Were the Oneidas playing soccer or not?

by Roger Allaway

They were the first organized football club in the United States. But how much of a place does the Oneida Football Club deserve in the history of soccer in the United States? Specifically, were they the first soccer club or not? What was the game that they were playing on the Boston Common in the 1860s? Was it soccer, rugby or some sort of hybrid?

Different people have different answers to that question. All of them sincerely believe that they are correct, although they can’t all be. Personally, I believe that we don’t know the answer, and probably never will.

Some people take the idea that the Oneidas were playing soccer and that this was the birth of the sport in the United States almost as an article of faith. I have heard one such advocate contend that if you fed various data about the Oneidas into a computer, like the computers that have been used to determine the results of hypothetical boxing matches between champions from different eras, it would unquestionably spit out the answer that the game being played was soccer.

My view is that this is not the proper way to study the past. I am not a professional historian, and I am not up-to-date on the methods being used by historians in this electronic age, but I can’t believe that turning to a computer for an absolute black-and-white answer in a gray area such as this is the way to go.

Advocates on the other side feel that there is no question that the game being played was not soccer. They make the very sensible point that the meeting in London at which the rules of association football were formulated was held in 1863, a year after the Oneidas began playing. How could the Oneidas possibly have been playing soccer in 1862, they ask, when there was no such thing yet.

The Encyclopedia of American Soccer History, of which I am one of the co-authors, takes a middle-of-the-road viewpoint. We note that the Oneidas have sometimes been called the first American soccer team, which they have, and that their leader, Gerrit Smith Miller, has sometimes been called the father of American soccer, which he has, but we stop short of declaring that these labels are correct. We don’t know whether they are or not.

So why don’t we simply accept the position that the Oneidas can’t possibly have been playing soccer in 1862? Because we aren’t convinced of the correctness of that viewpoint, either.

The reason for our doubt has to do with the fact that when the representatives of various English football clubs gathered in 1863 at the Freemasons Tavern in London for the series of meetings that resulted in the formation of the Football Association, they did not invent a game unlike what most of them had already been playing. Their purpose was to standardize the rules, to iron out differences, not to create a new game. Some differences were too great to be smoothed out. Some clubs that were using rules that were based on handling the ball rather than dribbling with the feet split off from the group, resulting in the parallel but separate development of association football (soccer) and rugby football.

We think that there clearly exists a possibility that when the Oneidas began play in 1862, they could have been using the rules of one of the clubs that met to form the Football Association the following year. The rules formulated at the Freemasons Tavern meetings were not the first set of written football rules. They are believed to have depended heavily on the Cambridge University rules, which were first formulated in 1848 and had been repeatedly updated since. In addition, several clubs leaning toward the dribbling style had been formed, and rules for their games drawn up, in the London area and the English Midlands in the 1850s. There seem to have been several sets of rules for the dribbling and handling games in existence in England before 1863. The Oneidas were mostly students at a private Boston boarding school. They were the sons of privilege. Miller, and possibly some of the others, had made trips to England. One of them might have brought back one of the sets of rules being used in England, or those rules might have come to Boston by some other hand.

We don’t know whether it happened this way or not. But we don’t think that the possibility that it did can be dismissed. The fact that nobody knows how the Oneidas came by the rules that they were using is a large part of why nobody knows for certain whether it was soccer or not. But it is not impossible that the rules were those of the proto-soccer being played by one of those clubs, and for that reason we cannot flatly reject the possibility that the game being played by the Oneidas was a form of soccer, even though, with the Freemasons Tavern meetings a year off, it would not have been called association football. It also is possible that it was a form of rugby. Former Oneidas players are believed to have had some influence on football at Harvard, which was the leader on the rugby side of the question when the split between soccer and rugby in football-playing American colleges took place in the 1870s.

My own guess is that what they were playing was a hybrid, neither fully soccer nor rugby. But it is only a guess. I don’t know, and neither, I think, does anybody else. Perhaps that is a rather unsatisfying answer in this day and age, but history is not an exact science.

So, we are back to our original statement. The Oneidas were the first organized football club in the United States. Not soccer club — at least not that we know — but football club. But does it really matter whether it was soccer? The key to the fame of the Oneidas is not the identity of the form of football being played but the word organized. Earlier teams had been formed for the day or for the game. But the Oneidas were organized on a continuing basis. They were not just a pickup team. This is why they are owed homage, not just by historians of American soccer, but by those of American rugby and American football as well.