Revisiting "A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies"

Revisiting “A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies”

John E. Clark

This essay abridges my critical evaluation published
twenty-two years ago of two Book of Mormon geographies by F. Richard Hauck and
John L. Sorenson.1 I recognized at the time that proposals for real-world (external) settings for
Book of Mormon lands and cities come and go with the regularity of LDS general
conferences or market forces, so what was needed was a timeless instrument for
judging any geography that may come along—not just assessments of the
geographies then in play. The main objective of my essay was to outline a key
for assessing all external geographies based on information in the Book of
Mormon, the ultimate authority on all such matters. I was exposed to M. Wells
Jakeman’s Book of Mormon geography in three classes while an undergraduate at
Brigham Young University in the 1970s, but it was not a topic that much
concerned me. Consequently, as a necessary step in writing a critical
assessment of Hauck’s geography in light of Sorenson’s geography, I first had
to spend several months reconstructing an internal geography (baseline
standard) for comparative purposes. The current abridgment conserves my
proposed internal geography—or key—for evaluating external Book of
Mormon geographies, removes dead arguments for the geographies reviewed, and
corrects some textual and illustration errors in the original essay.

has been my experience that most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, when confronted with a Book of Mormon geography, worry about
the wrong things. Almost invariably the first question that arises is whether
the geography fits the archaeology of the proposed area. This should be our
second question, the first being whether the geography fits the facts of the
Book of Mormon—a question we all can answer without being versed in American
archaeology. Only after a given geography reconciles all of the significant
geographic details given in the Book of Mormon does the question of archaeological
and historical detail merit attention. The Book of Mormon must be the final and
most important arbiter in deciding the correctness of a given geography;
otherwise we will be forever hostage to the shifting sands of expert opinion.
The following is my opinion of what the Book of Mormon actually says. I focus
here only on those details that allow the construction of a basic framework for
a Nephite geography; I leave more detailed reconstructions to others. Of
primary importance are those references that give relative distances or
directions (or both) between various locations or details that allow us to make a strong inference of either distance or direction.

What I propose is an internal
geography of the Book of Mormon; a guiding concern is parsimony. For example,
consider the critical geographic feature: the narrow neck of land. Was it an
isthmus or a corridor? The Book of Mormon indicates that “it was only the
distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and
the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea” (Alma 22:32). An east
sea is not explicitly mentioned. Elsewhere we learn that the Nephites fortified
the narrow-neck area that ran “from the west sea, even unto the east; it
being a day’s journey for a Nephite, on the line which they had fortified and
stationed their armies to defend their north country” (Helaman 4:7). An
east sea is not explicitly mentioned here either. Some read more into this text
than is unambiguously stated. One can call into question the generally accepted
narrow-neck/isthmus correlation based on these passages. It still remains
equally likely, however, that Mormons have been reading these two passages
correctly all along. A non-isthmus narrow neck (read “narrow corridor”)
requires too many unjustified supporting assumptions; Occam’s razor in this
instance favors the isthmian alternative.

I provide below my reading of
geographical passages in the Book of Mormon. I have tried to minimize the
number of assumptions made about the meaning of a passage. Some inferences and
guesswork are inevitable given the nature of the text. I will be explicit about
these, thereby allowing others to reject those inferences that fail to meet
their standards of reasoning.

My initial assumptions about the
geographic references found in the Book of Mormon are (1) Assume a literal
meaning. (2) Assume no scribal errors unless internal evidence indicates
otherwise. (3) Assume no duplication of place-names unless the text is
unambiguous on the matter. (4) Assume that all passages are internally consistent
and can be reconciled. (5) Assume that uniformitarian rather than catastrophic
principles apply to the actual Book of Mormon lands (i.e., that the locality
where the Book of Mormon events took place was not unrecognizably altered at
the time of the crucifixion, that geographic details in the small plates and in
the book of Ether are therefore compatible with those in Mormon’s and Moroni’s
abridgment, and that the principles of natural science that apply to today’s
environments are also pertinent to Nephite lands). (6) Assume that the best
internal reconstruction is one that reconciles all the data in the Book of
Mormon with a minimum of additional assumptions.

Reconstructing an Elemental Geography

During the days of Alma and
General Moroni, Book of Mormon lands consisted of three sectors that could be
considered Nephite, Lamanite, and former Jaredite. The depopulated Jaredite
lands constituted the land northward; Nephite and Lamanite lands lay in the
land southward. Nephite lands, known as the land of Zarahemla, were sandwiched
between the ancient Jaredite lands to the north and the Lamanite land of Nephi
to the south. A narrow neck of land divided the land northward and the land
southward; thus Book of Mormon lands were shaped like an hourglass (fig. 1).
The land southward was further divided into northern and southern sectors by a
narrow strip of wilderness that ran from the east sea to the west sea. Nephites
inhabited the lands north of this wilderness divide, and Lamanites controlled
those to the south. As evident in figure 1, Nephite lands were quadrilateral,
having four sides and four corners. We could quickly establish the size and
shape of Book of Mormon lands using simple geometry if we knew the length and
direction of at least three of its four borders. And if we could link at least
one important locality in Lamanite and Jaredite lands to an established point
in the Nephite land of Zarahemla, we would have the basic skeletal structure of
Book of Mormon lands—and a key for evaluating competing Book of Mormon

An elemental framework of Book of
Mormon geography can be reconstructed with just seven points or six transects
(a line connecting two of these points), as shown in figure 2. The following sections
consider each transect shown in figure 2 and present the data, inferences, and
conjectures used to determine the distance between each pair of localities. To
anticipate my argument, the southern border of Nephite lands was considerably
longer than its northern border; and the western border was much longer than
the eastern border.

Before proceeding with the
specifics of each transect, I need to clarify how I am treating distance and
direction. I assume that the Nephite directional system was internally consistent
and that this consistency persisted throughout the period of their history. I
do not pretend to know how Nephite “north” relates to the north of today’s
compass, and such information is irrelevant for reconstructing an internal
geography. I do assume, however, that regardless of what any “real”
orientation may have been, Nephite north was 180 degrees from Nephite south,
and both were 90 degrees off of east and west. The directional suffix -ward used in the Book of Mormon is here loosely interpreted to mean “in the
general direction of.” Thus I read “northward” as “in a
general northerly direction.” Finally, all directions are directions from “somewhere.”
I assume the central reference point was the city of Zarahemla, located in the “center”
of the land of Zarahemla (Helaman 1:24–27).

Distances in the Book of Mormon
are more problematical than directions. My assessments of distance are based on
travel times, whether stated, inferred, or conjectured. Distance as “time”
is familiar to most of us. When asked how far it is from Provo, Utah, to
Burley, Idaho, for example, I quickly respond that it is three and a half hours
rather than 220 miles. If my dad is driving, the “distance” (in terms
of time) is considerably less—and significantly more if my mother is
driving. Similar concerns with velocity are relevant to Book of Mormon
accounts. I have converted all travel times into “units of standard
distance” (USD), analogous to our “miles” or “kilometers.” The
USD is based on one day’s normal travel over flat land
. Travel
through mountainous or hilly “wilderness” is considered to be half of
the normal standard in terms of actual linear distance covered. In other words,
two days of travel through the wilderness would cover the same as-a-crow-flies
distance as one day’s travel on a plain, this because of the extra vertical and
lateral movement necessitated by more difficult terrain. Internal evidence in
the Book of Mormon is convincing that “wilderness” refers to
mountainous regions filled with wild beasts. Some Book of Mormon travel
accounts involve the movement of men, women, children, animals, and food
stores, while others concern armies in hot pursuit or blind retreat. For purposes
of our USDs, travel of children and animals comes under the normal
standard—being more susceptible to ground conditions or terrain. Army
travel (war speed) is calculated at 150–200 percent of normal (or
1.5–2 times as fast). These estimates are proposed as approximations that
will allow us to reconstruct the relative length of each border of Nephite
lands. My goal is to work within the limits of precision dictated by the text;
all measures given here are merely approximate. I have not adjusted my
estimates of distance to fit any preconceived notions of where these places may
actually be. Such interplay between text and modern maps is inappropriate and
results in forcing the text to fit one’s notions or desires for placement of
Book of Mormon lands.

I. Hagoth to Bountiful

I have designated the NE and NW
corners of Nephite lands as “Bountiful” and “Hagoth,” respectively.
These points define the east–west line that traversed the narrow neck
separating the land northward from the land southward. “Hagoth” (not
used as a place-name in the Book of Mormon) marks the place where Hagoth and his
adventurous group embarked on their journey from the west sea to the lands
northward. “Bountiful” was near the land of Bountiful and north of
the city of Bountiful. This northern border of Nephite territory is one of the
most poorly known and controversial transects that we will consider. As noted
above, the Book of Mormon apparently specifies precise travel times for this
area. But the short distances involved (one to one and a half days) cannot be
squared with any known isthmus (without special conditions or travel rates
being specified). The critical data for this transect are listed below
numerically; inferences and conjectures are listed alphabetically.

1.   The lands of Desolation and
Bountiful met in the narrow neck of land that divided the land northward from
the land southward (Alma 22:30–32).

