Women’s Lacrosse: A Scottish Export?

“Lacrosse, as girls play it, is an orderly pastime that has little in common with the men’s tribal warfare version except the long-handled racket or crosse that gives the sport its name, Its true that the object in both the men’s and women’s lacrosse is to send a ball through a goal by means of the racket, but whereas men resort to brute strength the women depend solely on skill.”

– Rosabelle Sinclair

Two weeks ago I wrote about lacrosse as a fundamentally American game, and in many ways that’s true.  But modern women’s lacrosse actually started in Scotland in 1890, after the headmistress of St. Leonard’s School in St. Andrews watched an exhibition game played in Canada between the Canghuwaya Indians and the Montreal Club.  A report in the student newspaper pricelessly recounts the start of the game, which seems haphazard at best:

“After our crosses having undergone a severe inspection i.e. our referee holding them up one by one and squinting with one eye to see if that which ought to be plane surface was not a curved one. Our referee said it was time to begin, but, owing to the absence of the ball it was rather difficult for the order to be carried out. However, the ball was duly found & after ’123 Play’ had been called, a vigorous game began.”

The game lasted an hour, with a ten minute half time.  There were eight players on each team.  By 1913, there were twelve, just like we have today.

The account brings up so many questions for me.  Who was the referee, for instance?  As a coach in Montana, I can attest to the fact that we were constantly struggling to find qualified referees because the game is relatively new.  Obviously, it was much newer in 1890!  The story also makes me wonder whether the school team, a girls team, played by the men’s rules drafted by Dr. William George Beers in 1865.  Beers was a dentist and a founding member of the Montreal Lacrosse Club.  Judging from their sticks alone, its clear that the men’s and women’s games had much more in common in the late 1890s than they do today!

But I don’t want to bore you.  Let’s jump forward to 1926, when Ms. Rosabelle Sinclair became a PE teacher at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, Maryland.  Born in 1890 in the Ukraine, she played lacrosse at St. Leonard’s School in Scotland, graduating in 1910.  She moved to England for a spell, and then off to America!  She introduced her students, all girls, to the sport, making Bryn Mawr the birthplace of US women’s lacrosse, and making Rosabelle “the Great Dame of Lacrosse.”  I assume she was kind of obsessed with the sport (and I assume if you’re reading this, you understand why!).  Fittingly, she was the first woman inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1992.

Have you made a Tenacity connection yet?  No?  Keep reading….

Rosabelle also served as the Bryn Mawr athletic director for 26 years, drawing yet another parallel with one of our very own Bryn Mawr greats – Tenacity National Director Wendy Kridel.  Not only did Wendy coach at Bryn Mawr for 18 years, she was also athletic director for much of that time.  Triply cool, Wendy coached at the U19 World Cup in Edinburgh, Scotland, strengthening the historic link there.  At the time (2015, that is), she said, “I’ve always felt very strongly that connection to the origin of women’s lacrosse, coming to the school and me sort of feeling like the keeper of the game.”  

And then, to tangle up our storylines even further, our own Theresa Sherry was the assistant general manager for the U19 team, and of course a graduate of Bryn Mawr.  Very cool connections!

I guess you could say that Tenacity has a uniquely strong link to the cradle of modern women’s lacrosse and that we’re uniquely poised to grow the game.  We’re kind of the great-great-great-grandchildren, if you will.

That’s a mantel to carry with pride, and something to remember when step on the field—representing Tenacity and, through a kind of trickle down process, Rosabelle Sinclair herself!


Written By: Courtney Bird
July 21st 2016



Lacrosse: America’s First Real Sport

It seems fitting to celebrate the Fourth of July playing America’s first real sport—almost like a tribute not to the founders of the Unites States—Washington, Jefferson, Adams—but instead to the original inhabitants of North America—the Iriqouis, the Huron, the Choctaw, the Eastern Cherokee.  Most of us know that lacrosse was originally a Native American sport, first observed by French Missionaries near the St. Lawrence River in the 1630s.  I’ve always associated lacrosse with the northeast and mid-atlantic, and yes, Canada, but the truth is that the game extended far beyond those territories—especially as Indians were forced to move west with the implementation of the Indian Removal Act under President Andrew Jackson.

