European
Discovery
& Development

The Northeastern variation of the game was the one first encountered by Europeans in the 17th Century. Jesuit missionaries from France observed the Huron Indians playing the game, and called it "la crosse," because the Natives' sticks resembled the crosier carried by French bishops as a symbol of office. Another argued origin of the name comes from the French version of field hockey, which they called le jeu de la crosse. The first use of the term la crosse was written in 1636 by French missionary Jean de Brebeuf, the first to document the game.

At first, the Europeans saw the game as very savage. One French settler wrote, "If one were not told beforehand that they were playing, one would certainly believe that they were fighting." The Jesuit missionaries were shocked that the Natives were playing lacrosse for religious reasons. The Europeans believed playing a game to bring good weather or to honor the dead was rather innocent. But to play the game for the purpose of curing the sick was considered a sacrilege.

Although Europeans initially saw the game as savage, they soon began to enjoy watching it and often placed bets among themselves on the winner of a match. In one dramatic incident in 1763, English settlers, who had recently occupied the Native Fort Michilimackinac near Lake Michigan were so occupied in watching the Natives play their game that at the same time that their fort was overtaken by Native warriors. This has been called the Conspiracy of Pontiac.



The rebuilt Fort Michilimackinac, 1998


One reason why the English may have been so attracted to this game was that it was their first introduction to the concept of team sports. Before the discovery of this game, the only sports ever played in England were individual sports, such as boxing, golf, fencing, or tennis, in which one person competes against one or more others. However, some have disputed this fact and believe that England did in fact have a history of team sports at that time.

Early reports of the game did not describe in any detail team strategy or rules, but instead only team size, equipment used, duration of games, and length of playing fields. The reports of the European missionaries were so uninformative and vague that Lacrosse historian Thomas Vennum says "we may never have a definitive history of the game."

More than a century after they first discovered the game, the European settlers began to play the game themselves. As early as 1740, as some reports say, French pioneers competed with the Natives at their own game. It was widely believed then that a team of whites could never match the skill of a Native team. Not much has been recorded about this early competition between the Natives and the French, but it is likely that, because there is not much evidence about the game being played by whites for the next 100 years, the French were not particularly successful at playing the game. One documented example of the Natives' early domination of their own sport is that in 1844, a team composed of five Native Americans, easily beat a team of seven whites.