Kenneth Owens, a professor emeritus of history and ethnic studies at California State University, Sacramento, said the history of Sutter has been distorted by "two intellectually warring camps" that cast him either as a hero or scoundrel.
The myth-laden debate continues to this day.
Last year, for example, the Davis City Council voted unanimously to remove Sutter's name from a city street because of concerns about his treatment of American Indians.
"He was a rapist. He was an enslaver," Jack Forbes, professor emeritus of American Indian studies at UC Davis, told the council. "We can't afford to honor men like that."
The rapist allegation originates from a Sutter associate and fellow Swiss immigrant, Heinrich Lienhard, Hurtado said, and it's a dubious claim at best.
"Let me see if I can get the sequence right," Hurtado said, pausing. "(Lienhard) says that a man told him that an American man told him that his Tahitian wife told him that a California Indian woman told him that her sister had said ... How many ways can this go wrong?"
Sutter did, in fact, enslave Miwok and Nisenan Indians, including children, who resisted his rule of the Valley land he claimed, roughly between Tres Picos (the Sutter Buttes) near Marysville and the Cosumnes River, Hurtado said. And Sutter had dissidents flogged, imprisoned or executed before a firing squad.
"This was Sutter at his most ruthless," Hurtado said.