Lacrosse: A Brief History of the Game by Jim Calder

Lacrosse: A Brief History of the Game

The traditional medicine stick-ball games of the indigenous people are known as the Creator’s Game. More ritual than organized sport , these games go back to the very beginning of the oral tradition of nations such as the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Sioux, Cherokee, Huron-Wendat, Choctaw, Seminole, etc.

Games sometimes featured thousands of warriors divided into two teams playing on natural fields stretching for 3 miles. These games would be played until an agreed upon number of goals was reached, sometimes lasting for three days – only resting at nightfall.

To an uninformed observer these games appeared chaotic  and violent. It was sometimes called “Little Brother of War” by non-native observers. The truth of the matter is that it is and was a Medicine Game, with an emphasis on healing.

A game might be played to heal someone, or perhaps as a peaceful way to determine the rights to hunting grounds, rather than fighting over them.  They were always playing for the entertainment of the Creator and the Creator would decide who should win the disagreement.

Sometimes the entire Iroquois Confederacy would organize a Clan Game between, for instance, Turtle and Wolf Clan members from Montreal to Buffalo. Mohawk and Seneca Wolf Clan members could play for the same team against Turtle Clan Oneida and Cayuga warriors. This helped cement the ties between the six different Iroquois Nations – a benefit as they were being pulled apart by non-native based influences.

The beginning of change came in the early 1600’s. Europeans began to take notice of this phenomenon. The first ever written mention of the game was in 1637 by Brebeuf, the Jesuit Priest, in Midland, Ontario. He included information in the journals that he would send back to France on the Huron (Wendat) version of the medicine game.

There would be other written reports. In 1797, a Seneca-Mohawk contest featuring 1,200 players was recorded.  In 1834 , the first ever game to be played in an urban setting took place in Montreal at the Ville St. Pierre racetrack using 8 or so players per side from Akwasasne and Kahnawake.

Montreal would become the place where the new organized sport would be formed. Early versions of the Montreal and Shamrocks Lacrosse Clubs started appearing – the Beaver Lacrosse Club and the Hochelaga Club. Loose rules were coming together. A young George Beers learned from the Kahnawke Mohawk and played in a demonstration for the Prince of Wales in 1860 using the rues he was developing.

Beers would become a Dentist and a Canadian Nationalist who wanted Lacrosse to be the Canadian national sport, rather than have other sports from Great Britain thrust upon the fledgling Dominion.

By 1867, the year Canada was founded, Beers rules were adopted and a formal sport Governing Body was formed called the National Lacrosse Association – now the Canadian Lacrosse Association. A first trip to Great Britain featuring the Montreal Lacrosse Club and the Kahnawake and Akwesane Mohawk was organized. Beer s would organize two more in 1876 and 1883, and he game would spread through the British Empire to places like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

In 1867 the game would start to spread into the US as well. The first recorded game in the United States took place in Saratoga Springs , New York on August 7, 1867. Later that year the first non-indigenous club was formed in Troy,  New York. The first ever international game between the US and Canada took place in Ogdensburg, NY in 1868. There was a demonstration in New York City by the Blackfeet and the Mohawk in 1869.

A former player from the Montreal  Shamrocks , John Flannery , would become the “Father of US Lacrosse” when he moved down to the Boston area in the mid-1870’s. Flannery was responsible for growing the game in the Boston, New York and Baltimore areas by the late 1870’s.

US Universities took up lacrosse. New York University, Manhattan College, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and Lehigh were schools that were playing by the early 1880s. Hobart College would join in 1898 and the US Intercollegiate Lacrosse League was formed with 12 inaugural members.

The game boomed in Canada with large crowds into the tens of thousands seeing semi-pro games from Montreal to Vancouver. By the 1920’s the game was surpassed by baseball, and was in trouble in Canada because it wasn’t carried in the universities.

A resurgence occurred when hockey promoters moved the game inside to create summer business in 1932 and box lacrosse was born. Early pro box leagues formed in the 1960’s and 70’s in the US and Canada. These would lead to the NLL of today.

Perhaps the most significant historical technological moment occurred in 1972 when the plastic-headed stick was introduced. This lead to mass production that the wooden stickmakers couldn’t keep up with and the availability led to the tremendous international growth of the game. There were 4 countries playing in 1974 at the World Championships, and now over 60 countries are playing the game.

The reality of a modern Olympic status is certainly only a decade or so away! Although lacrosse has become a modern sport, its root is still medicine and that is what draws millions to play and watch it every year.

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