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The History of Lacrosse

By Thomas Vennum, Jr.

Author of American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War

Lacrosse was one of many varieties of indigenous stickball games being played by American Indians at the time of European contact. Almost exclusively a male team sport, it is distinguished from the others, such as field hockey or shinny, by the use of a netted racquet with which to pick the ball off the ground, throw, catch and convey it into or past a goal to score a point. The cardinal rule in all varieties of lacrosse was that the ball, with few exceptions, must not be touched with the hands.

Early data on lacrosse, from missionaries such as French Jesuits in Huron country in the 1630s and English explorers, such as Jonathan Carver in the mid-eighteenth century Great Lakes area, are scant and often conflicting. They inform us mostly about team size, equipment used, the duration of games and length of playing fields but tell us almost nothing about stickhandling, game strategy, or the rules of play. The oldest surviving sticks date only from the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and the first detailed reports on Indian lacrosse are even later. George Beers provided good information on Mohawk playing techniques in his Lacrosse (1869), while James Mooney in the American Anthropologist (1890) described in detail the "[Eastern] Cherokee Ball-Play," including its legendary basis, elaborate rituals, and the rules and manner of play.

Given the paucity of early data, we shall probably never be able to reconstruct the history of the sport. Attempts to connect it to the rubber-ball games of Meso-America or to a perhaps older game using a single post surmounted by some animal effigy and played together by men and women remain speculative. As can best be determined, the distribution of lacrosse shows it to have been played throughout the eastern half of North America, mostly by tribes in the southeast, around the western Great Lakes, and in the St. Lawrence Valley area. Its presence today in Oklahoma and other states west of the Mississippi reflects tribal removals to those areas in the nineteenth century. Although isolated reports exist of some form of lacrosse among northern California and British Columbia tribes, their late date brings into question any widespread diffusion of the sport on the west coast.

On the basis of the equipment, the type of goal used and the stick-handling techniques, it is possible to discern three basic forms of lacrosse—the southeastern, Great Lakes, and Iroquoian. Among southeastern tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, Yuchi and others), a double-stick version of the game is still practiced. A two-and-a half foot stick is held in each hand, and the soft, small deerskin ball is retrieved and cupped between them. Great Lakes players (Ojibwe, Menominee, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Miami, Winnebago, Santee Dakota and others) used a single three-foot stick. It terminates in a round, closed pocket about three to four inches in diameter, scarcely larger than the ball, which was usually made of wood, charred and scraped to shape. The northeastern stick, found among Iroquoian and New England tribes, is the progenitor of all present-day sticks, both in box as well as field lacrosse. The longest of the three—usually more than three feet—it was characterized by its shaft ending in a sort of crook and a large, flat triangular surface of webbing extending as much as two-thirds the length of the stick. Where the outermost string meets the shaft, it forms the pocket of the stick.

Lacrosse was given its name by early French settlers, using the generic term for any game played with a curved stick (crosse) and a ball. Native terminology, however, tends to describe more the technique (cf. Onondaga DEHUNTSHIGWA'ES, "men hit a rounded object") or, especially in the southeast, to underscore the game's aspects of war surrogacy ("little brother of war"). There is no evidence of non-Indians taking up the game until the mid-nineteenth century, when English-speaking Montrealers adopted the Mohawk game they were familiar with from Caughnawauga and Akwesasne, attempted to "civilize" the sport with a new set of rules and organize into amateur clubs. 

Once the game quickly grew in popularity in Canada, it began to be exported throughout the Commonwealth, as non-Native teams traveled to Europe for exhibition matches against Iroquois players. Ironically, because Indians had to charge money in order to travel, they were excluded as "professionals" from international competition for more than a century. Only with the formation of the Iroquois Nationals in the 1980s did they successfully break this barrier and become eligible to compete in World Games.

Apart from its recreational function, lacrosse traditionally played a more serious role in Indian culture. Its origins are rooted in legend, and the game continues to be used for curative purposes and surrounded with ceremony. Game equipment and players are still ritually prepared by conjurers, and team selection and victory are often considered supernaturally controlled. In the past, lacrosse also served to vent aggression, and territorial disputes between tribes were sometimes settled with a game, although not always amicably. A Creek versus Choctaw game around 1790 to determine rights over a beaver pond broke out into a violent battle when the Creeks were declared winners. Still, while the majority of the games ended peaceably, much of the ceremonialism surrounding their preparations and the rituals required of the players were identical to those practiced before departing on the warpath.

