By Steven Wizniuk
On the 4th of July we celebrate the day the United States of America was officially declared free as the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. On this special day we celebrate our freedom and the risks those before us took to get it, but did you know that a game of lacrosse actually helped lead to America’s independence?
In the spirit of Powell Lacrosse’s mission to explore the field, it’s time for a lacrosse history lesson.
In the summer of 1763, the British took over the Great Lakes region from the French after winning the Seven Year War. Since the Ojibwe, Ottawa, Sauk and other tribes in the area preferred the French’s trading practices over those of the English, they began attacking British forts as part of what is now known as Pontiac’s War.
To take one of the more important forts, Fort Michilimackinac in northern Michigan, the Ojibwe and Sauk devised a unique plan to use a game of lacrosse to distract the British soldiers so they could launch a surprise attack. It was played on King George III’s birthday, June 4, when the soldiers would be free from their duties and ready to be entertained by the public wagering on this game. On the day of the game the women of both tribes line up along the wall in front of the main gate with tomahawks, knives and war clubs hidden under their shawls and blankets. Nearly 500 members of the Ojibwe and Sauk took part and as the game moved closer to the main gate the ball was thrown into the fort. The men dropped their lacrosse sticks, grabbed the weapons, and stormed through the open main gate. Thanks to this Trojan Horse-esque deceit, the Ojibwe and Sauk captured the fort and drove the British from the area.
Reenactments are done every year to commemorate this unique battle.
So how is this lacrosse game connected to the 4th of July?
All of these battles at the forts around the Great Lakes region put pressure on the British to put a stop to the fighting and motivated them to pass their Royal Proclamation of 1763 ahead of schedule. The proclamation forbade all settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains by colonists to avoid anymore conflicts with the native tribes there. The forts were taken back by the British about a year later. Colonists could travel to these lands, but were not allowed to settle there and own any of it despite the colonies getting more populated every year. A decade later, this Proclamation was one of many grievances that the colonists had with the British that would result in the Revolutionary War.
Okay so it’s a bit of a stretch to say that the lacrosse game at Fort Michilimackinac was the reason the United States became independent, but it was definitely one of the dominoes that fell leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776. There is no other modern sport with such a connection to America’s past like lacrosse.
I first heard about this game when I played for the 1763 Lacrosse Club the summer before my senior year of high school. 1763 is named after the year of the battle and is one of several elite club teams in the Detroit area. I was lucky enough to make the team that was made up of some of the best players in Michigan looking to play college lacrosse. We played in tournaments like MVP at Rider University and Hotbeds in Delaware where we were usually the only team from Michigan.
Other teams would always ask us what our team name meant and we didn’t really know until our coaches explained the significance of 1763 to us. As we played against teams at these tournaments with names like Velocity, Express, Delta, Champion, and Roughriders I started to see how special it was to be playing on a team that’s name was actually connected to the origins of lacrosse. We were called the 1763 Chiefs, which looking back was not the most respectful name, but was meant as an homage to Chief Pontiac and the other Chiefs of native tribes that were involved in that historic game.
I actually visited Fort Michilimackinac when I was a kid on a family vacation up north to Mackinac Island. I was probably 6 or 7 years old and didn’t even know what lacrosse was yet or that it had anything to do with this old wooden fort I was looking at. I had no idea that the ground I was walking on was the same ground that 500 Ojibwe and Sauk warriors played a lacrosse game more than 200 years earlier. 500 players covered in war paint fighting over a leather ball and then using it to storm the very fort in front of me and kill British soldiers.
So there is your lacrosse history lesson. As you celebrate with family and friends and enjoy the summer weather you can reflect on how lacrosse played a small role in the formation of the United States. You can think of how this amazing sport was played before this country even existed. Think of how we are all lucky to have the opportunity to play such a unique and sacred game that was once used to wage wars.