The Strange History of Monterey Jack

If there’s two things Americans love, it’s ranch dressing and Monterey Jack cheese.

The story behind ranch dressing is simple and happy: in 1954, a couple named Steve and Gayle Henson opened a resort called Hidden Valley Ranch near Santa Barbara, California. There they served a salad dressing Steve had discovered and improved upon in Alaska. The dressing was such a hit with customers that the Hensons began packaging it, and in 1972 the couple sold their dressing company to Clorox for $8 million (around $47.6 million in 2017 dollars).

The story behind Monterey Jack is much darker.

It all began on June 3, 1770, when the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo was founded in what is now Monterey, California. The Franciscan missionaries began converting the local Indians to Catholicism and teaching them trades relevant to the building and maintenance of the mission, like carpentry, making adobe bricks, farming and animal husbandry. They also began making a type of cheese called queso blanco, which originated in Spain but which many Americans now think of as Mexican in origin.

At the time, Monterey was the capital of “Alta California” (Upper California), and the head of the mission, Father Junípero Serra, wanted to distance his church from the inevitable politics that came from being located there. Less than a year after its founding, Serra petitioned Pedro Fages, Alta California’s military commander, to move the mission to what is now Carmel. Serra’s petition was approved. The original site was rebuilt as the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, which still stands today as the oldest stone building in California, and the oldest continually-operating Catholic parish in the state. The newer Carmel Mission still stands today as well, although it was partially destroyed in an 1818 raid by French privateer Hipólito Bouchard and only rebuilt after the Church regained control of it in 1863. It was converted to a parish church in 1932.

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David Jack was born in 1822 in Crieff, Scotland. He moved to the United States in 1841 to join his two older brothers who had emigrated previously. Jack worked as a contractor for the U.S. Army for a few years, first in Williamsburg, Virginia and then at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. As a side note, one of Jack’s regular customers was Robert E. Lee, future leader of the Army of Northern Virginia. The two allegedly got along quite well.

Like a lot of Americans, Jack read newspaper stories about the discovery of gold in California in 1848. He used his $1,400 life savings to buy as many revolvers as he could, then set sail on a military ship in April 1849. When he arrived in San Francisco, he sold the guns for $4,000 ($119,000 in 2017 dollars) and, after failing at gold prospecting, he took a job at the San Francisco Customs House. There he received a salary of $100 a month ($3,000) and also lent out his revolver profits for 2% interest a month.

In 1850, Jack traveled to Monterey on business, and saw potential there. He moved there the following year, and got a job with a man named Joseph Boston, who owned a general store in town. He also lived as a boarder in Boston’s home. Jack loved Boston’s large, comfortable home, and also envied his respected position in the community. Jack then worked for a fellow Scotsman named James McKinlay. McKinlay owned a dry goods store, and the ambitious Jack invested in various agricultural schemes, most of which ended in failure. But fortune would soon smile upon him: in 1852, Jack was elected treasurer of Monterey County, and he began buying land in the area.

Of course, the land in question was originally owned by Mexicans, and in the wake of the Mexican-American War, claims between Mexican citizens and the United States needed to be settled. Jack, with his partner and attorney, Delos Rodeyn Ashley, became involved in settling their claims, which he often bought for pennies on the dollar. But his biggest land grab came in 1853, when the city of Monterey hired Ashley to help settle its claim to some 30,000 acres of land. Ashley did so, and billed the city $1,000 (around $30,000) for his efforts. The city didn’t have the money to pay Ashley’s fee, so he suggested to the state legislature that they pass a bill which would allow the land to be auctioned. The legislature agreed, and a law was passed which forced the city to do just that. Ashley and Jack, the only bidders in the auction, purchased the entire city for just for $1,002.50 on the steps on Colton Hall at 5 PM on February 9, 1859.

The citizens of Monterey were outraged, and after the fact the city filed suit against Ashley and Jack to have the sale declared illegal. The court ruled in Jack’s favor, and the city appealed on multiple levels. The case would end up in the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in Jack’s favor in 1903. By that time Ashley was out of the picture, having sold his share to Jack in 1869. Combined with his earlier purchases, Jack owned a giant chunk of California, land which included the modern cities of Monterey, Seaside, Pacific Grove and Del Rey Oaks, as well as Pebble Beach and the area that became Fort Ord.

It would have been one thing if Jack simply sat back and collected rent from his many tenants like some medieval lord. But Jack wasn’t that kind of guy. He lent his tenants money at high interest rates, then evicted them when they couldn’t pay. He scoured the area’s tax records and paid overdue taxes on properties without telling the owners, giving him title to the property. He foreclosed on farms by posting the required foreclosure notice in the most remote spot on the farm. If the landowners spoke Spanish, he’d post the foreclosure notice in English; if they spoke English, he’d post it in Spanish. Although Jack was careful not to break any laws, he bent and twisted them without mercy until he’d amassed some 100,000 acres of California real estate.

As you might guess, none of this went down well with the locals. Jack couldn’t travel without a posse of bodyguards. When Jack publicly called his tenants “squatters”, a group of locals banded together and formed The Squatters League of Monterey County, which sent Jack a letter in 1872 which read, in part:

You have been the cause of unnecessary annoyance and expense to the settlers now if you don’t make that account of damages to each and every one of us within ten days, you son of a bitch, we will suspend your animation between daylight and hell.

