This page is part of the Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States by John E. Harmon

Lacrosse is really three games - men's, women's and box or indoor. The outdoor games are played with 10 positions on a side; the object is to place a 5 oz. rubber ball into your opponent's net with a long-handled stick with a triangular pocket at the end while keeping your opponent from doing the same thing. The men's game is the oldest and, though there has been one claim that the game was a modification of soule, played in the Ardennes region of France and brought to Canada by French colonists (Culin 1907, 563), all other historians of the game accept that it was originally an Indian game of North America.


Origins and Diffusion

The Indian Ball Game

There is dispute about exactly where within the mix of native cultures the men's game orginated. It was known by the majority of tribes east of the Mississippi, several tribes in the Missouri drainage and as far west as the Pomo area of California and into western Canada (McCluney 1974).

McCluney (1974) makes a strong case for an origin within the Southeast culture area and migration up the Mississippi to the Northeast Woodlands area. The game originally described in the Southeast was played with two small sticks, one in each hand, and the sticks became larger and the game moved to a single stick as it shifted North. Although some historical descriptions (Anon. no date; Wulff 1977) say that Jesuit missionaries first saw the game in the 17th century in the north, McCluney (1974) claims the first European description of the game came in 1540 and in 1562 Rene Laudonniere described lacrosse in a tribe of the Muskogee of Georgia. Others think that the game came out of the Iroquois Confederacy and there are several tribes that claim to be the originators. Currently among native Americans the game is strongest in the tribes of the Six Nation Iroquois confederacy, most of whom live on reservations in up-state New York and southeastern Canada (Lipsyte 1987).

Whether it was originally a northeastern or southeastern game, there were significant differences. The Southeastern version was more influenced by religious observances than the spectator-oriented, competitive game in the Northeast and southern fields tended to be fixed while the northern were less formal. (McCluney 1974). But wherever it originated, lacrosse is stronger now in the Northern region and is an important element of sport and culture still for Native Americans there.

There is no confusion about the origin of the name - the early French observers were struck by the similarities between the sticks and a bishop's crozier often called a crosse. The French actually used the name la crosse for all games in France played with a curved stick and a ball so the extension to the Indian ball game is obvious (Weyand and Roberts 1965).

The Modern Game

Europeans regarded the Indian games with amusement more than interest and it was not until 1834 that people from Montreal arranged a demonstration at the St. Pierre race course which was covered very favorably by the Montreal Gazette. The game grew in popularity in Montreal over the next 30 years with the formation of several lacrosse clubs in the region. There was very rapid growth in 1867 during the year of Canadian Federation when the number of clubs grew from six to eighty, the first college team played lacrosse, there was a boom in Toronto, a uniform code of playing rules was adopted and the Canadian National Lacrosse Association was formed. The year was capped when lacrosse was made the national game of Canada in July. (Weyand and Roberts 1965).

Although one source wrote of the game's being played at Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth during colonial times (McCluney 1974), these were probably pickup games with local Indians. The first mention of the game in a United States newspaper was an 1867 demonstration during the racing season at Saratoga Springs, NY and another in Troy, NY in October. Buoyed by the post-Civil War national interest in sports and games, lacrosse had a few years of popularity but went into eclipse after a bad loss by a Brooklyn team to a Montreal team in 1872. During this five year period clubs formed in New York state (Troy, Buffalo, Ogdensburg, Brooklyn and Manhattan).

A revival in the late 1870s has been attributed partially to the reduction of the field from 200 to 125 yards but principally to the success of a tour of southern England by the Montreal Club and a team from the Caughnawaga Indian Reservation. They played a match before Queen Victoria who was quite complementary and due in part to the acceptance of the game by British royalty, the Westchester Polo Club invited the teams in 1877 to a demonstration at Newport, RI, at the peak of the social season where up to 8,000 people witnessed two matches. The special sports and games of the Northeast are principally games of the elite and the ties with games of the English elite are very clear. It may seem a little ironic that the only one of these games which is demonstrably native American in origin actually owes its popularity in the region to the favorable opinion of Queen Victoria and the trend-setters in Newport. Prior to these matches, Harper's Weekly had written of the game in 1871 ,"It encountered violent opposition. It was considered too laborious, too exciting for our more nervous and delicate Americans. Physicians described the dangers of such fast and continued running, and anxious parents tried to smother the game in its infancy." After the success of the English tour and the Newport re-introduction in 1877, the New York Herald wrote, "the immense popular success of the game caused lacrosse to be the talk of Newport. The universal verdict is that lacrosse is the most remarkable, versatile, and exciting of all games of ball." (Weyand and Roberts 1965, 29, 33). Often it is not the qualities of a game that make it popular but who plays it and who watches it.

The Westchester Polo Club exhibition matches were also responsible for the introduction of lacrosse to Baltimore, arguably the current center of men's lacrosse in the United States. Members of a Baltimore-based track and field team returned to Maryland with equipment. By the late 1870s the modern game was widely played in New York state, particularly in Manhattan and Brooklyn and in cities along the Canadian border. The only other places it was being played was where there were significant pockets of Canadian ex-patriates.

Lacrosse boomed in Canada in the 1880s but by the onset of World War I the sport was dying there perhaps due to a belated acceptance by eastern Canadians of the American game of baseball. Another reason put forward was that the game is more a players' than a spectators' game and could not attract the mass audiences professional sports require.

During the 1880s in the Northeast the game experienced significant growth both within private athletic clubs and among a small group of universities (New York University, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Yale). Students from Johns Hopkins University picked up the game from a local club in 1882. Private clubs in the midwest (Louisville, Chicago, Calumet,IL, Minneapolis, St. Louis) also competed. The club sport descended into bickering and confusion over rules, professionalism and violence in the 1890s and most of the larger universities abandoned lacrosse when it began to tap the source of players for the older spring sports. By the end of the decade the clubs were in disarray and only four universities (Hopkins, Cornell, Lehigh and Stevens) were playing the sport.


