The Tragic Way Monterey Jack Cheese Got Its Name

Photo: © Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

With the average American eating 30 pounds of it a year, it's clear that Americans love their cheese (mozzarella is the most popular). While we may eat too much of it today, cheese has always been part of our diet with historians tracing its origins back 7000 years. The ancient Egyptians enjoyed cheese so much that they would bury it with their mummies. In Homer's Odyssey, the Cyclops made goat cheese for his guests and the Romans used it as currency (the Italians still do).

Today, though, many of the cheeses we eat date back only a few hundred years, including the born-the-USA "Monterey Jack." This is story of how this cheese came to be named after the ruthlessly corrupt landowner, David Jack.

In 1769, Spanish Franciscan Father Junipero Serra (whose canonization recently became the topic of some controversy) founded the first California Catholic mission in present-day San Diego. A year later, the second mission was founded at Monterey Bay. The missionaries not only brought their religion to this unknown part of the world, but their foods as well. This included grapes, olives and cattle (in fact, many of the cattle on the continent today are of Spanish descent). Cattle was a great resource because not only did they provide meat and fresh milk, but also a soft, white cheese the missionaries called Queso blanco pais.

After several decades under Spanish and Mexican rule, control of California changed hands. In 1846, Mexico and the United States went to war, a war that ended in a resounding United States victory. The warring nations signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and, as a condition, Mexico sold California to the US at a bargain basement price of 15 million dollars (a bit over $400 million today).

With the establishment of a new state, Americans came pouring into California. Some came looking for gold, others came looking for land, but everyone came looking for power and fortune. In the treaty, the US promised to uphold Mexico's rancho system, but federal government-established commissions found loopholes and ways to undermine Mexican farmers - like demanding long forgotten paperwork and attendance at far away hearings. Many Mexicans lost their beloved farms to people like David Jack.

When Jack first arrived to California in 1848 from New York, he brought a stockpile of revolvers with him to sell to the "law-abiding and lawless alike." After a brief stay in Scotland, he settled in Monterey in 1857, where he befriended attorney Delos R. Ashley, who had been hired by the town of Monterey to legitimize their land claims to the United States Land Claims Commission. Two years later, Ashley won the case, but demanded nearly one thousand dollars in attorney fees and the town couldn't pay. So, an agreement was reached that Monterey would auction off the very lands that Ashley defended to help pay his fees. On February 9th, 1859, the hastily-called auction took place with only two bidders: Ashley and David Jack. Nearly all of Monterey's 30,000 acres of land was sold off to the two men. They price they paid: $1000.02. Locals eventually came to call this auction the "Rape of Monterey."

With his new acquisition of land, Jack worked to maximize his profits. He charged obscene taxes to renters and foreclosed on properties, sometimes posting notices in English to intentionally confuse Spanish-speaking farm owners. On Jack's land, there were cattle ranches, vineyards and 14 operating diaries. According to Jack, everything they made, he owned - including the popular white cheese, Queso blanco pais.

Jack, realizing the marketability of the cheese, began selling it throughout Monterey with his name slapped on it, "Jack's Cheese." Soon, the cheese became so popular that people were eating it all across California—all of them asking for "Monterey Jack's Cheese."

So the next time, you sprinkle some of this white, mild cheese on nachos, take a moment to think of the Spanish Franciscan missionaries who invented it. Then, curse David Jack for stealing it from them.

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