The Santa Fe Trail, significant historically and economically as a commercial route from 1821 to 1880, extended from the westernmost settlements of the United States in Missouri across the plains Indian country to the New Mexican capital of Santa Fe. The area may have been traversed as early as 1541 by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, and certainly it was known to French and Spanish traders in the eighteenth century and explored by American hunters and military forces, including that under Zebulon Montgomery Pike, early in the nineteenth century. The date 1821, however, is generally accepted as the beginning of the Santa Fe Trail, for in that year Mexico established her independence from Spain and reversed Spanish policies of exclusiveness and resistance to foreign trade. Three men played major roles as messengers of the new Mexican policy: William Becknell, Thomas James, and Hugh Glenn. Becknell, who is called the "Father of the Santa Fe Trail," had come from the Missouri River, crossed the Arkansas, and was near the settlements of New Mexico when he was met by troops and agreeably surprised to find them friendly. He went on into Santa Fe, where the governor told him that American trade was welcome. Glenn and James also were invited into Mexican territory in 1821. All three men, as well as others who heard the news, took goods to Santa Fe in 1822, but Becknell has the distinction of being the first to transport merchandise by wagons, forerunners of the prairie schooners that eventually became the most widely accepted symbol of the trail. For mutual protection the merchants generally traveled in caravans with the mule or ox-drawn wagons arranged in two parallel lines so that they could be drawn into a circle quickly in case of attack. In 1829 and 1843 military escorts were furnished by the United States government, but the soldiers were rarely needed for the cautious plains Indians seldom risked battle with the well-organized caravans. The most celebrated of all the Santa Fe traders was Josiah Gregg, who between 1831 and 1843 made nearly a dozen trips over the trail and in 1844 published the classic account, Commerce of the Prairies: The Journal of a Santa Fe Trader.
The trail as originally traveled extended from Franklin or Independence, Missouri, westward past Council Grove to the Great Bend of the Arkansas, along the river almost to the Rocky Mountains before turning south across Raton Pass and into Santa Fe. There were, of course, several variants of the trail, but at least as early as 1825 the most popular route was the one known as the Cimarron Cutoff, which crossed the Arkansas River in western Kansas and proceeded in a more nearly southwestward direction to Lower Spring on the Cimarron River, up and across the Cimarron to the eastern New Mexican settlements and on to Santa Fe. After crossing the Arkansas River, this route lay entirely within territory claimed after 1836 by the Republic of Texas. Other routes also led into Santa Fe, notably the route extending from Fort Smith, Arkansas, across Indian Territory and the area of the present Texas Panhandle, known as the Fort Smith-Santa Fe Trail, but it was the Missouri-Arkansas River route that became famed in history and fiction for the adventure it typified and the volume of commerce which it carried. The Texan Santa Fe expedition was sent out by Mirabeau B. Lamar largely in an effort to divert at least a part of the trade to Texas, and in 1843, after the failure of that expedition, the Snively expedition was authorized to attack Mexican traders on the trail to retaliate for the injustices suffered by other Texans at the hands of the Mexicans. In its later years the Santa Fe Trail became a link in the gold trail to California and in the immigrant trails to the Far West.