The Early History of Lacrosse

April 19th, 2024

By John Marks, Curator of Collections

The history of the area we call Geneva began thousands of years ago with Native people. The Haudenosaunee Nations – Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk – came here hundreds of years ago. Besides place names, their influence is still seen around here. One example is lacrosse.

Early lacrosse equipment

Early lacrosse sticks, left, and crozier

In promoting an upcoming program, I’ve mentioned that I’ll talk about lacrosse from the Haudenosaunee to modern youth leagues. At least twice I’ve heard, “What you do mean, Haudenosaunee?” One person thought the British invented it.  Clearly, I have some work to do.

Lacrosse was played across North America before European contact. Each nation had a name for lacrosse in their language. Most of them translate to “little war” or “they bump hips.” The Haudenosaunee called it Tewaarathon. French settlers in Canada thought the stick looked like a bishop’s crozier, or “croisse”, hence lacrosse.

North American Native Americans believe all things, including games, are gifts from the Creator. Lacrosse was played for a variety of reasons. One was to entertain the Creator and show appreciation for the gift. In times of sickness, the game was played to add power to medicine and ask the Creator for healing. Lacrosse was also used to resolve disputes between nations. The winner of the game, and the dispute, was accepted to be the Creator’s decision.

Ppainting Natives playing lacrosseTewaarathon was a mass game, sometimes with 100 players on each side. Accordingly, the field could be any length and width. The early goal was a pole that had to be hit by the ball. A basic strategy was to crowd one’s team in front of the goal to keep the opponent from scoring. There was no time limit; the first team to score three goals won.

In the 1700s, European settlers in Canada began watching Native teams play lacrosse. In 1834, some Montreal businessmen arranged an exhibition game between two reservations. It marked the beginning of Europeans learning the game and playing competitively. Rules and equipment evolved as lacrosse became less spiritual and more sport.

In 1860, Canadian dentist Dr. W. George Beers began writing standardized rules of play. Up to this point, teams observed the Native tradition of deciding rules before each game. His rules included the size of the goal and crease, 12 players to a side, and the depth of the stick’s pocket. By 1867, there were 80 lacrosse clubs in Canada. Beers pushed for Parliament to recognize lacrosse as the official field game of Canada.

Note: My source is a 1978 book, Tewaarathon (Lacrosse) Akwesasne’s Story of Our National Game, written by the North American Indian Travelling College. While the early history is Haudenosaunee and Mohawk, the modern perspective is Canadian. I’m sure there are other histories and perspectives.

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2 responses to “The Early History of Lacrosse”

  1. Charlie says:

    Great information on the history of lacrosse. Sorry I missed the program at Lake Drum

  2. Inga-Mai (Pim) Larsson-Kovach says:

    Thanks, John. Very informative. I knew lacrosse was a Native American game but didn’t know about the Canadian background and that the name lacrosse came from the word crozier.

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