Origin of Men’s Lacrosse

What began as stickball, a native American Indian contest played by tribal warriors for training, recreation and religious reasons, has developed over the years into the interscholastic, professional and international sport of lacrosse
—Edited by Jane Claydon

Origin and History of Lacrosse / 'Indian Ball Game' by George Catlin, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

“Indian Ball Game” by George Catlin
(courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Lacrosse was started by the Native American Indians and was originally known as stickball. The game was initially played in the St. Lawrence Valley area by the Algonquian tribe and they were followed by other tribes in the eastern half of North America, and around the western Great Lakes.

The Native American games were seen as major events, which took place over several days.They were played over huge open areas between villages and the goals, which might be trees or other natural features, were anything from 500 yards to several miles apart. Any number of players were involved. Some estimates have mentioned between 100 and 100,000 players participating in a game at any one time. The rules were very simple, the ball was not to be touched by a player’s hand and there were no boundaries. The ball was tossed into the air to indicate the start of the game and players raced to be the first to catch it.

Early Lacrosse Balls, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

Early Lacrosse Balls
(courtesy Smithsonian)

The original wooden balls were later replaced by deerskin balls filled with fur and the sticks developed over time to become more sophisticated implements, the netting made from deer sinews. In preparation for a game players used paint and charcoal to decorate their faces and bodies.

Origin and History of Lacrosse / 'Indian Lacrosse' courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

“Indian Lacrosse”
(courtesy Smithsonian)

Games of lacrosse were played for a number of reasons. It was considered a sport that toughened up young warriors for war but it was also a game played for recreation and for religious reasons. It was not unusual for bets to be placed on the outcome of games.

Origin and History of Lacrosse / Jean de Brébeuf

Jean de Brébeuf

French Jesuit missionaries working in the St. Lawrence Valley in the 1630s were the first Europeans to see lacrosse being played by the Native American Indians. One of them, Jean de Brébeuf, wrote about the game being played by the Huron Indians in 1636 and it was he who the named the game “lacrosse”.

A demonstration of lacrosse was given by the Caughnawaga Indians in Montreal in 1834.

Origin and History of Lacrosse / 19th Century Canadian Lacrosse

19th Century Canadian Lacrosse
(courtesy Smithsonian)

As a result, interest in the game of lacrosse began to develop in Canada. A Canadian dentist, Dr William George Beers, was responsible for founding the Montreal Lacrosse Club in 1856 and a decade later he drew up rules which included reducing the number of players, introducing a rubber ball and a redesigned stick.

By 1860 lacrosse had become Canada’s national game and in 1867 exhibition games were played in England. In 1876 Queen Victoria watched a game being played and remarked that “The game is very pretty to watch.”

In 1883 a touring team from Canada and and a team made up of Iroquois natives visited Scotland.

Origin and History of Lacrosse / 1904 Winnepeg Shamrocks Olympic gold medal-winning lacrosse team

1904 Winnepeg Shamrocks
Olympic gold medal-winning lacrosse team

During this tour promotional literature was distributed to the spectators pointing out the benefits of emigration to Canada.

By the turn of the century lacrosse was becoming more popular in several countries and in 1904 and 1908 lacrosse was played in the Summer Olympics.

Origin of Women’s Lacrosse

The first-ever recorded women’s lacrosse contest was played in Scotland
—By Jane Claydon

Origin and History of Lacrosse / 1890 St. Leonards Women's Lacrosse Team, courtesy St. Leonards Historical Archives

1890 St. Leonards Women’s Lacrosse Team
(courtesy St. Leonards Historical Archives)

St. Leonards School, in St Andrews, Scotland claims to be the first girls’ school to have played lacrosse in 1890. The first Headmistress, Miss Lumsden, watched a game played in Canada, in 1884, between the Canghuwaya Indians and the Montreal Club, in Montreal and thought it “beautiful and graceful.” As a result the game was introduced at the school.

A girl, writing in student magazine, reported details of the very first lacrosse match at St. Leonards on March 27th 1890: “After our crosses having undergone a severe inspection i.e. our referee holding them up one by one and squinting with one eye to see if that which ought to be plane surface was not a curved one. Our referee said it was time to begin, but, owing to the absence of the ball it was rather difficult for the order to be carried out. However, the ball was duly found & after ’123 Play’ had been called, a vigorous game began.”

An official account of this first game indicated: “Whether the game on the whole has proved successful may be doubted, but at least we advanced so far in its mysteries as to get a good and exciting game in the matches. They were played in the field with teams of eight, and they lasted one hour, not including a ten minutes’ interval in the middle, after which goals were changed.”

The number of players increased to ten in 1895 and by 1913 there were twelve players, known by the positions in use today. The players used long sticks with short handles.

Date Players Positions and Notations
1890 8 No record.
1895 10 4 forwards, 4 backs, centre and goals. (The word “goals” was used at this time.)
1901 10 Full forward, second home, right attack, left attack, centre, right defence, left defence, cover point, full back and goals.
1907 10 As above but use of the term “goals” was replaced by the word goalkeeper.
1912 10 First home and cover point were added.
1913 12 As above with the addition of third home and third man.

Origin and History of Lacrosse / Lacrosse Players circa 1900, courtesy St. Leonards

Seniors (alumni) of St Leonards introduced lacrosse to schools in the south of England, specifically Wycombe Abbey School in 1896 and Roedean School in 1902.