Men's Lacrosse All-Americans, 1926 By the end of World War I it was clear that the Northeastern United States was the growing center of power. The university and club teams competed together on many occasions and the university teams gradually dominated. This pattern of sports development in the games played by the elite in the Northeast is fairly common - the sport begins in the athletic clubs of post-university men, moves into the universities they graduated from, the university teams become stronger and the clubs revert to the places where older players continue to play after their university days. In most of these sports there are none or very limited professional outlets for male players after college. By the late 1920s the distribution of the sport was clearly Northeastern.

Men's Lacrosse Teams Lacrosse is currently played nationally and internationally. but it is still more intensely played in the Northeastern United States than other regions. The map at the left shows the locations of the approximately 180 colleges and universities where the men's game was played as an NCAA sport in 1997. The schools outside the Northeast, for example, in Ohio and the upper South, are mostly private schools founded on the New England model. Additionally, there are men's lacrosse teams at several schools in Colorado and one Division III team in California (Whittier). As a club sport men's lacrosse has an even wider distribution.


Origins and Diffusion

Among the Iroquois, women and children would occasionally play informally but the division of activities between the genders reserved the ball game for men. Among non-Indian players this was also the case for quite a while in lacrosse.

The women's game may appear the same as the men's game but is played very differently. Originally the sticks had to be wooden and did not allow a continuously molded head as the men's game did. In the men's game there is no maximum length or weight for the stick; the individual players get to determine the amount of stick they wish to carry while the rules limit women to a four foot stick. Body contact and pads are also not allowed in the women's game but the goalie may wear pads. When the ball is inside the "bubble" of the face (they wear only mouthguards, no helmets) no checking is allowed. This creates a style of carrying the ball cradled close to the face; only when the player extends the stick to pass can the opponent hit at the stick. As a result of the rules differences, the women's game is less violent and more fluid. While the games are different they have been converging over the last few decades.

The first known women's lacrosse game was played at St. Leonard's School, Fife, Scotland, in 1890. It became popular in women's private schools in England in the 1890s and was brought to the United States by graduates of these schools. Although there were attempts earlier (1914) the first time it took root in this country was at the Bryn Mawr School - Baltimore (not to be confused with Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia) in 1926. Other clubs were formed in Baltimore and it spread to Philadelphia and New York. A United States Women's Lacrosse Association was formed in 1931 with local associations in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, and the first national championship was held in 1933. The women's sport in its early years experienced a rivalry with British teams that was quite similar to the US-Canadian rivalry of the men's game during its formative years. Teams went back and forth, demonstrations were held, British coaches came over and gradually the US teams improved. Lacrosse in Great Britain is still regarded largely as a women's game in the south and a men's game in the north.

There was a period of rapid growth in women's lacrosse in the Philadelphia area in the early 1960s. One account (Kurz 1978) talks of great growth from 1964 to 1975 and another (NAGWS 1981) said that the game had spread nationally by the late 1970s.


Women's Lacrosse Teams


Box lacrosse is the indoor version of the game and originated in Montreal in 1930 as a way to use empty hockey rinks during the off season. Occasionally you will see a claim that the game originated with Johns Hopkins graduates in Australia who did not have enough people for a team but that story is not true (Wyand and Robert 1965, 154). Box lacrosse (sometimes called boxla) was, and still is, very popular in Canada where it has replaced field lacrosse as the major version of the game. It is also widely played in Australia. There have been several attempts to popularize the game in the United States (1930s, southern California - 1938, Baltimore-1949/50 and 1962/63). The most recent attempt (1987) is the Major Indoor Lacrosse League with teams currently ( Spring 1997) in Boston, Baltimore, Buffalo, Philadelphia, New York and Rochester but teams drop in and out of the league with some frequency.

A July press release announced the formation of new box professional league to replace Major Indoor Lacrosse,the National Lacrosse League to begin play in January, 1998. The new league will have teams in Baltimore/Washington, D.C., Buffalo, Hamilton (Ontario), New England, New York (Long Island), Philadelphia, Rochester, Syracuse, with an additional two to four markets expected.


Anon. No date. " La Crosse" - America's oldest game.

Converse, M.C. 1908. Myths and legends of the New York state Iroquois. New York State Museum Bulletin 125. Albany: 146.

Culin, S. 1907. Games of the North American indian. In Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology.

Keefe, R.J. 1975. Intercollegiate athletics in the Roaring Twenties. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the North American Society for Sport History. Boston.

Kurz,A.B. 1978. What is lacrosse? In "Field Hockey/Lacrosse" in NAGWS Guide.Washington D.C.: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Recreation - National Association for Girls and Women in Sport. 171-174.

Lipsyte, R. 1987. Lacrosse: All-American game.Winds of Change: A Magazine for American Indians in Science and Technology.2(4):4-6,8.

McCluney, E.B. 1974. Lacrosse: the combat of spirits. Southwestern American Indian Society. 1:34-42.

National Association for Girls and Women in Sport. 1981. Lacrosse. In NAGWS Guide January 1979-1981. Washington, D.C. American Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Recreation.

Weyand, A.M. and M.R. Roberts. 1965. The Lacrosse Story.Baltimore: H&A Herman.

Wulff, R.L. 1977. Lacrosse among the Seneca. The Indian Historian.10: 16-22.


Major Indoor Lacrosse League (Box)

College Lacrosse USA

Access to some team/program pages
Last Modified on August 6, 1997