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Accounts Of The Original Lacrosse Game

Author’s Note: Connor had an interesting request for an article on the “Why’s Of Lacrosse”. Specifically, he wanted to know why certain rules are the way they are. For example, why is the goal 6’x6′? Why can’t you grab the ball with your hand? He wanted to know the historical context that gave rise to the rules of lacrosse as we know them now. I started looking at old rulebooks to give me an idea on where to start, but they only went back so far. I wanted primary accounts on the original rules of lacrosse, so I dug deeper and found “Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada” by William George Beers.

William Beers is considered by many to be the “father of modern lacrosse”, because he established the first set of standardized modern rules. His motivation for developing rules, as you will discover in this continuing series of posts, was to make the game more “scientific”, and to thus allow less well-conditioned white Canadians the opportunity to play the sport without collapsing on half-mile long fields, which were customary for Native American tribes to play on at the time.

Published in 1869, “Lacrosse: The National Game of Canada” is an excellent primary source account of the beginnings of the standardized men’s game, and an excellent secondary source account of how the game was originally played by Native Americans.

To fully appreciate these posts you must also try to understand the mindset of William Beers and those that he quotes. Many of the quotes I will present describe Native Americans as: Indians, the red man, barbarians, wild people, and savages. White Canadians are described as: pale-faced, civilized, scientific, and rational. As with any primary account of history, readers need to know the context of the times, and keep it mind when reading. This is not the way a current account would be written.

At the time, William Beers was attempting to codify rules that would appeal to white Canadians, who generally viewed lacrosse played by Native Americans as violent and barbaric. In order to sell the sport to his fellow countrymen, Beers developed rules that reinforced the prevailing belief of the times (mid 1800s) that the white Canadian man, while not even close to being athletically on par with a Native American, was certainly more intelligent, and would benefit from a game played scientifically instead of barbarically.

There is a consistently held view in Beers’ book that the Native American player was similar to an ancient Greek Olympian in athletic ability and stature, and their athletic prowess is constantly praised through a variety of quoted sources. Since the white man could not compete the way Native Americans competed, new rules were needed in the mind of Beers and others, and that is the mindset you should keep in mind to get the most out of these posts.

Since the copyright expired on Beers’ book many years ago, I am not bound by proper in-text citation rules. Still, I want readers to be able to locate what I quote if they choose to download his book on Google Books. To that end I will end each quote with a short citation that will list the quote location in the original text followed by the page in Google Books. For example, (5, 28) designates page five in the original text, and page twenty-eight in Google Books.

Now that the stage has been set, let’s examine this week’s post on how the game was originally played by the Native Americans, according to William Beers and his contemporaries.


With any historical account it is best to start from the beginning: “An Algonquin who was asked the origin of his race pointed to the rising sun. So may we as indefinitely answer the query, ‘When and how did the game of Lacrosse originate’” (5, 28)?

The actual origin of lacrosse is a mystery and to point at the rising sun is as good an answer as any. Plus it lends a great degree of mystique and intrigue to the game, after all we know when, where, and who invented basketball, but lacrosse has a history so long that it’s origins remain mythical.

One of the first accounts of the game was in huge praise of it: “It was emphatically a sport, and brought out the very finest physical attributes of the finest made men in the world, – the impetuosity and vigor of a wild nature let loose; and compelled its votaries, in its intense exercise, to stretch every power to the greatest extreme” (9, 32).

One of Beers’ contemporaries, a man named Catlin, describes the game as such: “‘I pronounce such a scene, with its hundreds of nature’s most beautiful models denuded, and painted various colors, running and leaping in the air in all of the most enlivening and varied forms, in desperate struggles for the ball, a school for painter or sculptor equal to any of those which ever inspired the hand of an artist in the Olympian games or Roman Forum’” (28, 51).

The Crosse

The game of lacrosse is nothing without the crosse, and before going into the game itself we need to gain a keen insight into each aspect that made up the game.

Crosses were made of wood, and across multiple tribes there were no crosses longer than four feet. What we would today call the head of the crosse was generally just large enough to hold the ball and “the network of strings were originally of wattup, the small roots of the spruce tree as used for sewing bark canoes; – afterwards they were made of deerskin” (11, 34). During grand matches or special events the crosses would be decorated with feathers or dyed different colors. Proving that stick customization is not a recent development.