1985.66.428A_1aIn fact, George Catlin, a 19th century painter who sought to capture Native life before it disappeared and whose works are now housed at the Smithsonian, observed a form of lacrosse played by the Choctaw Indians near Fort Gibson on the Arkansas River in 1834.  The Choctaw Nation originally hails from the southeast (think Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama), but they were forced to cede their land to the United States in 1830 along with many other tribes.  While some opted to stay in Mississippi and conform to U.S. rule, enduring harsh treatment at the hands of white citizens, over 15,000 Choctaw left for the Oklahoma Territory in 1831.  During the next two years, well over 2,500 Choctaw would die along the Trail of Tears.  When writer Alexis de Tocqueville asked why they were leaving their country, one man responded, “To be free.”

Catlin visited the Indian Territory shortly thereafter.  He painted a series depicting nearly seven hundred men participating in play-ball, or lacrosse, with hundreds more spectators on either ‘end line’ making bets.  If you look closely, you can see that each of the men carries two sticks as opposed to the one larger stick we’re more familiar with.  Catlin described the game as “violent,” and every play involved desperate struggles “where hundreds are running together and leaping, actually over each other’s heads, and darting between their adversaries’ legs, tripping and throwing, and foiling each other in every possible manner, and every voice raised to the highest key, in shrill yelps and barks.”  

1985.66.429_1aLacrosse was a traditional game and a way to prepare for war, but more than that, it was a spiritual endeavor.  As Ansely Jemison, the manager of the Iriqouis Nationals, points out, “We play to give enjoyment to the Creator.”  On its website, the Choctaw Nation explains that, “Each team had its conjurer or medicine man, [who] painted his face, wore an appropriate disguise such as a sheepskin beard, and perhaps carried a leafy branch of hickory.  The medicine men stood near their respective goals during the play, where they sang, clapped their hands and performed any other actions thought necessary to bring good luck for their team.”  Maybe I’m getting carried away, but I believe in the power of cheering on your team and here we’re seeing that idea on a deeper, spiritual plane from players, fans, and conjurers.

On the eve of a big game, the tribe would dance, sing and commune with the divine.  Catlin later said, “Night came on without the appearance of any players on the ground. But soon after dark, a procession of lighted flambeaux was seen coming from each encampment, to the ground where the players assembled . . . and at the beat of the drums and chaunts of the women, each party of players commenced the ‘ball-play dance.’ Each party danced for a quarter of an hour . . . and all their voices joined in chaunts to the Great Spirit; in which they were soliciting his favour in deciding the game to their advantage.”

Catlin JournalWe talk now about respecting the game—respecting the rules, respecting our teammates, respecting ourselves, our coaches, our fans.  Nothing makes me more determined to respect the game than understanding its history.  Lacrosse isn’t just a game about winning and losing.  It’s about preparing for war, preparing to protect your land, your family, your tribe, your way of life.  It’s about accessing a piece of the divine—that spark within yourself that ties you to something greater.  So, respect the game.  Take a minute to say a silent thank you to its creators.  And then get on the wall, because every time you step out on that field you’re representing something larger than yourself.     

Post Script: While the images shown to the left feature a men’s game, Catlin’s journal lists the following potential subjects: “Amusements: Ball Play Dance; Ball Play – Ball Up; Ball Play – Ball Down; Ball Play of the Women.”  It’s thought that lacrosse was a men’s game in most tribes, but this note leads me to wonder…!


Written By: Courtney Bird
July 7th, 2016

Ball-Play of the Choctaw, Ball Down
George Catlin (1796-1872)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Ball-Play Dance, Choctaw
George Catlin (1796-1872)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Ball-Play of the Choctaw, Ball Up
George Catlin (1796-1872)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum