s sport must be played widely in 75 countries to become an Olympic event. Eleven teams participated in the 1998 World Championship, and five more (Korea, China, Argentina, Finland, and Switzerland) will most likely compete in the 2002 Championship.

Twelve other nations play intercrosse, a co-ed version of the sport played by rules resembling the women’s game. This means that lacrosse must further develop in 12 countries and grow to 47 others in order to become an Olympic sport. This is a task that would take decades, and under this rule it is unlikely that lacrosse will be in the Olympics before 2050.

Last modified: July 9, 2020