According to the text, the Choctaws, Cherokees, and Creeks typically used two sticks during play. The player carried the ball by sandwiching it between the heads of both crosses. While we may consider that a harder way to carry a ball, among the Native Americans one stick play was seen as far more difficult when trying to control the ball.

The Ball

The original ball was about the size of a tennis ball and was first made of deer-skin or raw-hide, stuffed with hair and sewed with sinews” (13, 16). Some tribes used a wooden ball, while others made do with tree bark fashioned into a ball shape.

The Goal

Generally, the agreed upon goals for a game were a convenient rock or tree. “At grand matches, however, the Indians were more particular, and used for each goal a single pole or stake, eight feet high and two inches in diameter, or the two pole goal at present. The distance from the goal to the other varied in proportion to the number of players, from five hundred yards to half a mile and more. The Poutawatamies, Sioux, Dacotahs, Cherokees, Sacs, Objiways, Iroquois, Algonquins, and nearly all tribes used the one pole. The four former merely required the ball to be thrown past the line of this stake; the Objiways, Iroquois, Algonquins […], required the pole to be struck with the ball” (14, 37).

Think about the difficulty of scoring a goal according to that quote. You are carrying a ball with two sticks and you have to hit a two-inch diameter pole in order to score. Players today are angry when they hit pipe, but that was the name of the game if you were playing with the Iroquois tribe!

Goal size varied tremendously from region to region. “The Choctaws, seen by Catlin, used two stakes for each goal, twenty-five feet high, and six feet apart, with a pole or goal-line across the top. The Creeks in Alabama used two stakes, six feet high and six feet apart” (14, 37). Unsurprisingly, you see these measurements in legal 6’x6′ goals today. Legal goals nowadays are six feet high by six feet wide, have pipes nearly 2 inches in diameter, and have a goal line. The only major differences between the goals the Creeks used in Alabama in 1828 and those used now are the addition of a net and the orange paint.

The Game Director

He was in charge of where the goals went and gave speeches to the players prior to the game. It is noted that he was sometimes the best player and typically the most agile runner.

The old chiefs seated themselves on the ground with ten small sticks, with which they kept the score of games; pulling all out when they got to ‘eleven,’ and replacing one to count ten. Matches consisted sometimes of ten, twenty, and one hundred games, and often lasted two or three days” (23, 46). I found no mention of typical game length. I suppose that, reminiscent of Fight Club rules, games went on as long as they had to.

The Umpires

Designated umpires were the older medicine men of the tribe. Their decisions were always final. “Four of the most antediluvian medicine men who were to act as umpires on the following day, were seated at the point where the game was to be started, solemnly smoking and praying of the Great Spirit for impartiality in judgment” (18, 41). Three observations here: First, let an official try to smoke or drink before a game starts in any sport in the 21st century and they will quickly be out of a job. Second, in the context of this writing, antediluvian likely means the author believes the medicine men to be “primitive or outmoded.” Third, I often say a quick prayer before a game that generally goes, “Please God, let me not screw up!”

Player Uniforms

Early observers saw Native Americans playing lacrosse nearly as nude as Olympic wrestlers during antiquity. Lacrosse players typically wore a small cloth around their waist.

When playing in big games players adorned their bodies with beads, feathers and paint. It was also observed that many players wore a tail made out of horse hair or dyed porcupine quills. Exactly why players wore this tail is never specified. Beers notes that the “Poutawatamies always wore moccassins” (16, 39). Since this distinction is made it is reasonable to assume that many other tribes played barefoot.

Game Preparation

By far one of the longest sections in Beers description of early lacrosse is how the tribes typically prepared for a game. There is way too much to mention, but I will go over the major points. This section can be found on page 16 of the text and page 39 of the Google Books.

Individual preparation varied, but approximately two weeks before a game players would follow a similar routine:

Competitors were to fast from all excesses, eat little food and harden themselves by every possible means for the exertion in anticipation [of the game]” (15, 38). When the field could be as long as half a mile it paid to be mentally as well as physically strong.

Before a game the players would gather around a large bonfire near a river or lake near midnight. While holding their sticks they would dance around the bonfire, contorting their bodies and screaming into the night air. When they got too hot they would plunge into the cold water and then resume their dancing after they cooled off. This continued through the night with many players staying awake until sunrise.

