“A blow across the shins with a racket is permissible, and broken heads are not uncommon.”
The Choctaw Nation of the lower Mississippi River Valley was one of the most influential yet lesser-known groups of 18th century New Orleans. Since French involvement in the region, interactions between the groups were frequent. Native-American and African-American relations were also common considering French and subsequent Spanish law was more lenient than English law.
One of the most evident outcomes of that unique cultural diffusion was the appropriation of toli, a popular Choctaw sport that resembles modern-day lacrosse. African-Americans dubbed it raquette, French for racket, since the game consisted of rackets. Raquette was the first recorded sport to be played and organized in New Orleans, and the earliest known games were appropriately held around Congo Square, a place already used for intercultural trading.
Various teams formed throughout the area. Lower class whites appropriated the sport and formed teams to compete. Rivals eventually emerged between two of the better teams: the “Bayous” and “La Villes”. The Bayous consisted of African-Americans and Choctaws from the rural outskirts of New Orleans, mainly from the Bayou St. John area. La Villes consisted of African-Americans from New Orleans proper (Ville is the French word for city). Although lower class whites and Creoles formed their own teams, these two rival occupied the field by Congo Square on Sundays and the fans’ attention
Raquette was played with a massive field. George Washington Cable visited these matches and noted, “There was a wide room for much field sport.” According to Dale A. Somers, author of The Rise of Sports in New Orleans: 1850-1900:
Raquette was played on a field varying in length two hundred yards to a half mile. Two poles, across which canvas or paper was stretched, were set at each end of the field as goals. Each player carried a spoon-shaped raquette, eighteen to twenty inches long, with which he threw or carried a leather ball, two inches in diameter, in a frantic effort to hit the opponent’s goal. There were no rules to limit team sizes, and often more than eighty youths played on each side. Under such conditions raquette amounted to little more than organized mayhem; scoreless draws, highlighted by many bruises, were common when the Bayous and LaVilles clashed. (p. 71)
The sheer number of players and viewers dramatically increased as the population of the City increased. The main raquette field was moved to a more spacious area and named “La Plaine Raquette” or “La Marigny Green”. The field was bounded between Galvez Street and North Claiborne and St. Bernard Ave and Elysian Fields in the Seventh Ward are located today. Black New Orleanians played throughout the region, with fields extending to the Algiers across the river.
In 1859, the city attempted to organize white participation and segregate the sport, but the established multicultural and multiracial games still drew the most spectators. The games were often reported on by local newspapers. On April 13, 1868, the Daily Picayune reported:
“The match game of raquette between 25 Indians and 25 Creoles, played at the Fair Grounds yesterday, was witnessed by a large number of persons. They were all dressed in costume, and appeared to splendid advantage. The Indians were victorious in decidedly the most spirited contest it has ever been our fortune to see, the score of the game being 12 to 2.”
On June 15, 1879, The Daily Picayune reported on an intense rival game:
The Pioneer Green yesterday was alive with people who came to witness the second of a series of games for the raquette championship flag between La Ville and Bayou Clubs. Each club numbered 59 players. The La Villa men were under the captainship of Henry Beineche, and the Bayous were led by L. Lange. The umpire, Capt. MacElroy, started the game at exactly 5 o’clock. Both sides immediately settled down to hard work. The brave blue shirted city men scored two. After much hard work the Bayous scored their first and only time. The game was limited to two hours, and the end was fast approaching. The La Villes did their utmost to prevent the Bayous tieing [sic], and the latter worked hard to avoid defeat.
The game was decided by the Captain of La Villes striking their base and winning the match for his club by a score of 3 to 1. This makes one game for each of the clubs. The third and last game will be played on Tuesday evening, and both sides will make a desperate fight.
Pioneer Green was located on Ursulines street, bounded by Salcedo and Dupre streets. It became a spot for the best Creole raquette players, often hosting rivalry matches. Family loyalty to the teams was strong, as sons would play on the team of their fathers.
Visitors to New Orleans were also known to frequent these matches. During a hot summer in 1901, Steward Culin witnessed a game as he was researching Native American games for the Smithsonian Institute:
The players, some hundreds of French-speaking negroes, had assembled in a level, unenclosed field. The majority were armed with rackets, each consisting of a piece of hickory bent over at one end to form a spoon, which was netted with a throng, precisely like those used by the Choctaw. A racket was carried in each hand, and the ball was picked up and thrown with them in the same way as in the Indian game. The players appear to own their own rackets, and I purchased a pair without difficulty…
The goals or bases were two tall poles about 600 feet apart, having a strip of tin, about a foot wide and 10 feet long, fastened on the inner side some distance above the ground. These goals, called plats, were painted, one red with a small double ring of white near the top, the other blue with a black ring. Midway in a straight line between was a small peg to mark the center of the field, where the ball was first thrown… The game appeared to be open, free for all, without reference to number; but in more formal matches the sides are equalized and regulated. The ball was put in play at the center flag, being tossed high in the air, and caught on the uplifted ball sticks. Then there was a wild rush across the field, the object being to secure and carry the ball and toss it against the tin plate, making a plat. The game was play with much vigor and no little violence. A blow across the shins with a racket is permissible, and broken heads are not uncommon. Play usually continues until dark, and, at the close, the winners sing Creole songs, reminding one of the custom at the close of the Choctaw game.
Local author and journalist Henry C. Castellanos wrote about the social climate surrounding the matches. “The running, wrestling and dexterity of the players were not only very exciting spectacles, but the eager crowd of spectators and acquaintances, running into the thousands… made such occasions a source of social entertainment.” Booths sold “sweet beer” and “ice cream”. Gambling was common. The victors paraded into the city “singing in mockery of the losing party”.
Despite games played into the 20th century, raquette was on the decline by the 1890s. In May of 1897, The Daily Picayune published “When Raquette Was A Popular Play,” a column that detailed its origin and history throughout the 19th century. According to the article, the game “was preeminently the popular game in this locality for nearly a century, until a few years ago, when it was partly abandoned, with the exception of a game now and then…”
The reasons for the decline are uncertain, but one can speculate. Certainly the rise of American sports permeated New Orleans as the city underwent waves of Americanization. Local newspapers began covering “base ball” by the early 1860s, and it quickly became popular. The New Orleans Pelicans, a local baseball team, became the city’s first professional team in 1887, and won three championships in 1887, 1889, and 1896. Baseball was also profitable on a national scale. Perhaps the notion that the local multicultural sport attracted poor whites, African-Americans, and Native Americans caused a lack of investment by the wealthy in a segregated New Orleans.
Overall, language, culture, and other aspects of Creole life dwindled in 20th century New Orleans. Native American influence also whined as the shrinking presence of Choctaws was relegated to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Toli and similar variations are still played among Native Americans throughout the United States, and the University of Georgia even has a toli team. The origins of lacrosse can be traced from toli and similar games.
Inevitably, Jim Crow laws and an increasingly segregated city may have caused strife between blacks and whites continuing interracial matches. As the 1897 article in The Daily Picayune states, “This is a reminiscence of the ‘good old days’ when domestic harmony was all that could be desired, and when blacks and whites were so happy and contented in playing, or in witnessing, the noble game of raquette.” A few decades later the game seemed completely irrelevant. WPA writers in the 1930s concluded people became too “soft” for the game in their Guide to New Orleans.
Wanna play some ball?
Sources and Further Reading:
“The Rise of Sports in New Orleans: 1850-1900” by Dale A. Somers
“American Indians in the Lower Mississippi Valley: Social and Economic Histories” by Daniel H. Usner, Jr.
“When Raquette was a Popular Play” The Daily Picayune, 1897.