“Powerful athletic looking” young men have a way of getting into the media and this is what happened in Malone, NY in September 1869. The Malone Palladium carried a story about two Mohawk lacrosse teams passing through Malone on a train from Canada headed for New York City. The athletes were on their way to play an exhibition game at Jones’s Wood, a resort for working class New Yorkers on the Upper East Side, in the vicinity of present day 66th to 75th Streets on the banks of the East River.
Readers in Malone may not have appreciated it at the time, but they were reading about a significant event in American sports history. An exciting “new” sport was beginning its invasion of the nation through New York State.
Jean de Brebeuf, a French Jesuit missionary in Canada, first documented lacrosse for Europeans in 1636. The game got its name from early French settlers who saw Mohawks playing the game with a curved stick, a “crosse” in French, and a ball. During the early nineteenth century, English-speaking athletes in Montreal began organizing amateur clubs and adopting written rules and in 1859, Canada made lacrosse its official game. Because of lacrosse’s popularity, it soon spread south to the United States.
Mohawk and Canadian teams introduced the game to sports enthusiasts in New York City, Queens and Brooklyn, which sparked the formation of lacrosse clubs in what would become the New York metropolitan area. Newspapers touted the game as one that could easily rival the rapidly growing sport of baseball for fan allegiance.
|The 1908 Columbia University lacrosse team. Library of Congress.|
Sports writers generated interest in the new sport by writing stories about lacrosse action that appealed to a wide variety of people. Some stories extolled speed, endurance, strategy and ball handling skill. Others raved about mayhem, crushing blows and spurting blood. When all the excitement was added together, what more could a Gilded Age sports fan want to see?
Fans began to flock to lacrosse games that were played on polo fields, racetracks and baseball diamonds. In 1871, at the height of the August horse racing season in Saratoga Springs, promoters hosted a lacrosse match between “the champion red men of Canada and the champion white men of the world” at the Glen Mitchell resort hotel.
Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, gave lacrosse a huge boost by attending a lacrosse game between two visiting Mohawk teams in Windsor, England in 1876.
The highlight of the 1878 lacrosse season was a tournament played in Gilmore’s Gardens, soon to become the first Madison Square Garden, in Manhattan. Four teams competed for a silver cup that had been especially made for the event by Tiffany & Co. They included a Mohawk team that had just returned from playing in England, an Onondaga team from Syracuse, the Ravenswood Lacrosse Club in Queens, and a team from New York University, the first college in the U.S. to establish a lacrosse team.
|Early twentieth century college lacrosse teams. Library of Congress.|
By 1879, the lacrosse invasion of New York State and the nation was complete. Delegates from eleven lacrosse clubs met at the Astor House in Manhattan to form the United States National Amateur Lacrosse Association.
Today, lacrosse is arguably the fastest growing team sport in the U.S. Teams from New York State are perennial powerhouses in Division I men’s lacrosse. They include: Cornell, which won the first NCAA championship in 1971; Syracuse, perhaps the most dominant college lacrosse team in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Army, Albany, St. Johns, Hobart, Marist, Colgate and Hofstra.
The harbingers of modern American lacrosse were the “powerful athletic looking” Mohawk lacrosse players on the train in Malone, headed south for New York City, in September 1869.