Game Day Pre-Game Buildup

When everyone gathered at the game location it was time for betting to begin. It was observed that every warrior placed bets on the game outcome, but more interestingly, women were seen to carry betting to outrageous excesses and even children “wagered their childish toys” (21, 44). Once the betting was finalized the players retreated to opposite sides of the forest where they would try to intimidate the other team through shouts and yelling.

With the players in the forest the Game Director would set the goals and put a stake in the middle of the field. The size of the field of play was extremely variable and usually based on the number of players involved. “The wildness of the old game is graphically [sketched] by Catlin (who saw it played by 600, 800 and 1000 Choctaws and others, at a time)” (24, 47). It is reasonable to assume that more players equaled a bigger playing area, but this is not specified.

Once the field was set the player came out of the forest and continued their shouting. While advancing towards the center of the field the wives and lovers of the men playing came out and bestowed beads and other tokens to their favorite players. Beers notes that, “these savage lovers wore [the tokens] during the game as faithfully as the most chivalrous knight of the 12th century ever carried a lady’s glove in combat” (21, 44).

The players next advanced to opposite sides of the center stake roughly a yard apart and set their sticks at their feet on the Umpire’s signal. At which point the opposing sides were counted. How long the counting took with players numbering above five hundred is not mentioned.

Finally, the players picked up their sticks and took their positions for the start of the game.

Game Play

Games generally started at 9:00am, likely because the sun was up and would stay up for many hours to come. Games started in one of two ways. Either the Game Director put the ball on the ground and everyone rushed towards it on his signal, or the ball was flung high into the air and everyone rushed forward to catch it. The latter was the more common way of starting a game.

One rule that has stood the test of time is that, “it was never allowable to pick [the ball] up from the ground with the hand, but it was customary to use the hand in tapping or blocking it away from the body” (24, 47). That rule evolved to what we have today as the goalkeeper, while in his crease, is the only player permitted to block or tap the ball away with his hand. However, even he is prohibited from picking up the ball.

There were no boundary lines; players went where the ball went. Which meant into crop field, forests and even into spectators! “When the ball fell among the spectators, the players leapt into them like a whirlwind, with as little regard for their safety as their own, and there was a well known art among the spectators of saving oneself from much tumbling and contusion by embracing the nearest tree and holding on like grim death until the rush of players had passed” (25, 48).

A man named Basil Hall made this description of a player maneuvering through the woods: “He was obliged in most cases to make a circuit of many hundred yards amongst the trees, with thirty or forty swift-footed fellows stretching after or athwart him, with their fantastic tiger tails streaming behind them, and he, in like manner, at full speed, and holding his stick as high over his head as possible, sometimes ducking to avoid a blow, or leaping to escape a trip, sometimes doubling like a hare, and sometimes tumbling at full length or breaking his shins on a fallen tree, but seldom losing hold of his treasure without severe struggle” (26, 49).

One aspect of the game I found most interesting was Carver’s description of the lack of disputes between players during games: “Carver saw it played by Indians, whom he says played with such vehemence that broken bones were no rarity, ‘but not withstanding, there never appears to be any spite, or wanton exertions of strength to affect them; nor do disputes ever happen between the parties’” (28, 51). Let that stand as a lesson to all current players when you complain about getting pushed from behind off the ball. Seemingly, a Native American in the 1800s could break his forearm and still not go after another player in revenge.

Wrap Up

I could try to approach the eloquence that the next writer expresses in his description of the original game, but I would fail miserably. I leave you with an account by a man named Lanman:

The Olympic beauty of this game is beyond all praise. It calls into active exercise every muscle of the human frame, and brings into bold relief the supple and athletic forms of the best built people of the world. At one time a figure will rivet your attention, similar to the Apollo Belvidere, and another, you will actually be startled by the surpassing eloquence of a Mercury” (29, 52).

Now that you have knowledge of how the original game looked, you’ll be prepared for next week’s post on what the men’s game looked like with the standardized rules developed by William Beers.

Editor’s NoteIf you’re interested in reffing or learning more about the rules of lacrosse, check out Gordon’s book, ”Advancement Rules: Improving Your Lacrosse Officiating“, on Amazon!