For 15 years Jan Peterson has been chronicling the history of Nanaimo and its people. In five books she has charted the city’s development and told the stories of its early settlers.
Her latest book focusses on one specific figure who kept making appearances in her other works. It is called Mark Bate: Nanaimo’s First Mayor.
She began her research into Bate four years ago during a visit to the Nanaimo Archives when she was presented with a letter book of more than 300 pages belonging to Bate.
“I took a look at it. I couldn’t believe it,” Peterson said of the collection of communiqués.
“It was amazing because there is a story about the man. So many times in history you read about the achievements of a person but you don’t really hear very much about the man himself or his family.”
The missives covered the period when Bate was the manager of the Vancouver Coal Company, which operated the mines in Nanaimo. In his correspondences with his boss in England Bate recounted events in the city and offered personal information about his family life.
“I’m seeing a different side of Mark Bate and despite all the things that he had done this was a revelation to me to understand more about him. And I had never written anything about one person before,” Peterson said, adding, “It was really very interesting, I really enjoyed it. But everything that had been written about him, about his early beginnings, was untrue.”
Through the Archives Peterson began communicating with the great-great-great-grandson of Bate’s brother Joseph, who was researching his own family history. Through this new contact Peterson was able to correct inaccuracies about Bate’s life in England before immigrating to Vancouver Island, like his work and schooling history.
The book follows Bate through his private and public life and covers the drama that arises between Bate and other prominent coal men-turned-politicians, Robert Dunsmuir and John Bryden. In the background, Nanaimo blossoms from a mining colony to city.
“I was very interested in the city and the formation of the city, but Mark Bate was something totally different for me,” Peterson said.
While telling the city’s story in the context of a single character was a departure for the writer, now that she has one historical biography to her name, Peterson is already at work on a follow-up.
“I’m addicted,” she said.
“I get up in the morning and do my chores and then I sit in front of the computer and write, I go to the Archives to research or go into the library and dig out the old newspapers.”