2.   A narrow pass or narrow
passage led from the land southward to the land northward and was near the borders of the land of Desolation (Alma 50:34; 52:9; 3:5).

a.    “Borders”
probably refers to the southern border that adjoined the land of Bountiful (see
4 and 7).

3.   The narrow pass “led by
the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east” (Alma 50:34).

a.    Both the west
and east seas are referred
to here.

b.   The narrow pass was
close enough to each sea that its location could be described by reference to
both. This suggests that the narrow pass was near the center of the narrow neck
of land.2

c.    This passage,
coupled with 1 and 2, is clear evidence that the narrow neck was indeed an isthmus
flanked by seas, to the west and to the east.

d.   The narrow pass
paralleled the flanking seas and coastlines and thus ran in a north–south

4.   The city of Desolation was
in the land of Desolation near the narrow pass and perhaps near the sea or or a large river that led to the sea (Mormon 3:5, 8).

5.   The city of Bountiful was
the northernmost (and most important) fortification of the eastern border of
Nephite territory during the days of General Moroni. Its purpose was to
restrict access to the land northward and to keep the Nephites from getting boxed
in by the Lamanites (Alma 22:29, 33; 50:32–34; 51:28–32; 52:9;
Helaman 1:23, 28; 4:6–7).

6.   The city of Bountiful was
less than a day’s southward march of the eastern seashore and near a wilderness
to the southwest; plains lay to the south (Alma 52:20–22).

7.   The “line” between
the land of Bountiful and the land of Desolation ran “from the east to the
west sea” and was “a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite”
(Alma 22:32; see 3 Nephi 3:23).

a.    Since the
east “sea” is not specified, maybe the travel distances were not
meant to be from sea to sea, but from the west sea to a point to the east.

b.   The short travel
times for what apparently was a significant distance suggest travel over relatively
flat terrain (see section VII below).

8.   The Nephite-inhabited land
of Bountiful extended “even from the east unto the west sea” (Alma

a.    The
land of Bountiful stretched across the narrow neck from the west sea and at
least close to the east sea (compare 6).

9.   A fortified “line” extended “from the
west sea, even unto the east; it being a day’s journey for a Nephite, on the
line which they had fortified” (Helaman 4:7).

a.    The travel
referred to here may pertain to only the portion of the narrow neck that was
the “fortified line” (see 7a).

b.   This probably was
flat land (see 7b).

c.    I have
assumed that the journey referred to here was foot travel. If water transport
was involved, the distance traveled could have been greater.

10.   Hagoth built “an
exceedingly large ship, on the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land
Desolation, and launched it forth into the west sea, by the narrow neck which
led into the land northward” (Alma 63:5).

a.    The wording
here suggests that the parallel lands of Bountiful and Desolation may not have
stretched all the way to the west sea (but compare with 7, 8, and 9).

b.   The west sea at
this location may have been a natural port or embayment that would have allowed
launching a large ship without difficulty.

From all of the above it seems
abundantly clear that the narrow neck was an isthmus (rather than a narrow
corridor) of relatively flat lowlands (see Alma 22:32). Therefore, all travel
distances should be at least normal standard, but they may have been marching
(or running) distances between fortifications.3 If so, 1–1.5 day’s journey would have been 2–3 USD in terms of our
proposed standard measure of distance. This would have been the minimum width of this area.

It is noteworthy that the east “sea”
or seashore is never specifically mentioned in conjunction with the land of
Bountiful. The phrasing is consistent, regardless of which cardinal direction
is specified first—”east to the west sea” (7), “east even
unto the west sea” (8), and “west sea, even unto the east” (9).
This suggests that the failure to mention the east “sea” is not due
to mere grammatical parallelism or elliptical thought based on word order. We
should, therefore, entertain the possibility that the land of Bountiful did not
run all the way to the east sea. The shared border between the lands of
Bountiful and Desolation, along a “line,” ran east–west to the
west sea or very near to the west sea (see 10). This “line,” which
was at one time fortified, could have been a natural feature of some kind, such
as a river or a ridge, that would have afforded natural advantage to the
Nephite forces against attack (in terms of protection or vantage).

The narrow pass appears to have
crossed the line between the lands of Bountiful and Desolation and thus would
have been located north of the city of Bountiful and south of the city of Desolation.
Both cities were located on the eastern edge of their lands, probably within a
day (USD) of the sea (see 4 and 6). The hypothetical NE point “Bountiful”
of our northern transect, then, would have been located to the north and probably east of the city of Bountiful; I estimate 1 USD in both directions.

As noted, a plausible (if not
probable) interpretation of the travel distances (1–1.5 days; 2–3
USD) for the narrow neck is that they refer only to the “line” from
the west sea to the east. I follow this interpretation here and add at least 1
day USD to extend the eastern end of this “line” to the east sea. I
consider 4 USD a reasonable estimate of the northern border of the greater land
of Zarahemla. This distance is consistent with the facts of Limhi’s expedition.
As Sorenson points out,4 this group of explorers unknowingly passed through the narrow neck and back to
Nephi in their unsuccessful search for the city of Zarahemla. The narrow neck
had to have been wide enough that travelers going north–south could pass
through without noticing both seas from one vantage point, including the narrow

In sum, our working assumption
will be that the narrow neck was oriented east–west and was about 4 USD

II. Bountiful to Moroni

Extensive data for the eastern
border come from the accounts of Moroni’s campaign against Amalickiah (and
later Ammoron), who attempted to break through the Nephites’ fortified line in
Bountiful and gain access to the land northward. Bountiful was the northernmost
and most important fortification of the Nephites’ eastern flank.

1.   Moroni drove the Lamanites
out of the east wilderness into their own lands to the south of the land of
Zarahemla; people from Zarahemla were sent into the east wilderness “even
to the borders by the seashore, and [to] possess the land” (Alma 50:7, 9) “in
the borders by the seashore” (Alma 51:22).

2.   The city of Moroni was
founded by the east sea and “on the south by the line of the possessions
of the Lamanites” (Alma 50:13).

a.    As discussed
above, a “line” could be a natural feature such as a river.

3.   The city of Nephihah was
founded between the cities of Moroni and Aaron (Alma 50:14).

a.   Nephihah was westward from Moroni,
and Aaron was westward from Nephihah (see section IV.4).

4.   The city of Lehi was built
north of Moroni by the borders of the seashore (Alma 50:15).

5.   A contention arose
concerning the land of Lehi and the land of Morianton “which joined upon
the borders of Lehi; both of which were on the borders by the seashore.”
The people of Morianton claimed part of the land of Lehi (Alma 50:25–26).

a.    These cities
would have to have been in close proximity to be fighting over land, which had
to have been close enough to each city that it could be worked effectively from
each (compare Alma 50:36).

6.   The people of Lehi fled to
the camp of Moroni; the people of Morianton fled north to the land northward.
The people of Morianton were headed off at the narrow pass by Teancum and
brought back to the city of Morianton (Alma 50:27–35).

a.    The narrow
pass appears to have been the most logical way to get to the land northward.

7.   Amalickiah took the city of
Moroni; the Nephites fled to the city of Nephihah. The people of (the city of)
Lehi prepared for battle with the Lamanites (Alma 51:23–25).

a.    The
city of Nephihah was off the most direct, or easiest, route to the land

b.   The city of Lehi
was next in line for the Lamanite attack.

8.   Amalickiah “would not
suffer the Lamanites to go against the city of Nephihah to battle, but kept
them down by the seashore” (Alma 51:25).

a.    Nephihah was
inland from the seashore.

9.   Nephites from Moroni, Lehi,
and Morianton gathered at Nephihah to battle (Alma 51:24).

a.    Nephihah was
readily accessible from these three cities, probably northwest of Moroni (see
7a and 8b) and southwest of Lehi and Morianton.

10.   Amalickiah took the cities
of Lehi, Morianton, Omner, Gid, and Mulek, “all of which were on the east
borders by the seashore” (Alma 51:26), but did not take the city of
Bountiful. (Mention of taking Nephihah in that verse is probably a scribal
error, as it was captured much later; see Alma 59:5–11.)

11.   Teancum camped on the
borders of Bountiful; Amalickiah camped “in the borders on the beach by
the seashore” (Alma 51:32). Teancum killed Amalickiah; the Lamanite armies
retreated to the city of Mulek (Alma 52:2).

a.    The seashore
was close to the southern border of the land of Bountiful.

b.   This section of
seashore had a beach.

12.   Teancum fortified the city
of Bountiful and secured the narrow pass (Alma 52:9).

13.   There was a plain between
the city of Bountiful and Mulek. From the city of Bountiful, Teancum marched to
Mulek near the seashore and Moroni marched in the wilderness to the west (Alma
52:20, 22–23).

a.    Moroni
marched southward at the edge of the eastern wilderness.

b.   The city of
Bountiful was within 1 USD of the eastern seashore to the south.

c.    There was no
city between Mulek and the city of Bountiful (otherwise, the Nephite stratagem
of “decoy and surround” would have had little chance of being
successful; the Lamanites would not have been decoyed out of their fortress if
there had been a Nephite fortress in their line of pursuit).

