Lacrosse was invented by Native North Americans. Its name was dehuntshigwa'es in Onondaga ("men hit a rounded object"), da-nah-wah'uwsdi in Eastern Cherokee ("little war"), Tewaarathon in Mohawk Langauge ("little brother of war"), and baaga`adowe in Ojibwe("knocking about of balls").
The game was named lacrosse by early French onlookers. It is widely and inaccurately believed that the name stems from the French term "crosse", for the shepherd's crooklike crosier carried by bishops as a symbol of office. Jesuit missionary Jean-de-Brébeuf noted the resemblance between the crosier and the shape of the racket stick in the Relation des Jésuites around 1640. In fact, the term crosse is a general word in French for any type of bat or stick used in a ball game. The name lacrosse is simply a reflection of this term, and perhaps a shorthand for a phrase such as "le jeu de la crosse" (the game of the stick). Lacrosse traditionally had many different purposes. Conflict resolution and training of young warriors was only one part of the game. Games could be played on a pitch over a mile wide and sometimes lasted for days. Often players were gravely injured or even killed. Early balls were made out of the heads of the enemy, deerskin, clay, stone, and sometimes wood. Lacrosse has played a significant role in the community and religious life of tribes across the continent for many years. Early lacrosse was characterized by deep spiritual involvement, befitting the spirit of combat in which it was undertaken. Those who took part did so in the role of warriors, with the goal of bringing glory and honor to themselves and their tribes, and as a religious ritual. The game was said to be played "for the pleasure of the Creator."
Lacrosse has witnessed great modifications since its origins in the 15th century, but many aspects of the sport remain the same. In the Native North American version, each team consisted of about 100 to 1,000 men on a field that stretched from about 500 yards to a couple of miles long. These lacrosse games lasted from sun up to sun down for two to three days. These games were played to settle inter-tribal disputes, to toughen young warriors in preparation for future combat and to give thanks to the Creator. The Alqonquin tribes referred to the sport as "baggatway". The game became known to Westerners when a French Jesuitt Missionary, Jean de Brébeuff, saw the Iroquois Natives play it in 1636.
By the 19th century, lacrosse evolved to a less violent game and more of a sport as French pioneers began competing. In 1856, Dr. William George Beers, a Canadian dentist, founded Montreal Lacrosse Club and in 1867 he codified the game, shortening the length of each game and reducing the number of players to ten per team. The first game played under Beers' rules was at Upper Canada College in 1867, with Upper Canada College losing to the Toronto Cricket Club by a score of 3–1. By the 1900s, high schools, colleges, and universities began playing the game, and lacrosse was contested as a medal sport in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics.
In the 1930s, an indoor version of the game, box lacrosse, was introduced in Canada. It quickly became, and remains, the dominant form of the sport in that country. A later version of box lacrosse, indoor lacrosse, is played professionally in both Canada and the United States.
In the United States, the sport enjoys its greatest popularity along the east coast, especially in Maryland (where it became the state's official team sport in 2004), Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the New England states. However, its popularity has started to spread west to Colorado, California, Texas, and the Midwest, spurred by the sport's increasing visibility in the media, the growth of college and high school programs, and youth or "pee wee" leagues throughout the country. Currently, there are only two NCAA Division I men's lacrosse teams west of the Mississippi River: Air Force and the University of Denver. The growth of lacrosse was also facilitated by the introduction of plastic heads invented by Baltimore-based stick maker STX in the 1970s. This innovation reduced the weight and cost of the stick, and allowed for faster passes and game play.
At the collegiate level, there are currently 57 NCAA Division I men's lacrosse teams, 32 Division II men's lacrosse teams, and 131 Division III men's lacrosse teams. There are also currently 83 Division I women's lacrosse teams, 37 Division II women's lacrosse Teams, and 154 Division III women's lacrosse teams. Additionally, almost 200 collegiate men's club teams compete at the Men's Collegiate Lacrosse Association level, including most major universities in the United States.
In Canada, the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association has been operating a collegiate men's league since 1985 and now includes 12 varsity teams which span from London, Ontario to Lennoxville, Quebec. On the women's side, 10 varsity teams, from London, Ontario to Montreal, Quebec, compete in the Ontario University Athletics conference.
At the professional level, there are 7 National Lacrosse League indoor box lacrosse teams in the United States and Canada. In Major League Lacrosse, there are 6 teams also based in the United States and Canada. The Australian Lacrosse League has 3 teams; 1 for each of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia