It’s a beautiful day in San Juan Bautista, circa 1900. A quiet man in Chinese garb is driving his one-horse cart down Third Street. The children of the town know him by sight. As he passes by, he throws handfuls of candy, oranges and cookies wrapped in paper from a wooden box by his feet to the excited youngsters who chase after his cart.
The man’s next stop is the Mission, where he loses himself for a moment in prayer, kneeling in a dark corner of the vast church. As he rises to leave, he turns to a parishioner and asks, “Anyone in town hungry?” Jim Jack is making his rounds and he is always ready to lend a hand.
Jim Jack came from China in 1867 at the age of 16, according to a 1919 San Francisco Chronicle article included in Charles W. Clough book “San Juan Bautista: The Town, the Mission & the Park.” We don’t know his birth name. He was also known as Poison Jim, China Jim and Chinese Jim, but mostly as Jim Jack, pronounced with an emphasis on the first syllable and as one word.
The name Poison Jim came from his first job, killing squirrels at the Flint/Bixby ranch outside San Juan Bautista. The ranch had originally been half of Rancho San Justo, the other half was owned by Colonel William Wells Hollister who used it to found the city that bears his name.
Owen Clarke Treleaven, in an article on Jim Jack in the July 1919 issue of the Overland Monthly, quotes a stagecoach driver named Leagan as saying “Now I was goin’ to tell yuh how Poison Jim got that name wasn’t I? Well, it seems he had more luck than anyone else ’round here mixin’ poisoned grain to kill off ground squirrels.”
Turning a problem into opportunity
During his time in the fields, Jim Jack quickly saw something that the farmers didn’t know. In their haste to winnow the wheat they grew, they were ignoring a valuable crop.
Isaac Mylar, in his memoir “Early Days in San Juan Bautista,” recalls that “The farmers would throw the mustard seed away. ‘China Jim’ began to gather this up. The farmer was glad to get rid of this seed and they gave it to him.”
Even before Jim Jack arrived, mustard was a huge problem for local farmers. There is an old (and most likely untrue) legend that the missionaries brought the plant with them to mark the trail of the El Camino Real. More likely, they grew it for the seeds and the oil.
However it arrived, California now had its first strongly invasive foreign plant. In 1837, José María Estudillo, a lieutenant in Spain’s Monterey Company and amateur botanist, wrote that mustard was everywhere and that “there is so much of it that it cannot be destroyed by human means.”
Jim Jack found a market for the seeds, particularly in San Francisco, and soon gathered a workforce. “There are two documented places where Chinese people lived in San Juan and he gathered some of his friends from there to gather the mustard seed,” Georgana Gularte with the San Juan Historical Society said.
By 1875, Jim Jack had roughly 100 Chinese immigrants working for him, clearing mustard plants from over 10,000 acres of local farmland, and he owned tons of mustard seeds.
Around this time, he gave Charles and Peter Clausen money to buy 26 acres of land for him to farm. As a Chinese immigrant, Jim Jack could not own property himself. His only request was that he could live on the property, in a 12-by-12-foot shack. He helped work the land himself raising flax and he cooked meals for the farm hands regularly.
Mylar describes the location as “what was always called ‘the middle of the lane’ that is on the long straight lane between San Juan Bautista and Hollister.” Today, that lane is Highway 156 and Jim Jack’s cabin was located off of Mission Vineyard Road near a creek.
Treleaven describes seeing Jim Jack at this home, the only description we have of the man.
“He opened the door and I saw a picturesquely typical Chinaman of the old school dazzling with the sheer richness of his attire, his brocaded silk over-jacket with gilded buttons so necessary to the ensemble and the undercoats faintly in evidence in a fairy web of blue and white silk.”
In 1879, Jim Jack was well-positioned to cash in on his crop. The year before, there had been a worldwide drought that destroyed the mustard crops of France and South Africa. “People were looking all over the world for mustard seed,” Gularte said. “And they heard about this guy down here who had it.”