14.   The Nephites took Mulek by stratagem. The Lamanite
armies chased Teancum’s forces “with vigor” from Mulek to the city of
Bountiful in one day and started back for Mulek when they were trapped and
defeated by Moroni’s and Lehi’s forces (Alma 52:21–39).

a.    The city of
Bountiful was within one day’s travel (war speed) of Mulek, or about 1.5 USD.

15.   The city of Mulek was one of the strongest Lamanite
cities (Alma 53:6).

16.   After taking Mulek, the Nephites took the city of Gid
(Alma 55:7–25).

a.    Gid was the
next significant city to the south of Mulek.

17.   From Gid, Moroni prepared to attack the city of
Morianton (Alma 55:33).

a.    Morianton was
south of Gid.

18.   Moroni and his
armies returned from a campaign at Zarahemla against the king-men and traveled
eastward to the plains of Nephihah. They took the city, and the Lamanites
escaped to the land of Moroni (Alma 62:18–25).

a.    The cities of
Moroni and Nephihah were east of the city of Zarahemla.

b.   Nephihah was on a
coastal plain but near the edge of the eastern wilderness, inland from the city
of Moroni (see 8 and 9).

19.   Moroni went from Nephihah to Lehi; the Lamanites saw
the approaching army and fled from “city to city, . . . even down upon the
borders by the seashore, until they came to the land of Moroni” (Alma

a.    Some smaller
settlements seem to have been involved in the Lamanite retreat, but only the
larger fortified cities are mentioned by name.

b.   Moroni’s army
traveled from a point near Nephihah to Lehi and south to Moroni in one day (war
speed). Lehi and Nephihah were probably within 1 USD, and Lehi and Moroni were
probably 1 USD apart; Nephihah and Moroni probably were not more than
1.5–2 USD apart.

20.   The Lamanites “were all in one body in the land
of Moroni” (Alma 62:33); they were “encircled about in the borders by
the wilderness on the south, and in the borders by the wilderness on the east”
(Alma 62:34). They were camped inside the city of Moroni (Alma 62:36). General
Moroni drove the Lamanites out of the land and city of Moroni (Alma 62:38).

a.    The city of
Moroni was not right next to the seashore but was separated by a “wilderness.”
Given the setting, it may have been a swampy, lagoon-estuary “wilderness”
rather than a hilly area. (The city sank beneath the sea at the time of the
crucifixion; see 3 Nephi 8:9; 9:4.)

b.   The seashore was
close to the city of Moroni. I estimate a distance of 0.5 USD.

c.    The city of
Moroni was on the edge of the southern wilderness, or on the borders of
Lamanite lands.

21.   The sons of Helaman, Nephi, and Lehi began their
missionary travels at the city of Bountiful; they traveled to Gid and then to
Mulek (Helaman 5:14–15).

a.    They visited
Gid and Mulek in reverse order of the Lamanite attack and Nephite reconquest
(see 10, 14, and 16). Barring scribal error (for which there is no evidence),
this missionary journey suggests that Gid was not directly in line with Mulek.
One could get to Gid without going through Mulek, and on some occasions it was
logical or convenient to do so.

b.   Since Mulek appears
to have been near the seashore, or at least in the middle of the coastal plain
(see 13), this passage suggests that Gid may have been inland from Mulek.

In summary, the Lamanite drive to
the land northward along the eastern border of the land of Zarahemla proceeded
from south to north. They took the cities of Moroni, Lehi, Morianton, Omner,
Gid, and Mulek. Bountiful, the final obstacle in their path, withstood their
attack. Later, the Lamanites took the city of Nephihah. In their
counteroffensive, the Nephites regained Mulek, Gid, Nephihah, Morianton, Lehi,
and Moroni and drove the Lamanites into the southern wilderness. The recapture
of Omner is not mentioned, suggesting that it was inland from the main line of
fortifications. I have reconstructed the settlement pattern as shown in figure
3. In the absence of specific information, I assume a distance of 1.5 USD
between adjacent fortifications in a string of fortifications (the “day”
or “day and a half’s journey for a Nephite”). Where we have accurate
information, this appears to have been about the distance (e.g., Bountiful to
Mulek). Also, 1.5 USD is just a day’s travel, or less, at war speed. Spacing
fortifications this far apart would mean that every place on the fortified line
would be within a half day’s travel from a fortification. The only question,
then, is which cities constituted the fortified line. I consider them to have
been Bountiful, Mulek, Gid, Morianton/Lehi, and Moroni. As Gid was probably
inland from Mulek, the direct distance from Bountiful to Gid would have been
less than the 3 USD expected by this spacing. The distances of the other cities
were discussed above.

In conclusion, the direct-line
distance from the city of Bountiful to Moroni was about 5 USD; adding another
day’s travel (the distance from the city of Bountiful to point “Bountiful”)
gives us a total distance of 6 USD for the eastern transect.

III. Moroni to Seashore City

The city of Moroni was the eastern
anchor of a string of fortified cities that stretched from the east sea to the
west sea, paralleling the southern narrow strip of wilderness that separated
the land of Zarahemla from the land of Nephi. The westernmost city of this
chain was an unnamed city on the west coast. Calculating distances along the
southern fortified line is more problematic because it crossed two wilderness
zones, east and west, of unknown width. We do have clues that the eastern
wilderness was wider and lower than the western wilderness (this is discussed
more fully in section VII). The Sidon River Basin was thus ringed with “wilderness”
on all sides. Information for estimating the length of the southern frontier
comes from Helaman’s campaign in the Manti quarter and Moroni’s forced march on
Zarahemla against the king-men.

1.   “Helaman did march at the head of his two
thousand stripling soldiers, to the support of the people in the borders of the
land on the south by the west sea” (Alma 53:22). The Lamanites came into
the area from “the west sea, south” (Alma 53:8).

a.    Helaman came
from the north, probably from Melek (see Alma 35:13; 53:11–16).

b.   The Lamanites came
eastward from the west coast through the western wilderness, probably through a
pass (see section IV.10a).

c.    The Lamanite
attack probably continued eastward.

d.   The seashore city
may have been a Lamanite possession rather than a Nephite fortification. The
political affiliation of this city does not affect our consideration of its
position in calculating the distance to the west sea.

2.   Helaman and his “two thousand young men”
marched to the city of Judea to assist Antipus (Alma 56:9).

a.    Helaman must
have marched southward from Melek to Judea.

3.   Lamanites controlled the cities of Manti, Zeezrom,
Cumeni, and Antiparah (Alma 56:13–14).

a.    These cities
were probably major fortifications that we would estimate as spaced at 1.5 USD
intervals (see section II). They were probably arranged from west to east in
the order listed.

4.   The Nephites kept spies out so the Lamanites would
not pass them by night “to make an attack upon [their] other cities which
were on the northward” (Alma 56:22). The cities to the north were not
strong enough to withstand the Lamanites (Alma 56:23).

a.    Nephite
fortifications were north of the Lamanite-controlled cities.

b.   Lamanite
strongholds probably were strung out east–west (the captured fortified
line of the Nephites).

c.    The Nephite
fortifications were close enough together that they could watch their newly
fortified line and protect the weaker settlements to the north.

5.   “They durst not pass by us with their whole army”
(Alma 56:24). “Neither durst they march down against the city of
Zarahemla; neither durst they cross the head of Sidon, over to the city of
Nephihah” (Alma 56:25).

a.    Zarahemla was
at a lower elevation than the fortified cities on the southern frontier.

b.   A route connected
Nephihah, on the east coast, with the cities on the southern frontier of the
Sidon River Basin.

c.    The
Lamanite-controlled cities, including Manti, were west of the Sidon.

6.   In a Nephite stratagem, Helaman’s army marched “near
the city of Antiparah, as if [they] were going to the city beyond, in the
borders by the seashore” (Alma 56:31). Antipus waited to leave Judea until
Helaman was near Antiparah. The Lamanites were informed of troop movements by
their spies. Helaman fled “northward” from the Lamanites (Alma

a.    The city of
Antiparah was near the route to the seashore city. It was probably the
westernmost city of the Lamanite-controlled strongholds in the Sidon River

b.   Helaman’s natural
course to this route to the seashore took him close to the city of Antiparah
(otherwise the stratagem would not have been effective); Helaman traveled
westward. Judea must have been east and somewhat north of Antiparah.

c.    Judea was within a day’s march of Antiparah.

7.   The Lamanites pursued Helaman northward until night
time. Antipus chased the Lamanites who were chasing Helaman. The Lamanites
began their pursuit before dawn. Helaman fled into the wilderness and was hotly
pursued all day until nighttime. The Lamanites chased them part of the next day until Antipus caught them from the rear.

a.    Helaman was
traveling at maximum speed for about a day and a half, probably northward
along, and just inside, the edge of the western wilderness. He and his troops
could have traveled 3 USD. They did not pass any cities worthy of note in that

b.   If Helaman’s travel
was east–west (which I doubt), through the wilderness, it would indicate
a width for the western wilderness of at least 3 USD.

8.   The Nephites sent their prisoners to the city of
Zarahemla (Alma 56:57; 57:16).

a.    Zarahemla was
on a route from Judea, undoubtedly northward.

