Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver

Beavers, those icons of industriousness, have been gnawing down trees, building dams, shaping the land, and creating critical habitat in North America for at least a million years. Once one of the continent’s most ubiquitous mammals, they ranged from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Rio Grande to the edge of the northern tundra. Wherever there was wood and water, there were beavers — 60 million (or more) — and wherever there were beavers, there were intricate natural communities that depended on their activities. Then the European fur traders arrived.

In Once They Were Hats, Frances Backhouse examines humanity’s 15,000-year relationship with Castor canadensis, and the beaver’s even older relationship with North American landscapes and ecosystems. From the waterlogged environs of the Beaver Capital of Canada to the wilderness cabin that controversial conservationist Grey Owl shared with pet beavers; from a bustling workshop where craftsmen make beaver-felt cowboy hats using century-old tools to a tidal marsh where an almost-lost link between beavers and salmon was recently found, Backhouse goes on a journey of discovery to find out what happened after we nearly wiped this essential animal off the map, and how we can learn to live with beavers now that they’re returning.

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Once They Were Hats is also available from Audible as an audiobook. Listen to an excerpt:


Shortlisted for the 2016 Lane Anderson Award for best Canadian science book and the 2016 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. In their citation, the Butler Book Prize jurors said: “Backhouse not only restores the dignity and grandeur of Canada’s national symbol, but along the way—through exhaustive research, fine writing, an eye for the telling anecdote—she tells a story as informative as it is entertaining.”

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High Country News: “Backhouse is a perceptive observer and listener, ever alert to the subtle ways the beaver’s story entwines with individual people. She has the knack of a documentary filmmaker.” – from “The historical lifetime of the beaver”

The National Post: “Once They Were Hats is deeply, enthrallingly, page-turningly fascinating.” – from “Hot dam! Beavers — extremely weird, and essential to who we are”

The Globe and Mail: “a thorough account of the tirelessly industrious beaver’s past, present and possible future … The pages brim with information and interesting tidbits.” – from “Frances Backhouse’s Once They Were Hats is fascinating and smartly written”

Canada’s History: “a compelling account of our national symbol … Backhouse is a lively reporter … And she effortlessly incorporates into her captivating narrative the kind of information that snags everybody’s attention.” – from “Once They Were Hats” [review by Charlotte Gray]

Literary Review of Canada: “Backhouse is a skilled and personable narrator who guides us on a tour of the long, fond and sometimes lethal relationship we have entertained with this pudgy little rodent.” – from “The Pelt Belt”

Ottawa Magazine:Frances Backhouse’s much-praised book will tell you more than you ever imagined about beavers, from their prehistoric past as two-metre-long rodents to their popularity as hat material, their elevation as national symbol, and their huge influence in reshaping the Canadian landscape. Every true-blue cottager should study, if not memorize, Backhouse’s writings.” – from “Four must-have books to take to the lake”

Chicago Tribune: “Backhouse gives the little buck-toothed rodent the credit it deserves in an intelligent and interesting look at Castor canadensis.” – from “Exploring the animal kingdom”

January Magazine: “Backhouse builds a case for the beaver as noble standard bearer fora new world order blending history, science and common sense into an engaging and memorable work.” – from Oct. 14, 2015 review