Bedford Physical Training College and Madame Bergman Österberg’s College of Physical Education in England added lacrosse to their programs in 1903/04 with the help of some of their students who had played at school. Trained teachers then introduced the game into their schools.

Origin and History of Lacrosse / Lacrosse Players circa 1909, courtesy St. Leonards

Initially lacrosse was a school based game and clubs followed later. The first club to be founded was the Southern Ladies Club in England in 1905.

The Ladies Lacrosse Association was founded in England in 1912 and international matches began in the following year. The “Standard” newspaper, dated April 18th 1913, stated that “in the very first international lacrosse match, held at Richmond, Scotland beat Wales 11 goals to 2.”

Origin and History of Lacrosse / Team at Wycombe 1919, courtesy St. Leonards

The Scottish Ladies Lacrosse Association was founded in 1920 and at that stage international matches with England were placed on an official footing. Wales and then Ireland founded their organisations in 1930.

Rosabelle Sinclair, an alumnus of St Leonards and a former Scottish lacrosse player, was instrumental in establishing the game of lacrosse for women in the United States.

Origin and History of Lacrosse / Team Scotland 1926, courtesy St. Leonards

Despite earlier attempts by other enthusiasts, it was not until Rosabelle started a girls’ high school team in 1926, at Bryn Mawr School, in Baltimore, that lacrosse became popular in other nearby schools. The United States formed their organisation, the USWLA, in 1931.

Lacrosse was played by women in Victoria, Australia, in 1936 but it was not until 1962 that they founded their national organisation, the Australian Women’s Lacrosse Council. Canada selected an international team in 1982 to take part in the first World Lacrosse Tournament which took place in Nottingham, England.

International Lacrosse Historical Timeline

1636 – Jesuit Missionary Jean de Brebeuf is the first to document the game of lacrosse.

1794 – A match between the Seneca and Mohawks results in the creating of basic rules.

1834 – Caughnawaga Indians demonstrate the sport in Montreal. The game is reported by the newspaper and, for the first time, white men are interested in the sport.

1867 – Dr. William George Beers, the father of modern lacrosse, finalizes the first set of playing rules for the Montreal Club.

1876 – Queen Victoria watched and “endorses” a lacrosse game in Windsor, England. New York University is the first college in the United States to establish a lacrosse team.

1881 – The first intercollegiate tournament is held at Westchester Polo Grounds in New York.

1890 – The first women’s lacrosse game is played at St. Leonard’s School in St. Andrew’s, Scotland.

1904 – Lacrosse is first played as an actual event in the Olympics in St. Louis, with Canada winning the gold medal.

1908 – Lacrosse is played for the last time as an actual Olympic event in London, and Canada again wins the gold medal.

1913 – Women’s lacrosse expands team size from ten (10) to current level of twelve (12) players.

1926 – Rosabelle Sinclair reestablishes women’s lacrosse in the United States when she starts a team at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore.

1937 – Robert Pool introduces the first double-walled wooden stick, an early prototype for today’s plastic sticks.

1947 – The men’s ten (10) field game positions change from goalkeeper, point, cover point, first defense, second defense, center, second attack, first attack and in home to goal keeper, attack, midfield and defense.

1967 – The initial men’s lacrosse world tournament was played in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It was a four-team invitational tournament that coincided with Canada’s centennial lacrosse celebration in 1967. The Mt. Washington (Md.) Lacrosse Club represented the United States and won the tournament.

1971 – The International Federation of Women’s Lacrosse Association (IFWLA) is founded.

1974 – The International Lacrosse Federation (ILF) was founded for men’s international lacrosse.

1982 – The first IFWLA World Cup is played in Nottingham, England and won by the United States, which defeated Australia 10-7 in Extra Time in the gold medal game.

1988 – The International Lacrosse Federation (ILF) sanctioned the first ever Under-19 World Championship in Adelaide, Australia. The United States defeated Canada 12-5 in that first ILF U-19 World Championship.

1995 – The first Women’s Under-19 World Championship is played in Adelaide, Australia. The Australian women win gold in the inaugural event over the United States, 5-4.

2003 – Canada defeated the Iroquois Nationals 21-4 in the first World Indoor Lacrosse Championship. The event is hosted by Canada and held in Hamilton, Kitchener, Mississauga and Oshawa, Ontario.

2008 – The Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) is formed through a merger of the men’s (ILF) and women’s (IFWLA) international lacrosse associations. It’s mission is to spread the game of lacrosse throughout the world with its men’s and women’s unified vision focused on lacrosse once again becoming an Olympic sport.

Complete results of men’s and women’s world championships can be found at:
World Event History & Results

Origin & History of Lacrosse References and Additional Resources

Historical information provided by St. Leonards: The Cradle of Lacrosse by Jane Claydon, 2009, and edited by FIL. For additional information about the history of the women’s game see:
http://www.st-leonards.org/Index.asp?MainID=4382

Lacrosse historical timeline information supplied by US Lacrosse and edited by FIL. Visit US Lacrosse at: http://www.uslacrosse.org

There are many useful websites which can be found via Google that provide details about the origins of lacrosse. For example:
http://www.lacrosse.ca
http://www.hickoksports.com/history/lacrosse.shtml
http://www.e-lacrosse.com/laxhist.htm

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