9.   The Lamanites fled Antiparah to other cities (Alma
57:4). The Nephites next attacked and surrounded Cumeni. They cut off the Lamanites’
supply line and captured their provisions. The Lamanites gave up the city (Alma

a.    Cumeni was
the next fortification in the line from Antiparah.

b.   The Lamanite
strongholds were adjacent to their territory to the south.

10.   The Lamanites arrived with new armies but were beaten
back to Manti; the Nephites retained Cumeni (Alma 57:22–23).

a.    Manti was
east of Cumeni (see 9a).

11.   The Nephites attacked Manti; they pitched their tents
on the wilderness side, “which was near to the city” on the borders
of the wilderness (Alma 58:13–14).

a.    Manti was not
in the wilderness (south) but was very close to it (see also Alma 22:27).

12.   The Lamanites were afraid of being cut off from their
supply lines; they went forth against the Nephites and were decoyed into a
trap. Helaman retreated into the wilderness, and Gid and Teomner slipped in
behind and took possession of Manti. Helaman’s army took a course “after
having traveled much in the wilderness towards the land of Zarahemla”
(Alma 58:23). At nightfall the Lamanites stopped to camp; Helaman
continued on to Manti by a different route. When the Lamanites learned that Manti had fallen, they fled into the wilderness (Alma 58:25–29).

a.    Helaman
traveled south from Manti and made a loop (east or west) that brought him back
to Manti. He was able to travel in a north–south and east–west
direction within the southern wilderness.

13.   The Nephites retook possession of all their cities in
the southern sector. Many Lamanites fled to the east coast and were part of Ammoron’s successful attack on Nephihah (Alma 59:5–8).

a.    Coupled with
the preceding data (see 12), this suggests an east–west route from Manti
to Nephihah through the eastern wilderness (see also Alma 25:1–5;

b.   The southern
wilderness permitted travel in a north–south direction (see section V) as
well as in an east–west direction, suggesting the absence of major natural
barriers that would prohibit travel.

14.   General Moroni marched from the city of Gid with a
small number of men to aid Pahoran against the king-men at Zarahemla (Alma
62:3). Moroni raised “the standard of liberty in whatsoever place he did
enter, and gained whatsoever force he could in all his march towards the land
of Gideon.” Thousands flocked to the standard “in all his march”
(Alma 62:4–6).

a.    Moroni’s
march took him through many unnamed places; thus he was able to press thousands
into his army.

b.   Moroni traveled
westward through the eastern wilderness.

c.    Given Moroni’s
purpose of raising an army en route to Zarahemla, it is unlikely he took the
most direct route to Gideon.

d.   The eastern
wilderness was probably several days’ march wide; a reasonable estimate for the
distance from Gid, or Nephihah, would be several days USD. (Army speed through
the wilderness would be about the same as normal travel on a plain.)

e.   A route connected
Gid to Gideon.

15.   Pahoran and Moroni went down to Zarahemla; they slew
Pachus and the recalcitrant king-men and restored Pahoran to the judgment seat
(Alma 62:7–9).

a.    Gideon was in
an upland position eastward from Zarahemla.

b.   Gideon was the
first major city to the east of the city of Zarahemla (see 16).

16.   In an earlier battle, Alma’s army pursued the
Amlicites from a hill east of the Sidon (and the city of Zarahemla) all day.
When it grew dark, they camped in the valley of Gideon (Alma 2:17–20;

a.    Considered
with 17 (below), Gideon could have been no more than 1.5 USD eastward from
Zarahemla and the river Sidon and may have been less than 1 USD.

b.   The hills and
uplands leading to the valley of Gideon were within a half day’s travel of the

c.    These uplands
can be considered the western fringe of the eastern wilderness (see section

d.   From the above, it
follows that the Nephites had major settlements and fortifications in the zone
they considered to be wilderness. (The Lamanites also inhabited the wilderness

e.   In conjunction with
14 (above), it follows that the eastern wilderness ran from Gid and Nephihah to
a western margin close to the river Sidon.

17.   Alma’s spies followed the Lamanites to the “land
of Minon, above the land of Zarahemla, in the course of the land of Nephi”
and saw the armies of the Lamanites joining forces with the Amlicites (Alma

a.    Minon was
southward from Gideon on a route that led to the land of Nephi (probably
meaning the more restricted area around the city of Nephi).

b.   Minon occupied an
upland position.5

18.   Later, on a missionary journey, Alma traveled
southward from Gideon “away to the land of Manti.” He met the sons of
Mosiah coming from the land of Nephi (Alma 17:1).

a.    The land of
Manti was southward from Gideon and probably from Minon (see 17).

b.   The upland route
from Gideon to the south was connected with the upland route from the land of
Nephi to Zarahemla (see section V).

c.    A spur of
this route led down to the Sidon Basin and the city of Manti, to the west.

19.   The land of Manti was located on the east and west of
the Sidon, near the river’s headwaters in the southern wilderness (Alma
16:6–7; 22:27; see also 5).

a.    The city of
Manti was directly south of Zarahemla along the Sidon.

b.   Manti may have
occupied a peninsular position (if we have interpreted these east and west passages
correctly and barring scribal error) between two major tributaries of the Sidon
that joined downstream from Manti as the main channel of the Sidon. Thus the Sidon
could easily have been considered to be both east and west of Manti.6

20.   Returning to General Moroni, he and his new
battle-proven recruits marched from Zarahemla to the city of Nephihah (see
section II.18).

a.    A route
connected Zarahemla and Nephihah; this undoubtedly passed through Gideon.

b.   Nephihah was east
or eastward from Zarahemla.

In estimating the length of the
southern defensive line, we lack information for a direct route from Moroni to
Manti and the city by the seashore. We can get a close approximation, however,
by summing the western half (Manti to the seashore city) with the eastern half
(Zarahemla to Moroni). The logic for doing this is that Manti and Zarahemla are
on a direct north–south line defined by the course of the river Sidon.
Lines or transects that are perpendicular to the same line should be parallel.

As mentioned, we are using the 1.5
USD estimate for the spacing of the Manti–Zeezrom–Cumeni–Antiparah
chain. The failure to mention a Nephite counteroffensive against the city of
Zeezrom may indicate that it was offset from the direct east–west line.
We relied on similar reasoning in our placement of the east coast cities of
Omner and Gid, and for consistency of argument we apply the same standard to
Zeezrom. Of necessity, Zeezrom must have been offset to the south, given the
circumstances of the war. Therefore, the projected 1.5 USD between
Manti–Zeezrom and Zeezrom–Cumeni would not have constituted 3 USD
of linear east–west distance, but would have been less, as shown in
figure 4. I estimate 2.5 USD between Manti and Cumeni. From Cumeni to Antiparah
would have been another 1.5 USD, but this was probably not directly
east–west along our hypothetical Moroni–Seashore City transect. The
circumstances of the Nephites’ decoy-and-surround stratagem against the city of
Antiparah suggest that it may have been slightly northward from the
Manti–Cumeni line, as I have shown in figure 4. The remainder of the line
to the seashore city requires even more guesswork. Antiparah was close to the
western wilderness and to the route or “pass” through this
wilderness. As the western wilderness appears to have been more narrow than the
eastern wilderness (see section VII), which we estimate at 2.5 USD, I consider
1.5 USD a reasonable estimate for the width of the western wilderness. I
calculate another day’s normal travel from the western fringe of the western
wilderness to the seashore, or only 0.5 USD from the edge of the wilderness to
the seashore city. Thus our estimated distance from Manti to the west seashore
is 6.5 USD.

In the previous section (II), we
calculated the distance from the east sea, slightly east of the city of Moroni,
to the city of Nephihah to be 2 USD (see fig. 3). We estimated an additional 2
USD of direct-line distance from Nephihah (probably directly south of Gid)
through the eastern wilderness to the city of Gideon (see 14d) and another
1–1.5 USD to the city of Zarahemla (see 16a), located north of Manti and
east of Moroni (see 14–16, 20; Alma 31:3; 51:22). Thus our best guess of
the distance of the eastern half of the southern transect is 5 USD.7 This gives us a ballpark figure of 11.5 USD for the Moroni–Seashore City
transect. If the city of Zarahemla was directly west of the city of Moroni (as
indicated by General Moroni’s travels) and Manti was directly south of
Zarahemla (as indicated by Alma’s travels), then 11.5 USD would underestimate
the distance from Moroni to Manti (which would be the long side of the
Manti–Zarahemla–Moroni triangle). But given the imprecision in our
directional information, our estimates of the width of wildernesses, and our
estimates of the distance and placement of Nephite fortifications, we cannot
justify the extra distance (1 USD).

