How Monterey Jack Cheese Came To Be

In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries began their takeover of California. Over a sixty year period starting in 1769, twenty one outposts were settled by Catholic priests of the Franciscan order to spread their beliefs among the local population. The second one established was in today’s Monterey, California.

The Spanish missionaries, wanting to be self-sufficient, brought supplies, foodstuffs, seeds, and livestock into California never before seen in the Americas. For example, grapes, apples, and figs were grown for the first time in this part of the world at this time. Oranges were planted for the first time in North America in the Gulf Coast and Caribbean regions about 150 years prior, but made their first appearance on North America’s west coast due to Spanish missionaries.

Livestock were also part of the European colonization of America. Arriving in the mid-17th century from Europe, cattle were a huge food and supply source for the settlers. Of course, milk  also came from these cows. Any fresh milk that wasn’t used was preserved by converting it into cheese.

In Monterey, the cheese they made was soft, creamy, and light and became part of the Spanish missionaries’ regular diet. They called it, “Queso blanco pais,” or “the country peasant white cheese.” Hence, the Monterey part of the name “Monterey Jack,” with the town itself named after the viceroy of New Spain, Gaspar de Zúñiga Acevedo y Fonseca, the 5th Count of Monterrey.

But what about Jack?

Fast forward to 1841, when a Scottish immigrant by the name of David Jack arrived in New York. He became a storekeeper with his two brothers. It’s not clear exactly what their store sold, but at some point they became army contractors and hosted military personal, including one Robert E. Lee.

Apparently unsatisfied with store life, in 1848, Jack made his way west. Before he left, though, he bought $1,400 (about $37,169 today) worth of revolvers in hopes of selling them out west. He did exactly that and made a nice profit. He also speculated in finding gold but wasn’t as profitable. He moved to San Francisco to try to make ends meet. He became a customs agent and found his way to Monterey on a business trip. Jack fell in love with the central coast town and officially moved there, but he struggled.

In 1821, Mexico gained their independence from Spain after an eleven year war, and in order to encourage expansion, the Mexican government continued what the Spaniards had started by issuing land grants, or ranchos, to individuals. These individuals were allowed to settle, farm, and use the land however they saw fit. In 1846, only twenty five years after Mexico’s independence, the US Army invaded the Mexican territories of New Mexico and California and the Mexican-American war began. Within twenty two months, the US had won the war and their territorial expansion to the Pacific Coast was complete.

US government-run commissions were set up to determined who actually owned the ranchos. The rancho owners were forced to provide documentation, deeds, and records in order to prove that this was their land. Many couldn’t do this due to the years that had past since coming into ownership.

This is where we go back to Mr. David Jack.

David Jack

David Jack

In 1853, with the US still sorting out all the land grants, the pueblo of Monterey attempted to make its claim that the land belonged to the town, not the US government. They hired Delos Rodeyn Ashley as their lawyer. He actually won their claim for them, but demanded nearly a thousand dollars in fees. The town was broke and was forced to auction off its lands anyway to pay Ashley.

On February 9, 1859 at 5 pm, the auction commenced. The sole bidders were Ashley and David Jack. They purchased every single inch of land in Monterey that day, nearly 30,000 acres, for $1002.50. Thus, Ashley got his money from the city, and then some when he later turned over his rights to the land to Jack. It was not hard to believe that this was some sort of set-up. A suit concerning the auction and subsequent purchase went all the way to the Supreme Court and became known as “The Rape of Monterey.”

David Jack quickly profited on his purchase through farming, grazing, and charging obscene taxes on those who had built on it. He was ruthless. Jack acquired even more land and immediately began foreclosing on properties. He did this by posting foreclosure notices on hard-to-find parts of individual properties and in a different language- as in, if it was a Mexican owner, the notices were in English. If they were English speaking Americans, they were in Spanish.

These lands hosted many types of business that Jack now “owned,” including 14 different dairies that were operated by Spanish and Portuguese dairymen within the Monterey lands. When they had excess milk, they preserved it by turning it into cheese, the special “Queso blanco pais” much like their missionary forefathers. Well, since Jack co-owned these dairies, he claimed this cheese as his own. He slapped his name on it and called it “Jack’s Cheese.” Soon, the cheese began selling across California and the west coast. In order to identify where it came from, people began calling it “Monterey Jack” cheese. As you can imagine, David Jack was just fine with this.

To this day, it’s still called Monterey Jack cheese and derivatives, such as Colby-Jack (a mixture of Colby and Monterey Jack cheese) also exist, a homage to a ruthless, corrupt California landowner who claimed an old cheese recipe as his own.


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