Did A Game of Lacrosse Lead To The American Revolution?

In 1763, the British Government laid out the Royal Proclamation of 1763 upon the American Colonies. This proclamation forbade any settlement of British citizens west of the Appalachian Mountains. With a growing population, a lack of land, and no voice in the British Government this proclamation angered many colonists and is often cited as one of the main reasons for the American Revolution. But how did a lacrosse game influence the colonies to revolt against Great Britain?

Bryant Holt

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As you know, the tradition of sports in America is as much a part of our historic tradition as anything. We can point back to some of the most significant events regarding sports and how they shaped history of the time. Think about iconic events like Jesse Owens winning 4 gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, or the 1980 Miracle on Ice during the Cold War, or even the fact that American grenades are shaped like baseballs, because hey, every kid in America should know how to throw a baseball. With the popularity of football, baseball, and basketball, some sports seem to get pushed by the wayside; however America’s oldest sport, lacrosse, is starting to gain momentum and popularity. You’ve seen the sport, or maybe even played it as a kid, but did you know that a single lacrosse game actually had a huge impact on the history of America? I’ll get to that momentarily, but first let me give you a quick background about lacrosse.

"Ball Players" by George Catlin

"Ball Players" by George Catlin

Lacrosse was invented by Native Americans sometime before European contact. Different versions of the game could be found across North America, but its popularity was greater in the eastern Woodlands and Great Plains Regions. Most tribes had their own names for the game, with some examples being: dehuntshigwa'es, which means “men hit a rounded object” in Onondaga; da-nah-wah'uwsdi which means “little war” in Eastern Cherokee ("little war"), or even baaga`adowe which means "bump hips" in Ojibwe (The Ojibwe people also happen to be the tribe that we will be focusing on in this article). Eventually, the French gave “Lacrosse” its modern name, likely because the way the Natives carried their sticks reminded the French of how Catholic priests carried “The Cross,” hence -- “La Crosse.” Over time, the name stuck. Early lacrosse games were a little different from what we are used to seeing today. Often times, two tribes would play each other to settle disputes, toughen their warriors, as part of festivals, or simply for recreation. These games often saw as many as 100-1000 men between the two teams and the fields could range from about 500 yards to 6 miles long (that’s quite a long run). The goal would be to try and get the ball to touch your opponents goal, which was typically a tall stick or tree. With so many men per team, most games ended up looking more like a giant rugby scrum than the lacrosse games we see today. Furthermore, it was considered cowardly to dodge an opponent or to pass the ball, so the games were likely a lot more violent. 

"An Indian Ball Play" by George Catlin

"An Indian Ball Play" by George Catlin

British colonists took an interest in Native American lacrosse games, and often enjoyed watching and betting on the games, even though this was highly frowned upon by the royal crown. This is exactly what happened on a fateful day in 1763. This year marked the end of the French-Indian Wars in North America and many Indian tribes were upset that the British had pushed out their French allies during the war. The French tended to befriend and trade with Native Americans, whereas the British tended to try and take and settle the Native American’s land. Needless to say, the Natives were overwhelmingly unhappy with the British as this time. In response to the disdain for the British, a movement broke out amongst Native Americans residing in the Great Lakes Region. It was known as Pontiac’s War, or Pontiac’s Rebellion. Native warriors from many tribes joined together in an attempt to drive the British out of the region. To accomplish this, these Natives started trying to take over British forts all across the region. Between May 16 and June 2, 1763, Natives were able to capture 5 British forts through surprise attacks. These forts included:

- Fort Sandusky (modern day Venice, Ohio)

- Fort St. Joseph (modern day Niles, Michigan)

- Fort Miami (moder day Wayne, Indiana)

- Fort Ouiatenon (modern day Lafayette, Indiana)

- Fort Michilimakinac (modern day Mackinaw City, Michigan)

The final of these forts was the largest and most important fort and also brought the most humiliation to the British. 

On June 2, 1763, the Ojibwe (commonly referred to as Chippewa) tribe pulled off a Trojan Horse-esque maneuver on Fort Michilmakinac. The tribe staged a traditional lacrosse game in front of the fort, or as they called it baaga`adowe or “bumping hips,” and boy did they ever bump some hips in this game. They invited another tribe, the Sauks, to be their opponent. They even sent a friendly invitation to the British garrison at Fort Michilimakinac to join them in watching the game and betting on the outcome. The Ojibwe even went so far as to say that the game would be in honor of King George III’s upcoming birthday! The British commander in charge of the fort, Major Etherington, was pleased by the invitation and so he and his men watched the game from the nearby fort. Each of the tribes put over 100 warriors on their teams and began to play the game. The women of the tribes gathered in front of the fort to watch. Caught up in the action, the British garrison never closed the gate to the fort. As the game went on, the ball eventually found its way through the gate of the fort. As the warriors laid chase, the women of the tribe quickly pulled tomahawks and knives from under their clothes and baskets and handed them off as the warriors ran through the fort gate. The warriors laid siege to the fort, capturing it and killing almost every British soldier and colonist inside. They left the French citizens unharmed. They held the fort for almost a year, but eventually Pontiac’s War ended in a stalemate. However, the Native Americans were able to gain one major victory through the outcome of the war. The British government had been considering a Proclamation that would keep colonists from settling in the western British territories of America. Pontiac’s War hastened this decision and likely had an impact on the British Royal Proclamation of 1763. As I mentioned at the beginning, this proclamation was one of the major grievances that led to the American Revolution.

Fort Michilimackinac Massacre by Henry Sandham

Fort Michilimackinac Massacre by Henry Sandham

So, ultimately a single lacrosse game led to the American Revolution!!! Ok, so that’s probably a stretch, but perhaps this Trojan Horse Lacrosse game did have an impact on the decision for the American colonists to revolt. Either way, next time you see a violent collision in a lacrosse game I hope you remember that lacrosse games used to be a lot more violent back in the old days.

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