IV. Seashore City to Hagoth

The information in the Book of
Mormon is too inadequate for even guessing the distance of this western
transect; the Nephites largely ignored this coast. The only other coastal city
we know of is Joshua, occupied by General Mormon’s army in their doomed retreat
from the land of Zarahemla to their final stand at the hill Cumorah (Mormon
2:6). As an approximation of the length of the western border, we can estimate
the distance from Zeezrom (which may have been the southernmost Nephite
fortification; see figure 4 and section III) to Hagoth, or to the
Hagoth–Bountiful transect (fig. 2). The key to this reconstruction is the
city of Melek, which appears to have been a well-protected city west of the
city of Zarahemla. The people of Ammon (Anti-Nephi-Lehis) were sent from the
land of Jershon (on the east coast, south of the city of Bountiful) to Melek
(Alma 27:22; 35:13). This movement accomplished a dual purpose. It gave Moroni
and his army room to defend the east coast from Amalickiah’s attack, and it
secured the people of Ammon, sworn pacifists, in the heart of the land of
Zarahemla, away from the battle zone. Judea was probably at least several days’
march south of Melek (see section III.1, 7a). Helaman’s northward flight before
the Lamanite army at Antiparah suggests a long stretch without a Nephite city
worthy of mention (see section III.7a). (I consider it more probable that the
journey of Helaman’s army in the wilderness was along the edge of the western
wilderness and in a northerly direction—from which they, like their
Lamanite pursuers, dared not turn “to the right nor to the left”
[Alma 56:37, 40]—rather than toward the seashore.) Thus I estimate at
least 3 USD for the minimum distance from Melek south to Judea. The data listed
below allow the reconstruction of the northern half of this transect; see
figure 4.

1.   Alma left the city of Zarahemla “and took his
journey over into the land of Melek, on the west of the river Sidon, on the
west by the borders of the wilderness” (Alma 8:3).

a.    Melek lay
west of the city of Zarahemla and near the eastern edge of the western

b.   The route from
Melek went “over” higher ground, probably a large hill or range of

c.    Melek was
probably at a higher elevation than the city of Zarahemla.

2.   People came to Alma “throughout all the borders
of the land which was by the wilderness side. And they were baptized throughout
all the land” (Alma 8:5).

a.    Melek was the
major settlement in this area of the “wilderness side.”

b.   As other data in
the Book of Mormon indicate that Alma baptized by immersion (Mosiah
18:14–15), there may have been a good water source near Melek.

c.    Given its
location at the edge of an upland wilderness, the water source was probably a
river that ran past Melek eastward toward the Sidon.

3.   Alma departed Melek and traveled “three days’
journey on the north of the land of Melek; and he came to a city which was
called Ammonihah” (Alma 8:6).

a.    As both of
these cities appear to be in the Sidon Basin, the land was probably relatively
flat; Alma’s three days’ travel can be considered as 3 USD.

b.   Ammonihah was north
of Melek.

4.   Cast out of Ammonihah, Alma “took his journey
towards the city which was called Aaron” (Alma 8:13).

a.    A route
connected the cities of Aaron and Ammonihah.

b.   The route was
probably not westward (the wilderness side) or southward (the land Alma had
just passed through).

5.   Alma returned to Ammonihah and “entered the city
by another way, yea, by the way which is on the south of the city of Ammonihah”
(Alma 8:18).

a.    Alma had not
entered (or been cast out of) this southern entrance on his previous visit; he
may have exited north of the city.

b.   The preceding
suggests that Aaron was north or east of Ammonihah. But we know that it had to
have been adjacent to the land of Nephihah (Alma 50:13–14); therefore,
Aaron was located eastward of Ammonihah.

6.   Alma and Amulek left Ammonihah and “came out even
into the land of Sidom,” where they found all the people who had fled
Ammonihah (Alma 15:1).

a.    Ammonihah and
Sidom were probably adjacent cities.

b.   There were enough
room and resources (land) at Sidom to absorb the influx of the Ammonihah

c.    The trip from
Ammonihah to Sidom may have required travel up and over an upland area, hence
the phrase “come out.”8

d.   Sidom may not have
been on the Ammonihah–Aaron route (see 4).

e.   Sidom was probably
eastward from Ammonihah. Melek lay to the south and Noah to the north (see 10

7.   Alma baptized Zeezrom and many others in the land of
Sidom (Alma 15:12–14).

a.    Again, this
suggests ready surface water such as a river.

b.   Travel eastward
from Ammonihah would have been toward the river Sidon.

c.    It is quite
likely that Sidom was on the river Sidon.9

d.   Given Alma’s
travels to this point (Zarahemla–Melek–Ammonihah–Sidom),
Sidom would have been north of the city of Zarahemla.

8.   Alma and Amulek left Sidom and “came over to the
land of Zarahemla” and the city of Zarahemla (Alma 15:18).

a.    The route
from Sidom to Zarahemla led over higher ground.

b.   This route was
probably southward from Sidom (see 7d).

9.   Lamanite armies “had come in upon the wilderness
side, into the borders of the land, even into the city of Ammonihah” (Alma
16:2). The Lamanites completely “destroyed the people who were in the city
of Ammonihah, and also some around the borders of Noah” (Alma 16:3).

a.    The
Lamanites came up the west coast and crossed the western wilderness from west
to east, probably through a pass (see 10).

b.   Ammonihah was on
the interior side of this wilderness; hence the Lamanite attack came without

c.    Noah was the
city in closest proximity to Ammonihah.

d.   Given 9c, Sidom and
Aaron were more distant from Ammonihah and probably in a direction that would
not have led past Noah.

e.   Noah was probably
within 1–1.5 USD of Ammonihah.

10.   The Lamanites approached the rebuilt and fortified
city of Ammonihah and were repulsed (Alma 49:1–11). They “retreated
into the wilderness, and took their camp and marched towards the land of Noah”
(Alma 49:12). They “marched forward to the land of Noah with a firm
determination.” Noah had been a weak city but was now fortified more than
Ammonihah (Alma 49:13–14).

a.    The
Lamanites repeated their same point-specific traverse of the western
wilderness, coming from the west coast to Ammonihah. This repeated eastward
traverse of the western wilderness suggests a special route (see also section
III.6 and Mormon 1:10; 2:3–6). All known travel through the western
wilderness tended east–west, suggesting that north–south travel was
not feasible. (The probable exception is Helaman [section III.6–7], who
was probably just traveling through the edge of the wilderness.) All of these
data suggest a formidable wilderness that could be traversed only through a few
passes. (This would explain why Melek, located on the eastern edge of the
western wilderness, could be considered a secure position for the people of
Ammon.) The western wilderness was clearly more impenetrable than the
wildernesses on the south and east.

b.   The Lamanite
retreat from Ammonihah took them back to the wilderness (westward) from which
they marched to Noah.

c.    From all of
the above, the most probable location for Noah was north of Ammonihah. (We have
no mention of it on Alma’s journey to Ammonihah from the south.)

d.   Had Noah been east
of Ammonihah, the Lamanites would not have had to retreat to the wilderness
side of Ammonihah (assuming that there was not another wilderness east of Ammonihah).

e.   Given 10d and 9d,
the cities of Sidom and Aaron were likely located eastward from Ammonihah, as
suggested (see 6a and 4b).

f.    Our 1.5 USD
rule between fortified cities does not apply to Noah. It was a weak city,
undoubtedly under the protection of Ammonihah. Thus 1 USD between it and
Ammonihah is a better estimate.

11.   The land of
Zarahemla had a northern wilderness area (not specifically described as such)
that lay between Noah and the lower narrow-neck area (see Alma 22:31; Mormon

a.    It follows
that Noah was still some distance from the narrow neck. I estimate 2 USD as a
ballpark figure. This would include the distance from Noah to the southern
fringe of the northern wilderness, the wilderness itself, and travel from the
northern foot of the wilderness to our Hagoth–Bountiful line (see section
VII). Our 2 USD is a minimal estimate; obviously, the distance could be much
greater. I am assuming, however, that the northern wilderness was not
significantly wider than the eastern wilderness that we estimated at 2.5 USD.

We are now in a position to
estimate the length of the western border, along the “wilderness side,”
of the land of Zarahemla. This is shown in figure 4. The estimated total length
is 11 USD, or about the same estimated length as the southern border.

V. Nephi to Zarahemla

The central travel route of the
Book of Mormon was that connecting the Nephite capital of Zarahemla to the city
of Nephi, the capital city of the Lamanites. Of all the transects considered
here, this route is the best documented. The route passed inland over the
narrow strip of wilderness that separated the land of Zarahemla and the land of
Nephi, which I have been calling the southern wilderness (from a
Nephite/Zarahemla perspective).

1.   Mosiah1 and his group departed the land of
Nephi and went into the wilderness; they were “led by the power of his
[God’s] arm, through the wilderness until they came down into the land which is
called the land of Zarahemla” (Omni 12–13).

a.    Mosiah1 relied on divine guidance to travel to Zarahemla.

b.   The land of
Zarahemla was at a lower elevation than the land of Nephi and the southern wilderness.

2.   King Mosiah2 was desirous to know “concerning
the people who went up to dwell in the land of Lehi-Nephi, or in the city of
Lehi-Nephi; for his people had heard nothing from them from the time they left
the land of Zarahemla” (Mosiah 7:1).

a.    The land of
Nephi was “up” from the land of Zarahemla.

b.   There was no
contact between the two lands.

3.   Zeniff led a party from Zarahemla “to go up to
the land” of Nephi; they traveled many days through the wilderness (Mosiah

a.    The
wilderness between Zarahemla and Nephi was many days wide.

