Whether you’re a player or a fan of sports, it’s very easy to get caught up in what’s happening right now – the next game, the current season, the state of the league. But it can be equally interesting to look back over the history of your chosen sport and learn more about how the game you love was first played, and how it has developed over the years.
For some sports it’s easy. Dr. James Naismith invented basketball in 1891. Football developed from a rugby-like game in the 19th century. Ultimate Frisbee only dates back to 1968! But no modern sports come close to lacrosse in terms of the history and tradition behind the game.
Where it all started
Lacrosse has been around so long that we can’t even put a date on when it was first invented, let alone know the name of the person responsible. We know, though, it wasn’t borrowed or developed from overseas, as we learn from documentaries such as Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter’s “What Lacrosse Means to the Iroquois Nation.” In that sense, it’s maybe the only truly North American sport still played today.
The history of lacrosse intertwines with the history of North America itself, first played by the native people of the continent, and then admired and later adopted by early settlers. As cities and towns grew, so did the number of teams, and soon, amateur and professional leagues were formed, bringing the game closer to what we know today.
Of course, over that time, a lot has changed. Rules have been updated and adapted, different techniques and strategies have emerged, and new designs for playing fields, lacrosse uniforms, and training equipment such as the lacrosse rebounder have been developed. If you were to travel back in time to the early days of lacrosse and play an exhibition match, it’s doubtful whether the audience would even recognize it as the same sport!
But over the history of the game, these changes have usually been gradual, making progress one step at a time. To fully understand where the modern sport originated, we need to go back in time around 4,000 years, to the earliest reported lacrosse games.
The early days of lacrosse
As far as we know, the original lacrosse games, as played by indigenous Americans of the period, were mainly training sessions for the warriors within tribes (which often included all the young men). Playing lacrosse allowed them to keep in shape between battles, develop hand-eye coordination, teamwork, speed, and endurance – all qualities which are vital to a soldier.
These games took place on a much larger scale than modern lacrosse, with play ranging across the entire open space between one tribe or village and their opponents, and hundreds or even thousands of players joining in. Games might go on for days at a time, much more like a battle than a sport. There were no written rules for much of lacrosse’s history. Instead, the exact style of play and techniques varied between the different groups and tribes.
The first written lacrosse rules
It wasn’t until the 1600s that European settlers started to take an interest in the game. At first, they treated it solely as a curious spectacle, but over time, became intrigued enough to join in and play. The first recorded rules of lacrosse were developed and written down by one of these early settlers, a French missionary from the Jesuit order who went by the name of Jean BreBreuf.
His first experience of lacrosse is reported to be a game played by the Huron tribe, which fascinated him. Noticing how the players on either team would dodge and weave across the playing areas, crossing and recrossing each other’s paths, he named the game in his own language, calling it La Crosse (French for “The Cross”) which later developed into the single word name which persists to this day.
The sport evolves and spreads
With the initial set of rules developed by BreBeuf, many more Europeans began playing lacrosse. Over the next two hundred years, the game grew immensely in popularity among the new arrivals to the continent, spreading as far as Montreal to the north, and throughout settlements down the East Coast.
The rules were further refined and developed, and the playing area confined to a marked outfield, with limits on the number of players per team. By the 1800s the Garibaldi shirt was all the rage for men and lacrosse leagues had been founded, and a more professional style of play was introduced, with set game times and standardized equipment.
The modern era of lacrosse
By the twentieth century, lacrosse was incredibly popular within high schools and colleges across Canada and the United States, with regular competitions. During this century, the first modern professional leagues were established, the descendants of which still exist today.
The latter part of the century also saw the development of new equipment such as lacrosse sticks, nets, protective armor, and training gear. Made from modern materials such as plastics, nylon, aluminum, and carbon fiber, they increased the game’s pace. New advice on diet, nutrition, and fitness meant that players became stronger and faster, adding to the game’s physical qualities.
By the twenty-first century, lacrosse was being enjoyed by children, women and men alike, each with their own version of the game, with its own rules. Lacrosse is a global sport, but its history is apparent in the international rankings, with Canada, Iroquois, and the United States ranking in the top teams worldwide, alongside relative newcomers such as Australia, England, and Japan.
Of course, history never pauses. As familiar as the game of lacrosse is today, who knows how it will develop over the next hundred, two hundred, or even four thousand years?
For now, perhaps you can enjoy your next lacrosse game a little better, knowing something of the cultural and historical elements that have made it one of the world’s most fast-paced, exciting, and popular sports.