Long before the first European thought of colonizing North America, northeastern Indigenous tribes along the New York-Canadian border played a game they called stickball. As one of the first Europeans to meet with the Iroquois people in the early 1600s, French missionary Jean de Brebeuf watched games, and later referred to the sport as crosse when telling others about it. The name stuck, and today we know it as lacrosse. While it long remained a popular sport with northeastern Native Americans, today, Americans of all backgrounds enjoy playing the sport, which has a loyal following on both college and professional levels.
I watched my first lacrosse game about 10 years ago. While waiting for a college hockey game to start on TV, my wife and I caught the conclusion of a college lacrosse game. Impatient as I can be when it comes to my favorite sports, the lacrosse game ended regulation in a tie. So, overtime it was. Then more overtime. The game between Maryland and Virginia ended up being the longest in college history — seven overtimes. The top-ranked Cavaliers defeated No. 9 Maryland 10-9.
A funny thing happened: As we watched the game, hoping for it to end so we could watch hockey, I developed an interest in the sport.
History Of Lacrosse
Considered a gift from the Creator, stickball contests would involve hundreds, if not thousands, of players. While most people credit the Iroquois for inventing the sport, others believe the game was developed by the Cherokee in the southeastern United States. The sport was played across Turtle Island — the indigenous name for North America because of the shape of the land — with the Dakota and Ojibwe popularizing it on the plains.
Played in open areas, fields could be miles long, with trees and other natural landmarks serving as goals. Using sticks that players found comfortable to hold and flexible enough for action, players added nets at the end, often made from animal leather, to catch the ball. Balls were originally made from wood before transitioning to animals such as deerskin.
Games tested a player’s strengths and were key in a young boy’s transition into manhood. Tribes used games to help develop warriors for battle.
Rules were fairly simple. The ball would be tossed into the air to start play, and players scrambled to be the first to catch it. Players couldn’t touch the ball with their hands. There were no playing field boundaries and the field could run for miles. Contests could be played for days, but some tribes would play from sunrise to sunset.
Stickball contests served a variety of roles, such as healing. Games were part of ceremonial events involving the birth and naming of a child. They were also played to settle disputes or prepare for battle.
European Development Of Lacrosse
Though European fur traders had arrived at Turtle Island long before the pilgrims settled along the east coast in 1620, Europeans started arriving more frequently afterward. French missionaries were a common sight among tribal territory beginning in the 1600s.
They explored the area alongside guides, observing and seeking to convert Indigenous people to their religions. In 1630, Jean de Brebeuf, a French missionary, watched a game of stickball played by Iroquois in Canada. In a letter home, he mentioned the game, referring to it as crosse (French for stick). It eventually became known as lacrosse — the stick — as more people learned about the sport.
As Europeans settled in North America, people picked up playing the game, which was popular with the French. In 1856, more than 20 years after the first exhibition stickball game played by Indigenous tribes in Montreal, William George Beers formed the Montreal Lacrosse Club. As an original member of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, the team played a major role in establishing the first written rules of lacrosse (which didn’t include the first rule of Fight Club), such as a game’s time length, field size, and number of players. It also introduced the rubber ball, which continues to be used today.
Canadians fell in love with the sport. It became the national game for summer in the 1860s, and it remains one of the most popular sports in the country.
Three lacrosse teams participated in the 1904 St. Louis Summer Olympics. The Shamrock Lacrosse Team from Canada won the gold medal, while St. Louis’ Amateur Athletic Association squad received the silver medal. A second Canadian team — featuring all Mohawk tribal members — took the bronze medal. At the 1908 London Games, Canada defeated Great Britain for the gold medal, as they were the only countries to field teams for the summer Olympics.
Popularity Of Lacrosse
Lacrosse caught on with non-Indian Americans in 1867, where it was primarily played at private schools. The sport grew in popularity in the northeast, with high schools and even colleges playing the sport mainly in New York, Pennsylvania, and a couple more states.
Today, lacrosse is considered one of the fastest-growing sports across the United States. Roughly 750,000 Americans play the sport today. Reasons for its popularity are that players don’t have to be tall or have a large body to play, and it’s not a full-contact sport, creating a safer playing environment.
About 70 colleges play the sport, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. While primarily an East Coast sport with schools from Maine to Georgia fielding teams, the sport is played as far west as Colorado and Utah, where the University of Denver and University of Utah field teams. Each of the military academies play Division 1 lacrosse.
Syracuse has won the most national championships with 10, closely followed by Johns Hopkins with nine. Princeton and Virginia have each won six national titles. The University of North Carolina is fifth with five championships.
More than 120 colleges field women’s lacrosse teams. Maryland dominates the trophy case with 14 national championships. Northwestern has captured seven national titles.
Professional Lacrosse Leagues
One of the fastest-growing sports, the National Lacrosse League is the third most popular professional indoor sport behind the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League. The NLL has 14 teams, stretching from Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the east to San Diego in the west. The league — known as a box league because it plays indoors — averaged 8,035 fans per game during the 2019 season. Unlike other box leagues, the National Lacrosse League is a winter-spring sport, while others prefer to play during summer.
While there were two professional outdoor leagues at one time, the Major Lacrosse League and Premier Lacrosse League merged, with the new organization known as the Premier Lacrosse League. While the MLL was city-based, the eight-team Premier Lacrosse League will perform as a traveling organization, staging a series of exhibitions across North America, playing 43 games over 11 weekends from June to September.
Beginning with four teams in 1967, Canada celebrated its 100th season of lacrosse by hosting the first World Lacrosse Championship. The United States defeated Australia for the championship, while Great Britain joined Canada as the other teams participating in the tournament. Seven years later, Australia hosted the event, with the United States again winning the international championship. Since the 1974 competition, the World Lacrosse Championship has been played every four years. The United States has won 10 of the 13 WLC titles, while Canada has won the other three world championships. Almost 50 countries competed at the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships.
While the sport hasn’t been played at the Olympics since 1908, the International Olympic Committee has granted provisional recognition to the Federation of International Lacrosse, which is a major step in bringing the sport back to the Olympics. The FIL is targeting the 2028 Games as an opportunity to have lacrosse as an Olympic sport.
The 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, will feature an Iroquois lacrosse team. Recognizing the sovereignty of the Iroquois Nation, the World Games reconsidered its initial decision to exclude the North American team because it didn’t meet the IOC’s definition of a nation for competition.
Located on Cornwall Island on the Akwesasne (Mohawk) reservation along the New York-Canada border, Mohawk manufacturing companies have long played a role in manufacturing lacrosse sticks. Back in the days of wooden sticks, the Akwesasne Nation accounted for 97 percent of all of the lacrosse sticks used in North America. As Lacrosse moved to plastic sticks, Mohawk Lacrosse saw an opportunity to gain a foothold in the industry.
Learn about the Akwesasne citizens who have been named at the Akwesasne Lacrosse Hall of Fame at the A’nowara’ko:wa Arena, aka Turtle Dome. Photos and plaques honor the best players from the Akwesasne Nation.
A statue honoring Native American lacrosse players is located near La Crosse, Wisconsin. The sport has long been popular with Ojibwe and Ho Chunk (Winnebago) nations in the upper Midwest.
Difference Between Lacrosse And Field Hockey
People often confuse lacrosse and field hockey. While both sports use sticks and a ball, the style of play differs. Lacrosse players move the ball downfield by running with it in the stick’s net or throwing it to another player, who catches in the netting at the end of their stick. In field hockey, the ball — hockey ball — is pushed downfield on the surface by a player’s stick, similar to ice hockey.