4.   Mosiah2 granted sixteen strong men that
they “might go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi, to inquire concerning their
brethren” (Mosiah 7:2). Ammon led the group up to Nephi (Mosiah 7:3). “And
now, they knew not the course they should travel in the wilderness to go up to
the land of Lehi-Nephi; therefore they wandered many days in the wilderness,
even forty days did they wander” (Mosiah 7:4).

a.    There had
been no communication between the people of these two capitals.

b.   The wilderness was
such that it was easy to get lost. This suggests a labyrinthian arrangement
that allowed travel in all directions.

c.    Forty days of
wilderness travel (20 USD) is a high estimate for the distance between Nephi
and Zarahemla.

5.   After forty days they came to a hill north of the
land of Shilom, and from there they went down to Nephi (Mosiah 7:5–6).

a.    Nephi was
located in a highland valley; the wilderness to the north of the city of Nephi
was “up” from the city.

6.   King Limhi sent forty-three people into the
wilderness to search for Zarahemla: “And they were lost in the wilderness
for the space of many days, yet they were diligent, and found not the land of
Zarahemla but returned to this land, having traveled in a land among many
waters, having discovered a land which was covered with bones of men, and of
beasts, and was also covered with ruins of buildings of every kind”
(Mosiah 8:7–8). King Limhi had sent “a small number of men to search
for the land of Zarahemla; but they could not find it, and they were lost in
the wilderness.” They found a land covered with bones and thought it was
Zarahemla, so they returned to Nephi (Mosiah 21:25–26). They brought back
the Jaredite record as a testimony of what they had seen (Mosiah 8:9).

a.    The
Limhi party obviously got to the land northward near the area of final
destruction of the Jaredite people, or the hill Ramah (the Cumorah of the

b.   They
did not know the route to Zarahemla.

c.    They
apparently passed through the narrow neck of land without realizing it.

d.   They
must have traveled through the area the Nephites called the eastern wilderness.
Any other northward route would have taken them through the Sidon Basin (near
the west sea) or along the east sea. They did not know the route to Zarahemla,
but they must have known at least three key facts concerning it: that it lay to
the north, that it was an inland river valley, and that a wide wilderness
separated Zarahemla and Nephi.

e.   Given
the preceding, we suspect that the eastern wilderness was quite wide and, at
this time, sparsely populated.

f.    Sorenson
suggests that the Limhi party must also have had a general idea of the distance
between Nephi and Zarahemla,10 in which case they would not have traveled much more than twice the expected
distance. This would place the hill Ramah/Cumorah in the southern part of the
land northward.

7.   Limhi and his people escaped from Nephi with women,
children, flocks, and herds and traveled “round about the land of Shilom
in the wilderness, and bent their course towards the land of Zarahemla, being
led by Ammon and his brethren” (Mosiah 22:8, 11). “And after being
many days in the wilderness they arrived in the land of Zarahemla” (Mosiah

a.    The
land of Shilom was north of the city of Nephi.

b.   Zarahemla
was “many days” from Nephi, even when the route was
known—assuming that Ammon discovered the route during his wanderings to

8.   The Lamanite army chased Limhi’s group into the
wilderness, but they got lost after they pursued them for two days (Mosiah

a.    It
was easy to get lost, even when the trail was fresh; the route from Nephi to
Zarahemla was not obvious.

9.   The Lamanite army that had followed Limhi “had
been lost in the wilderness for many days” (Mosiah 23:30); they stumbled
onto the wicked priests of King Noah in the land of Amulon (Mosiah 23:31). The
people of Amulon and the Lamanites searched for Nephi, and they came upon Alma’s
group at Helam (Mosiah 23:35).

a.    The
wilderness was a virtual maze; the Lamanites could not even find their way back
home after only two days’ travel in the wilderness.

b.   The
mutual aid of the people of Amulon and the Lamanites was a case of the blind
leading the blind. The wilderness must have been such that people could walk in

c.    This
wilderness area was not populated, or was only sparsely populated, at this
time. (They could not ask anyone directions for the way back.)

10.   Alma and his group had “fled eight days’ journey
into the wilderness” to escape the armies of King Noah who were searching
for them in the land of Mormon, and they arrived in Helam. They took their
grain and flocks (Mosiah 23:1–3).

a.    This
travel distance is wilderness speed and thus is only 4 USD or less.

11.   The land of Mormon was in the “borders of the
land” of Nephi (Mosiah 18:4; Alma 5:3).

a.    Mormon
was located on the edge of the territory immediately surrounding the capital of
Nephi. It was probably not more than 1–1.5 USD from Nephi.

12.   Mormon was near a “fountain of pure water.”
Alma hid there from the searches of the army of King Noah; people gathered from
the city of Nephi to hear Alma speak, and many were baptized (Mosiah
18:5–16). Alma and his group departed into the wilderness from the waters
of Mormon.

a.    The
waters of Mormon were in close proximity to the lesser land of Nephi.

13.   Alma and his followers escaped Helam by night. They
took flocks and grain and departed into the wilderness, “and when they had
traveled all day they pitched their tents in a valley” that they called
Alma (Mosiah 24:18, 20).

a.    This
travel distance is also wilderness speed and is only 0.5 USD.

b.   Given
all the baggage that Alma’s party packed around, my USD estimates may be

14.   Alma and his group fled the valley of Alma and went
into the wilderness. “And after they had been in the wilderness twelve
days they arrived in the land of Zarahemla” (Mosiah 24:24–25).

a.    The
land of Zarahemla was not the same as the city of Zarahemla; the city must have
been some additional distance removed.

b.   We
standardize this travel distance, as before, to 6 USD.

15.   The Lamanites could not follow Alma past the valley
of Alma, owing to divine intervention (Mosiah 24:23).

16.   The sons of Mosiah went up to the land of Nephi to
preach; “they journeyed many days in the wilderness” (Alma

a.    These
eager missionaries should have had adequate travel instructions as to the
route; it was still “many days” of travel.

17.   On their return trip to Zarahemla, the sons of Mosiah
met Alma as he was “journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to
the land of Manti” (Alma 17:1; 27:15–16).

18.   Nephi and his small party fled “into the wilderness”
from the land of first inheritance “and did journey in the wilderness for
the space of many days” until they came to the place they called Nephi (2
Nephi 5:5–8).

a.    Nephi was a favorable place
for settlement.

b.   We
know that Nephi was a highland valley (see 5). Thus Nephi’s trip from the coast
involved at least some travel eastward (see 19).

19.   The Lamanites lived in the wilderness “on the
west, in the land of Nephi; yea, and also on the west of the land of Zarahemla,
in the borders by the seashore, and on the west in the land of Nephi, in the
place of their fathers’ first inheritance, and thus bordering along by the
seashore” (Alma 22:28).

a.    The
west coast of the land southward was extensive, consisting of three parts: the
area west of the land of Zarahemla, the area west in the land of Nephi, and the
area of the Nephites’ landing.

b.   The
area of first inheritance was south of the land of Nephi.

c.    Given
19b, Nephi’s many days’ journey to the land of Nephi (see 18) was probably
mostly northward.

d.   It
is probable, therefore, that the highland valley of Nephi was closer to the
west coast than to the east coast since much of the travel appears to have been
northward rather than eastward. (The east coast is not mentioned in accounts of
Lamanite lands, other than the area just south of the city of Moroni.)

e.   The
Lamanites inhabited the wilderness areas and at one time occupied the
wildernesses to the east, west, and south of the Nephites.

20.   Jerusalem was “a great city” “joining
the borders of Mormon” (Alma 21:1–2). Jerusalem, Onihah, and Mocum
were submerged under water at the time of the Lord’s crucifixion—”waters
have I caused to come up in the stead thereof” (3 Nephi 9:7). Compare this
to the very different phrasing for the city of Moroni: That “great city
Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea” (3 Nephi 8:9;

a.    Jerusalem was near the waters
of Mormon.

b.   This
must have been a very large body of water to be able to rise and cover a whole
city, and possibly three cities.

c.    This
body of water was located near Nephi, and vice versa, in a highland area; it
therefore must be a large lake.11

d.   The three most obvious points of
these passages are that (1) it was a long journey from Nephi to Zarahemla (2)
through wilderness lands (3) in which it was easy to become lost and “wander.”
The best information on distance comes from Alma’s account; his group traveled
twenty-one days from the waters of Mormon to the land of Zarahemla. It is
unlikely, however, that this represents direct lineal distance. In their
journey to Helam, for example, it was not their intention to go to Zarahemla,
and we cannot reasonably presume that they traveled in that direction during
this eight-day leg of their trek. The total distance would have been 10.5 USD
by our measure. I have reduced this to an estimated 9 USD between the land of
Zarahemla and Nephi (assuming that the waters of Mormon were within 1 to 1.5
USD of Nephi). On the other hand, I assume that the point where they entered
the “land of Zarahemla” was still some distance from the city of
Zarahemla. I have taken the point of Alma’s reunion with the sons of Mosiah as
a likely candidate for this entrance. This would still have been 2 USD from the
city of Zarahemla.

