The loss of the sidewheel steamboat Mittie Stephens took place on the dark night of February 12, 1869, in Caddo Lake near the Texas-Louisiana border. Sixty-one people perished out of 107 passengers and crew members. The vessel was built in Madison, Indiana, in 1863 and served as a Union naval transport and packet during the Civil War. She took part in the failed Shreveport campaign as a part of Adm. David Porter's fleet. In 1864 she was sold into private ownership and ran on the Missouri River and then in the New Orleans-Bayou Sarah trade. In 1866 the Mittie Stephens began serving on the New Orleans-Red River route. At that time Jefferson, Texas, was the head of navigation via Caddo Lake due to the great log raft that obstructed vessel traffic on the Red River. The riverboat traffic was quite heavy; 226 steamboats called at Jefferson in 1872.
The Mittie Stephens left New Orleans for Jefferson on February 5, 1869, with passengers and an assorted cargo, including 274 bales of hay. A breeze blew a spark to the hay from the torch baskets that lighted the bows of the boat, and the fire that resulted could not be contained. The boat headed for the shore, 300 yards away, but grounded in three feet of water. The bow and forward part of the boat was engulfed in flames; the stern was in deep water. The pilot and the engineer kept the wheels running in an attempt to force the boat to shore; the action of the wheels pulled the people struggling in the water into them and killed most of them. The Mittie Stephens burned to the water line. Her safe, bell, boilers, and machinery were salvaged shortly after the sinking. Parts of the wreck could be seen above the water until the early twentieth century.
An exploratory survey was carried out by the Texas Antiquities Committee in association with the Marion and Harrison County historical commissions in the summer of 1982. The results of this survey were followed by the formation of the Mittie Stephens Foundation and raising of private funds for an in-depth scientific underwater archeological research project. Background research for this project was carried out by marine archeologists from Texas A&M University. Electronic surveying and underwater site-test excavation have been used to locate what may be the wreck of the Mittie Stephens on the Louisiana side of the border.