The Steamboat House was built in Huntsville by Rufus W. Bailey, a professor of languages at Austin College. In 1855 Bailey bought from the college five acres located northeast of town and described in the deed records of Walker County as part of a league of land originally granted to Pleasant Gray, one of the founders of Huntsville. Here in 1858 Bailey built the odd-looking house with twin turrets at the front and galleries on each side. Since it somewhat resembled a riverboat of that era, it acquired the name Steamboat House, although in the deed records the building and grounds were referred to as Buena Vista. Tradition holds that Bailey offered the house as a wedding present to his son, Frank Bailey, but the young man and his bride refused to live there. In late 1862 Sam Houston, having been deposed as governor the previous year, rented the Steamboat House and moved his family there from Cedar Point, his farm in Chambers County. The few months that Houston resided at Steamboat House were darkened by ill health and news of Vicksburg and other Confederate defeats. In midsummer Houston was stricken with pneumonia and died in the front room downstairs on July 26, 1863. He was buried in nearby Oakwood Cemetery, where his monument now stands. Bailey, who died three months before Houston, had willed all his property to his son. Thus Frank Bailey became the owner of the house he had rejected five years earlier. In November he sold the house and grounds, now including ten acres, to A. C. McKeen for $4,000. Three years later, on Christmas Day 1866, Pleasant W. Kittrell, a Huntsville physician and former member of the legislature, bought the property from McKeen for $1,500. Kittrell's time there, like Houston's, was brief. He died in the house on September 29, 1867, during a yellow fever epidemic that claimed some 130 lives in Huntsville within a few weeks. Mary Frances Kittrell, the doctor's widow, lived there with the younger Kittrell children until January 1874, when she agreed to trade the property to Maj. Thomas J. Goree for a house in Madison County. Major Goree, superintendent of the Texas prisons, used convict labor to remodel the front of the building and give it a Victorian style. It was during Goree's residence there that a famous dinner was given on October 16, 1879, the official opening day for Sam Houston State Normal Institute. At the dinner, attended by such notables as Governor Oran M. Roberts, Congressman Roger Q. Mills, and Professor Oscar H. Cooper, a decision was made to revive the movement to build the University of Texas at Austin.
In April 1891 Goree sold the house and grounds to I. N. Smith for $2,250. In August 1917 Smith sold the property to Lamkin Brothers, a Huntsville hardware firm, which sold it to the Oakwood Cemetery Association for $3,500 in March 1925. In 1928 the association sold the house to J. H. Johnson, who moved it one-half mile to North Main Street. J. E. Josey, publisher of the Houston Post, bought the house for $500 in 1933 and announced plans to restore it to its original appearance, but work was delayed until 1936. Meanwhile, the Steamboat House had fallen into disrepair and became known as "Squatters' Place," a rickety haunt of ten rooms occupied by homeless families. In early 1936 it was dismantled, and the original two-story body was moved to the Sam Houston Memorial Museum grounds, where on March 2 Josey formally presented it to the state. The ceremony, attended by Governor James Allred, former governor William P. Hobby, Governor Hill McAlister of Tennessee, and Governor Philip La Follette of Wisconsin, was one of the largest local celebrations of the Texas Centennial. Restoration of Steamboat House was soon begun under the supervision of the architectural firm Wilkinson and Nutter. The work was completed in time for a second presentation on Texas Independence Day in 1937. Since 1937 the Steamboat House has remained one of the most popular of the historical buildings in the fifteen-acre Sam Houston Memorial Museum complex. It is estimated that 40,000 people, including many schoolchildren, visit it each year. By 1988 the building was in dire need of repair and was closed to the public. Later that year the board of regents of Sam Houston State University selected the architectural firm David Hoffman, Incorporated, of Austin as director of a repair project to restore the house to sound condition.