A number of factors led to the demise of lacrosse in many areas by the late nineteenth century. Wagering on games had always been integral to an Indian community's involvement, but when betting and violence saw an increase as traditional Indian culture was eroding, it sparked opposition to lacrosse from government officials and missionaries. The games were felt to interfere with church attendance and the wagering to have an impoverishing effect on the Indians. When Oklahoma Choctaw began to attach lead weights to their sticks around 1900 to use them as skull-crackers, the game was outright banned.

Meanwhile, the spread of non-Native lacrosse from the Montreal area eventually led to its position today worldwide as one of the fastest growing sports (more than half a million players), controlled by official regulations and played with manufactured rather than hand-made equipment—the aluminum shafted stick with its plastic head, for example. While the Great Lakes traditional game died out by 1950, the Iroquois and southeastern tribes continue to play their own forms of lacrosse. Ironically, the field lacrosse game of non-Native women today most closely resembles the Indian game of the past, retaining the wooden stick, lacking the protective gear and demarcated sidelines of the men's game, and tending towards mass attack rather than field positions and offsides.


Culin, Stewart. "Games of the North American Indians." In Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1902-1903, pp. 1-840. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1907.

Fogelson, Raymond. "The Cherokee Ball Game: A Study in Southeastern Ethnology." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1962.

Vennum, Thomas Jr. American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War. Washington, DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Key Dates in Lacrosse History & Development

1636 - After seeing the Huron Indians play lacrosse as a medicinal rite near Thunder Bay, Ontario, Jean De Brebuef, a Jesuit missionary, is the first to document the game.

1794 - During a friendly match between the Senecas of New York and the Mohawks of Ontario at Grand River, a Mohawk player strikes and injures as Seneca player with his stick. This match begins to shape the rules for lacrosse. After a meeting of the Council of Chiefs, the Senecas and Mohawks agree to a rematch to be played three years later.

1834 - Indians from the village of Caughnawaga demonstrate their sport for some Montreal gentlemen. The game is reported by the newspapers and for the first time “white men” are interested in playing the game.

1856 - Montreal Lacrosse Club is the first organized Canadian team to play under its own rules and with its own sticks.

1867 - As the number of Canadian teams increases, Dr. William George Beers, finalizes a uniform code of playing rules. Two years later in 1869, he publishes the first book about the sport of lacrosse, entitled "LaCrosse: The National Game of Canada."

1877 - New York University is the first college in the United States to establish a lacrosse team.

1879 - John R. Flannery, the father of American lacrosse, establishes the United States national Amateur Lacrosse Association. Nine club teams from New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, including Harvard University and New York University, are part of the association.

1881 - The first intercollegiate tournament is held at the Westchester Polo Grounds in New York. In the final, Harvard beats Princeton, 3-0.

1890 - The first women’s lacrosse game is played by students at St. Leonard’s School in St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Each team has eight players, and the match lasts for one hour with a ten-minute intermission.

1898 - Two players at Johns Hopkins University, William H. Maddren and Robert T. Abercrombie, introduce the short passing game by developing a shorter stick. Hopkins also adopts a primitive form of goal by attaching a tennis net to the goal post, an idea originated by Rossiter Scott of Stevens Tech.

1904 - Lacrosse is first played as an Olympic sport. Canada defeats the St. Louis AAA team, representing the USA, for the championship.

1905 - The United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse League is formed. A committee of Laurie D. Cox, William C. Schmeisser, and Charles Lattig create a code of operations for the sport and divide the colleges into north and south divisions.

1908 - Lacrosse is played in the London Olympics, and England loses to Canada. Johns Hopkins Univ. was to represent the United States, but does not make the trip. Lacrosse was dropped as an Olympic sport after 1908.

1921 - The offsides rule is instituted, requiring each team to keep at least three men in each half of the field, not including the goalkeeper.

1922 - Dr. Laurie Cox introduces the annual selection process for a college All-American lacrosse team, an honor which continues today.

1926 - Rosabelle Sinclair from the St. Leonard’s School in Scotland establishes the first women’s lacrosse program in the United States at Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore.

