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The Mittie Stephens: A Sidewheel Steamboat on the Inland Rivers, 1863-1869

Shelley Lang
Thesis: August 1986
Chair: van Doorninck
Nautical Archaeology Program

The Mittie Stephens was built in Madison, Indiana, in 1863 for trade on the lower Missouri River. Six years later, while enroute to Jefferson, Texas, she burned and sank, with great loss of life, in Caddo Lake, Louisiana. Her journey from Missouri to Texas, and her flaming death, have been the subjects of high-school essays, Victorian poetry, and cracker-barrel conversations around the Caddo Lake region, where rumors, superstitions, and arguments about the boat abound.

Jefferson, once the head of Red River navigation, has long been conscious of its historical heritage and its early dependence of river traffic. The Mittie Stephens Foundation was established there to research the history of the boat, and to locate, excavate and subsequently display her remains.

During the Civil War, the Mittie Stephens was illegally seized by the Union and served to carry dispatches, troops, and supplies in the Red River campaign. In peacetime, she plied the Mississippi before becoming a New Orleans-to-Jefferson packet. In February, 1869, carrying passengers and a government consignment of hay, gunpowder, and a $100,000 payroll for troops stationed in Jefferson, she steamed upriver to Caddo Lake, caught fire, and sank. Over sixty people lost their lives in a well-documented scene of chaos and pandemonium.

Eyewitness accounts of the disaster gave a glimpse of the passengers and crew that statistics cannot furnish. Stories began to emerge of greed and heroism, of mass graves and mistaken identities. Data accumulated in the investigation allowed previously unknown details of construction of the Mittie Stephens to emerge, and helped to paint a clearer picture of steamboats of the era.

The Mittie Stephens, originally though to have burned on the Texas side of Caddo Lake, is known to have sunk in Louisiana, about a mile and half from the state line. Surveys conducted over a two-year period have recorded many anomalies; all but one were caused by oil-field debris. The remaining anomaly is believed to have been caused by the remains of the Mittie Stephens, and will be investigated when funding is available. It is hypothesized that enough of the boat remains to warrant excavation, and that the wreck can and will be found.

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