New York Lizards Blog

The History of Lacrosse: From Baggataway to Today

Posted by Tom Hallissey on Feb 3, 2017 10:00:00 AM

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The history of lacrosse stretches back well before the birth of America. Modern day lax is the descendant of a recreational activity invented by the Native Americans. Before Paul Rabil showed us all how to really shoot behind the back, indigenous tribes were playing lacrosse games that lasted for several days.

A Truly American Game

The Iroquois Nationals, whose players include Major League Lacrosse stars Lyle and Miles Thompson, describe lacrosse this way: it “was a gift to us from the Creator, to be played for his enjoyment and as a medicine game for healing the people.”

This precursor to lacrosse had several purposes:

  • It was used as a recreational activity
  • It prepared young Native Americans for combat
  • It was included in festivals

Native American tribes also played lacrosse, which some tribes called baggataway, to vent aggression and settle territorial disputes.

Native American Rituals

The history of lacrosse is steeped in ceremony. The players and the equipment were ritually prepared by conjurers. A shaman often gave participants a spiritual, strategic pep talk. The selection of players and the outcome of the game were thought to be controlled by the spirits.

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How it was Played

The game began with the ball being tossed into the air as the two sides rushed to catch it.

  • Goals could be 500 yards to six miles apart from each other
  • Goals were designated by large rocks, trees or posts
  • There was no out-of-bounds
  • The ball could not touch a player’s hands
  • The game often lasted from sunup to sundown
  • Final rules were decided the day before the match

The History of Lacrosse Equipment

Early lacrosse balls hardly resemble the vulcanized rubber thrown, caught and scooped today. They were made of wood or deerskin stuffed with hair.

The original sticks were in the shape of giant wooden spoons that did not have a typical lacrosse pocket. Later, netting, which was constructed of wattup or deer sinew, was introduced. The sticks, which were two to five feet long, were made of wood that was steamed and bent into a U shape.

Native Americans did not wear any protective lacrosse equipment that resembles today’s helmets, gloves or shoulder pads.

European Era

For Europeans, the history of lacrosse began in the 1630s when French Jesuit missionaries encountered the game in the St. Lawrence Valley. They were not impressed to say the least. The Jesuits condemned the game, because of the violence, gambling and religious rituals.

The French settlers coined the name “lacrosse,” which is derived from the generic French term for a game that is played with a curved stick and ball.

Lacrosse gained wider acceptance a century and a half later when William George Beers founded the Montreal Lacrosse Club. He introduced several important changes, such as:

  • Shortening the length of the game
  • Reducing the number of players
  • Redesigning the stick
  • Introducing a rubber ball

In the 1860s, lacrosse became Canada’s national sport. By 1904, lacrosse had grown in popularity enough to become part of the Summer Olympics.

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Today, more than 800,000 youth lacrosse players enjoy playing America’s oldest sport. As of the 2014-2015 season, there were nearly 25,000 men and women playing collegiate lacrosse.

The professional lacrosse ranks are swelling too. Major League Lacrosse now boasts nine squads after an expansion into Atlanta last year. With superstars like Rob Pannell and Greg “Beast” Gurenlian packing stadiums all spring and summer, the future of the sport is brighter than ever.

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