American Games - Games in American History answers questions

American Games

Ute horse race
Ute horse race (thanks to
Southern Ute Museum and Cultural Center)

The first important change in North American games after 1500 AD came with the horse. As many Native American groups like the Ute people got horses and learned to ride them, young men and women began to race their horses, and soon horse-racing on tracks, and gambling on horse races, were very popular ways to spend time. Both men and women also kept on playing traditional games like lacrosse, and European settlers also learned to play these games.

Baseball in 1833
Settlers playing baseball in 1833 AD

By the 1800s AD, the European settlers began to make up new games of their own. In the late 1700s, the English game of "rounders" began to be turned into the American game of baseball. Our earliest record of it is a law passed in western Massachusetts in 1791. The law said that nobody could play baseball near the new meeting house, for fear of breaking the windows! In 1845, Alexander Cartwright printed up a list of rules for baseball, which got everyone to agree to play by pretty much the same rules. The game spread all over the United States when northern soldiers played baseball wherever they were sent during the Civil War.

Around the same time, in the 1820s, people in England were beginning to play soccer (which they called football), and then in 1823 they also began to play the rougher game of rugby. When these two games came over to America with immigrants from England, they got some different rules and became known as football, or American football. Football took off slowly, but by the 1860s many college students played football, especially at Eastern colleges like Princeton, Rutgers, and Harvard. So many people were getting hurt during these games, and even killed, that the colleges set up a committee to make some rules so people wouldn't get hurt so much. That was in 1905.

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan plays basketball

Basketball came along much later than baseball and football. In 1891, Dr. James Naismith, who was a physical education teacher, wanted a good game for kids to play inside during the winter (he lived in the state of Massachusetts, where the winters were long and very snowy and cold). Naismith didn't want his game to take up too much space. So he wrote down the rules for basketball, and soon people were playing it all over the United States.

Even after slavery ended, all through the first half of the 1900s, white people wouldn't let black people play in the same games with them, and there were black baseball and football leagues alongside the white ones. People also only allowed men on the teams, and not women. By 1946, a few black men got on to white football teams. In 1947, Jackie Robinson was the first black man on a white baseball team. In 1950, black men finally got on white basketball teams.

When black people finally could join white teams, a lot of them took advantage of this opportunity. White people wouldn't hire black people for most good jobs, so professional sports became one of the few ways for black men to make a lot of money.

Women's soccer
Women's soccer

Women didn't get to play sports much until the 1970s, when the United States government forced public schools and colleges to provide equal sports time for boys and girls. Even today, there still aren't any women on men's professional sports teams.

Until the 1970s, hardly anybody in North America played soccer, even though it had become very popular in the rest of the world. Then boys and girls began to play soccer, and now it is becoming more and more popular.

Learn by doing: join a team and play some baseball, basketball, football or soccer
More about swimming
History of board games

Bibliography and further reading about the history of American games:

Early American Games
North America (after 1500) home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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