1928 - Johns Hopkins Univ represents the United States in exhibition games at the Amsterdam Olympics. The U.S. is declared champion in round robin play against Canada and England.

1931 - The United States Women’s Lacrosse Association (USWLA) is formed as the rule making body for women’s lacrosse. Joyce Cran Barry becomes the first president of the organization.

1932 - Lacrosse is played as an exhibition sport in the Los Angeles Olympics. More than 80,000 people at the Los Angeles Coliseum, who are waiting for the marathon to finish, also watch Johns Hopkins defeat Canada.

1933 - The USWLA holds its first women’s national tournament in Greenwich, Conn. Baltimore defeats Philadelphia, 5-1, in the championship game. The organization also chooses its first U.S. Women’s National Team.

1935 - The first U.S. Women’s Touring Team travels to England. During this trip the U.S. Team doesn’t win a game.

1940 - Men’s field boundaries are changed to present day standards – 80 yards between the goals with 15 yards of clear space behind each goal.

1959 - The Lacrosse Foundation is incorporated as the sport’s national development center and archives. The key leaders are Claxton “Okey” O’Connor, William “Dinty” Moore, Caleb Kelly, and Gaylord “Peck” Auer.

1966 - The Lacrosse Foundation establishes its first national office at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

1971 - Men’s college lacrosse allies itself with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and Cornell University becomes the first NCAA men’s champion, defeating the Univ of Maryland, 12-6, in the championship game.

1972 - The International Federation of Women’s Lacrosse Associations (IFWLA) is founded. The first formal meeting is held in London, England; seven countries attend.

1974 - As a result of the success of the 1967 international tournament in Canada, the International Lacrosse Federation (ILF) is founded and hosts its first official Men’s World Championship in Melbourne, Australia.

1978 - Lacrosse Magazine is first published by the Lacrosse Foundation and becomes the sport’s first magazine showcasing men’s and women’s lacrosse.

1982 - The United States defeats Australia, 10-7, to capture the first International Federation of Women’s Lacrosse Association World Cup in Nottingham, England.

1982 - The first NCAA women’s championship is played. The University of Massachusetts defeats Trenton State, 9-6.

1987 - Men's professional indoor lacrosse returns with the launch of the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League. The league becomes the Major Indoor Lacrosse League in 1988 and the National Lacrosse League in 1997.

1988 - The first International Lacrosse Federation U19 World Championship is held and the United States men defeat Canada to win gold in Adelaide, Australia.

1990 - The Iroquois Nationals compete for the first time in the International Lacrosse Federation Men's World Championship, placing fifth.

1995 - Australia wins the inaugural International Federation of Women's Lacrosse Associations U19 World Championship, defeating the host United States in Haverford, Pa.

1998 - US Lacrosse is founded by the merger of eight national organizations, becoming the unified national governing body for lacrosse.

2000 - Major League Lacrosse, a men's professional outdoor league, launches with a Summer Showcase and begins regular play the following year.

2003 - The first World Indoor Lacrosse Championship is held and host Canada defeats the Iroquois Nationals to win gold in Ontario.

2008 - The International Lacrosse Federation and the International Federation of Women's Lacrosse Associations merge to form the Federation of International Lacrosse.

2016 - US Lacrosse moves to a new headquarters in Sparks, Md. The 12-acre complex includes a three-story administrative center, the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum, and Tierney Field, which serves as the training center for the U.S. national team program. 

2016 - The United Women's Lacrosse League (UWLX), the first women's professional lacrosse league, begins play. Future opportunities follow with the Women's Professional Lacrosse League in 2018 and Athletes Unlimited in 2021.

2017 - Lacrosse is included in The World Games, the multi-sport, Olympic-style event of the International World Games Association, for the first time. The United States women beat Canada in Poland to claim the championship.

2019 - The Federation of International Lacrosse adopts World Lacrosse as its new name. The May announcement comes less than six months after the organization received provisional recognition from the International Olympic Committee.

2019 - A new men's professional league, the Premier Lacrosse League, begins play with a tour-based model and merges with the MLL for the 2021 season.

2021 - US Lacrosse rebrands itself as USA Lacrosse, bringing alignment to the organization's efforts at the grassroots level and the elite national team program.