Author Robert Louis Stevenson even joined in the fray. He had visited California during Jack’s reign of terror, and in his book Across the Plains, he wrote that

Thus the town lands of Monterey are all in the hands of a single man. How they came there is an obscure, vexatious question, and rightly, or wrongly, the man is hated with a great hatred. His life has been repeatedly in danger. Not very long ago, I was told the stage was stopped three evenings in succession by disguised horsemen thirsting for his blood. A certain house on the Salinas road, they say, he always passes in his buggy at full speed, for the squatter sent him warning long ago.

Later, in the same passage, Stevenson writes about Dennis Kearney, a populist California politician:

It was while he was at the top of his fortune that Kearney visited Monterey with his battle cry against Chinese labor, the railroad monopolists, and the land thieves; and his one articulate counsel to the Montereyans was “to hang David Jack.” Had the town been American, in my private opinion this would have been done years ago. Land is a subject on which there is no jesting in the West, and I have seen my friend the lawyer drive out of Monterey to adjust a competition of titles with the face of a captain going into battle and his Smith and Wesson convenient to his hand.

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Needless to say, David Jack was a bit of a bastard. But what does any of this have to do with cheese?

Well, Jack wasn’t content to simply buy and sell land. Many of the properties he came to own were commercial in nature, so he also became a rancher, shopkeeper and saloon owner as he went along.

One of the properties was a dairy along the Salinas River. Like other dairy farmers, Jack had to deal with excess milk production, and, like other dairymen, Jack converted that extra milk into a cheese similar to what the Franciscans made popular in the area decades before. Unlike the other dairy farmers, Jack marketed the hell out of his cheese, and “Jack’s Cheese” rapidly became popular in the area. In time, Jack would partner with 14 other dairies, and soon the cheese was sold all over Northern California. As the demand for the cheese spread far from its home, it became known as “Monterey Jack cheese”.

And thus, one of America’s favorite cheeses was born.

Some will tell you otherwise, though. Some will say that David Jack’s name was actually “David Jacks”, and so “Monterey Jack” couldn’t have come from his surname. However, there’s no evidence that Jack ever changed his last name. There’s also the tendency for people to add an extra “s” to the end of names (ever heard of “Walmarts” or “Krogers”?). Combine this with the fact that so many place names around Monterey somehow involved Jack’s name  – Jack’s Bridge, Jack’s Church, Jack’s Peak – that, in my opinion, people added the extra S after the fact. After all, there are plenty of people who think the whiskey maker was named Jack Daniels, when it was really “Jack Daniel’s Whiskey”, made by Jack Daniel.

Others say that modern jack cheese was invented by a man named Domingo Pedrazzi of Carmel Valley. They say that the cheese was originally quite soft and Pedrazzi’s innovation was to dry out the cheese by pressing it. The press was known as a “house jack”, and so the cheese was originally known as “Pedrazzi’s Jack Cheese”. Whether this is true or not is actually irrelevant: both Pedrazzi and Jack were working from an age-old recipe used by Franciscans, and even if Pedrazzi actually invented the modern cheese, there’s no doubt that it was David Jack who made it a successful consumer item.

Although history has painted David Jack in a terrible light, he wasn’t all bad. He was a devout Presbyterian, and while he might have twisted the law of the land to within an inch of breaking, he took moral and social laws very seriously. He married a Mexican woman and treated Chinese folks as business equals, two progressive things for the time (especially given the anti-Chinese hysteria of the era). He gave freely to Methodist and Episcopalian churches, taught Sunday school in his own church, freely gave baskets of food to needy families, and also sent money to his family back in Scotland. He had nine children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. Although he was barely educated, he insisted that his children achieve academically. All of them graduated from college.

On July 5, 1907, the 85 year-old Jack relinquished control of his fortune to his wife, who created the David Jack Corporation of Nevada. Jack died on January 11, 1909, and his wife in 1917. In 1919, the children dissolved the company and split the remaining assets. The children lived comfortably, if a bit frugally, as their money was put into trusts and amounted to millions, Most of the children bequeathed their fortunes to various California universities, especially Margaret Jack, the last original member of the Jack family. When she died in 1962 she left all her remaining money to Stanford University, at that time the largest bequest in school history.

5 Replies to “The Strange History of Monterey Jack”

  1. I read your article with interest. Kenneth Jack forwarded it to me. It is ironic but I have a gentleman who owns a Diary here in Monterey County who is the only dairy her producing Monterey Jack Cheese, and was seeking information. I have printed your article and will give him a copy along with some intense research we have on the making of the cheese. The article on our website is not quite as in-depth as other research we have, and of course controversy on the cheese. Thank you, great article.

    Mona Gudgel
    Executive Director
    Monterey County Historical Society

  2. Pacifica claims to own the recipe of Monterey Jack. Refer to the Pacifica Tribune article written by Jean Bartlett, August 19, 2014 titled “It’s Pacifica Jack cheese any way you slice it” page 4D.

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