The city of Helam and the valley
of Alma were plotted with the assumption that the city of Nephi was near the
west coast (see Alma 22:28). I have also assumed that the waters of Mormon were
to the west of the city of Nephi (fig. 5). This assumption does not affect the
placement of the city of Nephi on our transect, but rather only the placement
of Helam and Alma. Our general picture of the size and shape of Book of Mormon
lands is not affected by this assumption.

VI. Bountiful to Cumorah

The information on this transect
is less precise than that for all other transects. We know that the hill
Cumorah was known as the hill Ramah to the Jaredites and was near the area of
their final destruction (Ether 15:11). We know that the hill Cumorah was “in
a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains” (Mormon 6:4), undoubtedly
the same area visited by Limhi’s party that had “traveled in a land among
many waters, having discovered a land which was covered with bones of men”
(Mosiah 8:8), a land with “large bodies of water and many rivers”
(Helaman 3:4). This was “an exceedingly great distance” from the land
of Nephi (Helaman 3:4). The land near Cumorah was probably also the destination
of Morianton’s group who fled past Bountiful for the land northward, “which
was covered with large bodies of water” (Alma 50:29). We also learn from
the Jaredite account that the hill Cumorah was near the eastern seashore (Ether
9:3; also 14:12–13, 26). Mormon and his army had retreated northward from
the city of Desolation, past the city of Teancum (Mormon 4:3) and other cities,
before they came to Cumorah.

From all the above we know that
Cumorah was north of Desolation and near the seashore. It had to have been at
least 3 USD north of point “Bountiful,” given Mormon’s retreat
through the seashore city of Teancum—assuming our 1.5 USD rule for the
spacing of major fortifications. We placed Desolation 1 USD from our
Desolation/Bountiful line. I have assumed that Cumorah was several days’ USD
from the point of our last firm data (somewhere north of Teancum). This gives
us an estimated 6 USD, or the same distance from our hypothetical point “Bountiful”
as the southernmost Nephite city of the eastern coast, Moroni. Obviously, the
hill Cumorah could have been much farther north than this. But as noted
(section V.6f), the facts of the Limhi expedition suggest that the hill Cumorah
would be in the southern part of the land northward—as does the story of
Morianton’s group. Finally, the name Desolation undoubtedly
derives from the evidences of the Jaredite destruction (Alma 22:30). As we have
seen, this was the land just north of the narrow neck. For all these reasons, I
have placed the hill Cumorah as shown in figures 2, 6, and 7.

VII. A Relative Geography of the

As apparent in the preceding
discussion, several of the measures of distance depend on our assessment of the
various wilderness areas. It will be worthwhile to consider them in more detail
here. These wildernesses are considered to be upland areas of mountains or hills.
Wilderness surrounded the Sidon River Basin and the lesser land of Zarahemla on
all four sides. Of these, the northern wilderness is the most poorly known and
is not specified by name. It was from this northern wilderness that the Lamanites
launched their final and decisive offensive against the Nephites who were in
the land of Desolation in the land northward. The Lamanites came “down”
upon the Nephites, and the Nephites went “up” to battle the Lamanites
(Mormon 3–5). Keeping in mind that directions relate to one’s own point
of reference, we read that the people of Zarahemla landed near the land of
Desolation (Alma 22:30) and “came from there up into the south wilderness”
(Alma 22:31). This “south wilderness” would have been north of the
city of Zarahemla, the place that they finally settled. Therefore, from the
perspective of the later Nephites, this area would have been a northern
wilderness. In precise terms, the real situation was probably somewhat more
complicated. We know that the southern border of Nephite lands was two to three
times wider than the northern border in the narrow neck. We also know that the
western wilderness and eastern wilderness ran north–south, paralleling
the western and eastern coastlines. Given the restricted northern border, these
two wildernesses must have converged near the narrow neck and north of the city
of Zarahemla. This area would have been considered a northern wilderness only
for those traveling north within the Sidon Basin; for those traveling along the
coasts, it would have been the northernmost part of the western or eastern

The key to our relative geography
of the wilderness is the western wilderness known as Hermounts (Alma
2:34–37). We saw previously that the western wilderness stretched from
the Nephite lands southward to the place of the Nephites’ landing on the
western coast, a place south of the land of Nephi (Alma 22:28). This sounds
like a mountain chain that paralleled the western coastline (fig. 6). We saw
previously that the Nephites did not inhabit this wilderness zone or the narrow
coastal plain to the west. The western wilderness was apparently a natural
barrier of such magnitude that it provided protection against attack. This was
true except of the points where natural routes lead through the wilderness; I
argued above that these were passes through the wilderness. As noted, all
travel within this wilderness tended in an east–west direction—in
contrast with the other wilderness areas. I take this as evidence that travel
in a north–south direction was not feasible under normal conditions. All
the above suggests that the western wilderness was higher than the other
wilderness zones. This wilderness also seems to have been near the borders of
the west sea (Alma 22:28). Unlike the eastern coast, no plains are mentioned
for the west coast, suggesting that the mountains dropped quickly to the coast.
If it was a high mountain range, it must have also been relatively narrow. I
therefore consider it to have been the most narrow of all the wilderness zones.
All of these features would have made the western wilderness a prominent and
obvious feature of the landscape, and one having great military value. It is
doubtless significant that this is the only wilderness given a specific name,
the wilderness of Hermounts. Names for natural features are rare in the Book of
Mormon. We have generally interpreted the presence of a name to indicate a
prominent feature (e.g., hill Cumorah, river Sidon, waters of Mormon).

I take as my working assumption,
then, that the western wilderness was higher and narrower than all the others.
This wilderness, however, apparently did not extend to the narrow neck of land.
This means that the western wilderness must have sloped down toward the narrow
neck. Also, the western wilderness logically had to converge with the eastern
wilderness (to form our northern wilderness) before they reached the narrow
neck. Each of these wilderness zones probably also became more narrow as it
sloped down to the narrow neck. If true, it follows that the easiest passes
through the wilderness of Hermounts would have been in the north rather than in
the south. The repeated Lamanite attacks on the city of Ammonihah (see fig. 4)
make sense in this regard. These northern passes would have been lower and shorter.

We saw in the discussion of the
Nephi–Zarahemla transect that the southern wilderness was a bewildering
labyrinth of possible travel routes. Also, it was at least 9 USD wide,
undoubtedly the widest of the four wilderness zones surrounding Zarahemla. But
this wilderness was also referred to as a narrow strip of wilderness that ran
from the “sea east even to the sea west” (Alma 22:27), a curious
description for the widest strip of wilderness in Book of Mormon lands. The
narrow strip probably was the northern fringe (immediately bordering the
Nephite land of Zarahemla) of this greater southern wilderness. This seems
clear in the description of Ammon’s group that “departed out of the land,
and came into the wilderness which divided the land of Nephi from the land of
Zarahemla, and came over near the borders of the land” (Alma 27:14; see
47:29). This suggests that they went “over” a final, narrow strip of
wilderness before dropping down into the land of Zarahemla. If the narrow strip
of wilderness was immediately south of the land of Zarahemla, it would explain
why Lamanite forces consistently entered the southern borders of Nephite lands
near the city of Manti (Alma 16:6; 43:22–24), which was located at the
head of the Sidon (Alma 22:27). The Sidon had its headwaters in the
southern wilderness (Alma 16:6); one logical route or pass into the southern
borders of Nephite lands would have been down this river pass. It may have been
favored because the narrow strip of wilderness offered natural protection and and prohibited travel into the Sidon Basin.

remainder of the southern wilderness must have been uniformly difficult, with
possibilities of travel in many directions, no impassable obstacles in any
particular direction, and no major landmarks to guide those who became lost.
This would have been a very different kind of wilderness than Hermounts and
probably the narrow strip of wilderness. The southern wilderness adjoined the
upland region that the Nephites called the eastern wilderness near the borders
of the land of Antionum, or near the city of Moroni (Alma 31:3).

The eastern wilderness appears to
have been similar to the southern wilderness. We have seen that the eastern
wilderness was settled by the Nephites. It also must have been quite wide.
Again, we have the testament of the Limhi party. The eastern wilderness is the
only logical place where they could have traveled and not have either
discovered Zarahemla or realized they were lost. I am assuming here that this
group of travelers would have realized that they were lost had they traveled
near one of the seas. They must have been searching for a large inland basin
drained by a major river. Sight of an ocean would have been sure evidence that
they were lost and/or should travel inland. General Moroni’s travel from Gid to
Gideon also suggests a wide wilderness. We saw earlier that the eastern coast
was an area with at least several plains (near Bountiful and Nephihah).12 In contrast with the western wilderness, this suggests a more gradual drop to
the sea. All this evidence indicates an eastern wilderness that was lower and
wider than the western wilderness. Travel through the eastern wilderness was
both east–west and north–south. It was also settled by the
Nephites—indicating a rather hospitable “wilderness.”

The only detail we have of the
northern wilderness is that it existed. We lack information that would indicate
its width. But it must have been relatively low, given its proximity to the
lowlands of the narrow neck. As noted, most of what we have been calling the
northern wilderness was probably the northern end of the eastern wilderness (as
suggested in the data about the city of Bountiful). I assume, therefore, that
it was most like the eastern wilderness in terms of its potential for
settlement and travel. It was apparently heavily populated during the days of
General Mormon, as evident in the Lamanites’ attacks against the Nephite
stronghold at Desolation (Mormon 3:7; 4:2, 13, 19).