A French speculator came from South Africa by sailing ship and stagecoach to San Juan Bautista to meet with Jim Jack and paid him between $33,000 and $40,000 for his entire holdings. While accounts of the payment vary, the low-end estimate is equal to $850,000 today.
Jim Jack was now “the Mustard King.” In his book “Beasts of the Field,” Richard Street wrote; “This single act established California’s wild mustard business and the following year Chinese field hands returned to work not just for ‘Mustard Jim’ but for dozens of other Chinese and white farmers in the Salinas, Pajaro, and San Juan Bautista valleys.”
The harvests grew quickly.
“Tax rolls from the 1890s list the names of Chinese and white farmers alike who paid taxes first on seventeen tons, then thirty-four, and, in 1895, ‘a whopping’ sixty-eight tons of mustard seed,” author Rich Bellis noted.
The 1878 drought that hit much of the world caused severe unemployment and suffering in the local community. Two successive harvests lay dead for lack of water. During that crisis, Jim Jack gave away $20,000 (worth about $500,000 today) in money and supplies for those who needed it.
Jim Jack paid particular attention to the natives in the area, who were already hard-hit by a recent smallpox outbreak. Treleaven describes Jim Jack in a two-wheeled cart, heading a procession “leading a string of twelve wagons . . . and in them wagons was provisions he’d bought in San Jose. Well, old Jim went straight to that Indian village and stopped.”
For the rest of his time in San Juan Bautista, he became well-known for helping the poor, paying medical expenses for those who could not afford them and bringing treats to his friends. Mylar describes Jim Jack coming to visit his family. He gave Mylar’s wife packages of mincemeat, raisins, candies and nuts.
“To the children, he would give fifty cents or a dollar each, and before he left he would get close to me and slip a dollar in my pocket and whisper, ‘You get a cup of beer.’
“I have known of him hiring a four-horse team and driver to take him to Hollister at which town he bought enough flour for a load, had it driven back to San Juan and distributed among the laboring men’s families,” Mylar writes. “On another occasion, he bought three hundred sacks of potatoes all of which he gave away.”
The January 25, 1919 issue of the San Juan Mission News announced: “‘Jim Jack,’ Philanthropist, Will Return to China,” saying “there is genuine sorrow among a large number of our residents at the going away of their old friend.”
“He left because he was ill and wanted to die in China,” Gularte said. “At a certain point, after seven or eight years, the Chinese would systematically dig up graves. After that time, the bones could be consolidated and shipped back cheaply to China. He wanted to go himself and he had the money to do it.”
Just as nobody knew from where he had come, nobody knew where he went in China. A year later, word came back to the town. Jim Jack was dead.
He had few possessions and left little behind. One important thing remained though: his home out on Mission Vineyard Road. The San Juan Bautista Historical Society purchased the cabin and had it restored in 2006; it was moved to a location next to its headquarters at the corner of Third and Monterey streets.
“We had originally wanted to place it in the state park, but they would not [approve] it because we could not prove he lived in it before 1880 and that is what the park demands,” Gularte said. “We could prove it after 1880 but not before.”
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation declared it to be “one of the last remaining artifacts of the Chinese American population which played such an important role in early California history.” The few possessions of Jim Jack’s that were kept there are now preserved and on display at the Historical Society. Among them are a teapot and some of the screens used to sift mustard.
There is a plaque on the cabin, donated by the Monterey Chapter of E Clampus Vitus in 1973, that sums up the life and character of the almost mythic immigrant: “Jim Jack was known as China Jim, the Mustard King. In the 1880s he gathered mustard seed from the grain fields in the San Juan Valley. Jim Jack, ‘the big-hearted Chinaman’ had that rarest of gifts, the gift of giving.”
“Take a walk down there and look at the little cabin he lived in. Think about what he did for San Juan Bautista,” Gularte said. “We have his little building there to look at and inspire us. We can always use the past to inform and inspire our present.”
BenitoLink thanks the San Juan Bautista Historical Society for providing newspaper clippings and other information about Jim Jack. Photos of Jim Jack artifacts by Robert Eliason with permission of the San Juan Bautista Historical Society.
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