The Crooked Landowner Who Gave Monterey Jack Cheese Its Name

The history of mild-mannered Monterey Jack cheese is as murky as the reputation of the man who is credited with naming it. The cheese has fascinating links to California history and a 19th-century land baron in the city of Monterey – Scottish immigrant David Jacks. Jacks was infamous for his shady business dealings, including cornering the market for a local cheese that had been produced by many small farmers since the days of Spanish missionaries. Large shipments of cheese from his dairy in cases stamped with his name and the city of origin led customers to request "Monterey Jacks' cheese," giving lasting fame to the man who just happened to be powerful enough to push his way into the cheese business.

David Jacks certainly did not invent his namesake cheese – history shows that the fresh, white cheese then known as queso del pais had been produced in Spanish missions for a century in California. We know that Doña Juana Cota de Boronda supported her family of 17 in Monterey by selling the cheese door-to-door. Swiss-Italian dairy farmer Domingo Pedrazzi also made jack-pressed cheese sold in the area. However, Jacks' ownership in a large dairy association allowing him to mass produce the cheese and ship it to far away customers strengthens the claim that it's his name on the package today. 

The crooked path from gold rush to cheese baron

Jacks arrived in California during the 1849 gold rush, settling in the important political center of northern California, Monterey. He quickly became one of the largest landowners in the area and was constantly fighting boundary disputes, according to historical documents. His method of expanding his property was based on making loans to farmers and then foreclosing. If the farmer spoke English, the foreclosures were posted in Spanish, and English notices were posted for the Spanish speakers; just one of the shady tricks Jacks used to acquire his fortune. 

Jacks' most infamous land deal involved nearly 30,000 acres of former pueblo lands granted to the city of Monterey by the U.S. Land Commission. Attorney Delos Ashley charged the city $1002.50 for legal services to secure the grant. The city then put that same land up for auction to pay the bill and Jacks and Ashley were the sole bidders. The result of the swindle was that Ashley got his money, the two men owned the land, and the city was empty-handed.  

Although Jacks owned most of Monterey County at one time, at the time his final heir died in 1962, his fortune had been donated to universities and the land had been given back to the city of Monterey. So when you reach for the delicious white cheese we still call Monterey Jack, you're reaching back through time, connecting with a slice of California history and the complicated legacy of David Jacks.