I have used all of this relative
information about Book of Mormon wildernesses in completing our general map of
Nephite lands shown in figures 6 and 7.

VIII. A Question of Seas

The critical reader at this point
may be wondering why no north sea or south sea is shown in any of the figures.
There are two references in the Book of Mormon that mention or appear to allude
to these seas. In Helaman 3:8 we read that the Nephites “did multiply and
spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did
spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the
sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.” Support
for this statement comes from the description of the narrow neck. “And
now, it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on
the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and
thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by
water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land
southward” (Alma 22:32). There is much more, and less, in these passages
than meets the eye, and they deserve special attention.

A careful reading of these two
passages will show that they are talking about two different things. The first
refers to the land northward and the land southward; the second
is in reference to the land southward only, comprising the land of
Zarahemla and the land of Nephi. It is also clear that the second passage
refers to the east sea and the west sea on both sides of an isthmus. A similar
passage describes the founding of the city of Lib in the narrow-neck area: “And
they built a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea
divides the land” (Ether 10:20). This is also a clear reference to an
isthmus and perhaps a large river running into the east sea across the narrow
neck, thus “dividing the land” (see 3 Nephi 19:10–13 and
section I.4).

The solution to this problem may
be quite simple. The passage in Helaman may have been meant in a metaphorical
rather than a literal way. Explaining away difficult passages as metaphors goes
against one of my guiding assumptions for dealing with the text, but in this
case I think it is well justified. North and south sea probably have no more
concrete meaning than the phrases “whole earth” (Alma 36:7; Helaman
11:6; 14:22; 3 Nephi 8:12, 17) and “as numerous as the sands of the sea”
(Alma 2:27; Mormon 1:7). Mormon waxes poetic whenever describing the Nephites’
peaceful golden age of uninterrupted population growth and expansion. This is
understandable given the circumstances under which he wrote and his knowledge
of the certain doom of his people. It is interesting that in a parallel passage
describing the same sort of population expansion, no north or south sea is
mentioned: “And thus it did come to pass that the people of Nephi began to
prosper again in the land, and began to build up their waste places, and began
to multiply and spread, even until they did cover the whole face of the land,
both on the northward and on the southward, from the sea west to the sea east”
(Helaman 11:20).

am convinced that the reference to a north sea and a south sea is devoid of any
concrete geographical content. All specific references or allusions to Book of
Mormon seas are only to the east and west seas. Any geography that tries to
accommodate a north and south sea, I think, is doomed to fail. But we cannot
dismiss the reference to these seas out of hand. If they are metaphorical, what
was the metaphor?

Figure 8 shows a conceptualization
of Nephite lands. The city of Zarahemla and the lands immediately surrounding
it were the “center” (Helaman 1:24–27) or “heart”
(Alma 60:19; Helaman 1:18) of the land (fig. 7). The surrounding lands, to the
various wildernesses, were considered quarters of the land. A Bountiful quarter
(Alma 52:10, 13; 53:8; 58:35) and a Manti quarter (43:26; 56:1–2, 9;
58:30) are mentioned. Moroni was another “part” of the land (Alma
59:6). We lack information on the eastern quarter; my designation of “Melek”
is merely my best guess.

We have seen that the Nephite
lands were surrounded by wilderness on every side. And, conceptually, beyond
each wilderness lay a sea to the south, north, west, and east. Thus the land
was conceived as surrounded by seas or floating on one large sea. The land was
divided into a center and four quarters. Each quarter duplicated the others.
The quartering of the land was not the way most of us would do it, by making a
cross following the cardinal directions, but was a cross as shown in figure 8.
Such a conception of the world would not be out of place in the Middle East at
the time of Lehi; and it is remarkably close to the Mesoamerican view of their
world. It is not my purpose here, however, to discuss the Nephites’ concept of
their universe; others are more qualified for this task than I. The main point
is that the reference to north and south seas fits nicely into the Mesoamerican
scene as part of a metaphor for the whole earth and was probably used in a
metaphorical sense in the Book of Mormon.

Ten Points of Nephite Geography

data needed to plot the six transects of our elemental geography have given us
a rather complete view of Nephite lands, but we have essentially ignored the
details of Lamanite and Jaredite lands. In previous discussion I listed the
data for the convenience of those who want to rethink the elementary internal
geography proposed here or to evaluate any of the many external Book of Mormon
geographies now available. I have reduced the information in preceding sections
down to a scorecard of ten points that can be used to judge the plausibility of
any proposed external geography.

1.   I am convinced that the narrow neck of land was an
isthmus flanked by an east sea and a west sea. It separated the land northward
from the land southward.

2.   The known coastlines of the land southward varied
significantly in length. The western sea bordered the land of Zarahemla, the
land of Nephi, and the land of the Nephites’ first inheritance. The eastern
sea, however, is known to have bordered only the land of Zarahemla. This gives
us at least three times as much western coastline as eastern coastline known to
have been used by the Nephites and Lamanites.

3.   As noted, there were also important differences in
the wildernesses. The eastern wilderness appears to have been much wider and
lower than the western wilderness. The southern wilderness was much wider than
the eastern wilderness. The northernmost portion of the southern wilderness was
the narrow strip of wilderness. There was also a wilderness to the north of the
city of Zarahemla.

4.   The cities of Zarahemla and Nephi were in large
valleys. Zarahemla was in a large river basin; Nephi was located in a highland
valley. The Zarahemla Basin was much larger than the valley of the city of

5.   The river Sidon drained the Zarahemla Basin; it ran
northward from its headwaters in the southern wilderness, just south of Manti.
We lack information on the Sidon’s course north of Zarahemla. Given the
relative elevations of the eastern and western wildernesses, the Sidon most
likely drained into the east sea. As noted, the Sidon skirted the western
flanks of the eastern wilderness. The Zarahemla Basin was at least several USD
wide west of the Sidon.

6.   The information for the waters of Mormon suggests
that it was a highland lake of significant size. It was also located within a
day or two (USD) of Nephi.

7.   Zarahemla was located in a large basin drained by a
large river. Zarahemla was near the center of the land and was surrounded by
Nephite fortifications that protected the center. There were also wilderness or
upland areas in all four directions from Zarahemla. Zarahemla was about three
weeks’ travel from the capital city of Nephi located to the south. The key
Nephite fortification of Bountiful lay several days’ travel to the north.

8.   Nephi was three weeks’ travel south of Zarahemla in a
highland valley; it was also near a large lake, the waters of Mormon.

9.   Bountiful was north of Zarahemla and near the narrow
neck of land. It guarded the route to the land northward. Bountiful was only
about five days’ travel from Moroni.

10.   Cumorah was in the land northward near the eastern
seashore. It was probably not more than six to eight days’ travel from the city
of Bountiful and may have been considerably less.

I have argued above that
there are two tests for a valid and satisfactory geography—the first test
being the more important. This does not mean, however, that a geography that
meets this first test is necessarily correct. The second test will be to
evaluate it against the backdrop of its proposed ancient American setting. The
simple expectation is that the archaeological sites identified as Book of
Mormon cities should be in the right place (in relation to all the rest) and
date to the right period of time. Moreover, they should have the features
mentioned for them in the Book of Mormon, such as walls, ditches, temples, and

John E. Clark (PhD, University of Michigan) is professor of anthropology
at Brigham Young University.


1.   John E. Clark, “A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies,” Review of
Books on the Book of Mormon
1 (1989): 20–70. The two books
were F. Richard Hauck, Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon (Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988); and John L. Sorenson, An Ancient
American Setting for the Book of Mormon
(Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book, 1985).

2.   Amalikiah’s attempt to seize this pass and Teancum’s encounter with Morianton
may suggest that the narrow pass was actually closer to the east sea (John L.
Sorenson, personal communication, 1988).

3.   Sorenson, Ancient
American Setting
, 17.

4.   Sorenson, Ancient
American Setting
, 17.

5.   Sorenson (personal communication, 1988) believes that I have misplaced Minon;
he argues that it was on the west side of the Sidon, upriver from Zarahemla.
This placement does not affect our calculation of the length of the
Nephi–Zarahemla transect.

6.   J. Nile Washburn, Book of Mormon Lands and Times (Salt Lake City:
Horizon, 1974), 97.

7.   Sorenson (personal communication, 1988) suggests that the distance between
Moroni and Manti was greater than what I have estimated. The account of the
Lamanite attack on Manti (Alma 43) is convincing evidence of his
interpretation. The Manti–Seashore City transect could have been
3–4 USD wider than I show in figures 3, 4, and 6.

8.   See Sorenson, Ancient American Setting, 201, for a discussion of this point.

9.   See Sorenson, Ancient American Setting, 205, for detailed discussion of this

10.   Sorenson, Ancient
American Setting
, 140.

11.   Sorenson, Ancient
American Setting
, 176.

12.   Sorenson, Ancient
American Setting
, 19.