Lacrosse is considered the oldest North American sport. Rooted in Native American religion, lacrosse was often played to resolve conflicts, heal the sick, and develop strong, virile men. To Native Americans, lacrosse is still referred to as “The Creator’s Game”. Among Native Americans such as the Cherokees or the Six Nations of the Iroquois there were many versions of what is not known as lacrosse. The Cherokees called the sport “the little brother of war” because it was considered excellent military training. A team consisted of hundreds, even thousands, of players, often an entire village or tribe, the goals were often miles apart, and a game might last as long as three days. Since most players couldn’t get anywhere near the ball, they concentrated on using the stick to injure opponents. Some tribes used a single pole, tree or rock for a goal, while other tribes had two goalposts through which the ball had to bass. Balls were made out of wood, deerskin, baked clay or stone.
The Six Nations of the Iroquois, in what is now southern Ontario and upstate New York, called their version of the game “baggataway” or “tewaraathon”. It was much more organized than in most areas of the country. There were 12 to 15 players per team, and the goals were about 120 feet apart. Players in some tribes used two sticks, one in each hand. Women and men sometimes competed together on the same teams, but women had their own form of the sport in some areas.
According to most accounts, the first Europeans to see baggataway being played were French explorers who thought the stick resembled a bishop’s croisier–la crosse, in French–so the sport was given a new name. However, the French played a form of field hockey that was called “jeu de la crosse”, and that’s a much more likely origin of the name. The evolution of the Native American game into modern lacrosse began in 1636 when Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary, documented a Huron contest in what is now southeast Ontario, Canada. At that time, some type of lacrosse was played by at least 48 Native American tribes scattered throughout what is now southern Canada and all parts of the United States. French pioneers began playing the game avidly in the 1800s.
Early in the 19th century, Europeans in Canada began playing the game. Montreal’s Olympic Club organized a team in 1844, specifically to play a match against a Native American team. Similar games were played in 1848 and 1851.
However, the first step toward turning lacrosse into a genuinely organized, modern sport came when the Montreal Lacrosse Club (MLC), founded in 1856, developed the first written rules. The dentist George Beers of the MLC rewrote the rules thoroughly in 1867. His rules called for 12 players per team, and named the positions: Goal, point, cover point, first defense, second defense, third defense, center, third attack, second attack, first attack, out home, and in home. Beers, who is now known as ” the father of lacrosse,” also replaced the hair-stuffed deerskin ball with a hard rubber ball and designed a stick that was better suited to catching the ball and throwing it accurately. Canada’s National Lacrosse Association, which was also established in 1867, quickly adopted the new rules. The same year, a team made up of Caughnawaga Indians went to England and played a match for Queen Victoria. The sport became quite popular in Bristol, Cheshire, Lancashire, London, Manchester, and Yorkshire, and the English Lacrosse Union was organized in 1892.
The first women’s lacrosse game was played in 1890 at the St. Leonard’s School in Scotland. Although an attempt was made to start women’s lacrosse at Sweet Briar College in Virginia in 1914, it was not until 1926 that Miss Rosabelle Sinclair established the first women’s lacrosse team in the United States at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, Maryland. Although lacrosse didn’t become very popular as a men’s sport in England, it was adapted for women’s play during the 1890s, mainly because it was seen as the ideal spring sport for women who played field hockey during the fall. While men’s lacrosse is very similar to ice hockey in many respects, women’s lacrosse was patterned after field hockey, in which body contact is strictly forbidden. Constance M. K. Applebee of England introduced field hockey to American women in 1901 and she remained in this country as a physical educator, teaching the sport at several schools and at a summer camp that she established in 1922. She was also active in establishing lacrosse as a women’s sport in this country. The U. S. Women’s Lacrosse Association was founded at her camp in the summer of 1931. The USWLA governed the sport on the collegiate and club levels until 1981, when the NCAA inaugurated its national championship tournament for women.
Lacrosse was an Olympic sport in 1904 at St. Louis and in 1908 at London. Only three countries, Canada, England, and the United States, were represented and Canada won both gold medals. Lacrosse was a demonstration sport at the Olympics in 1928, 1932, and 1948, an exhibition tournament was held at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1980, and it was an official demonstration sport in the Commonwealth Games in 1978 in Edmonton and in 1994 in Victoria.
The International Lacrosse Federation (ILF) has conducted a men’s world championship tournament since 1967. The women’s world championship, inaugurated in 1969, was replaced in 1982 by the World Cup tournament for women. The reigning champion is the team from the United States which won the World Games in 2002 in Perth against Canada.
Today, the game of lacrosse is played in a continuously growing number of countries across the globe. On these pages the focus is on lacrosse in Europe but the game of lacrosse is also growing rapidly in various other countries, e.g. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Canada, USA, Argentina etc.
In the spring of 2005 Sports Illustrated ran a 10 page article featuring lacrosse and how the sport is currently the fastest growing sport in North America for both men and women and in all age groups.