Book of Mormon Geography



In 1903, President Joseph F. Smith said that Book of Mormon geography “was not of vital importance, and… it would not affect the salvation of the people.”[1]  The reason for this is simple: if the Lord has not revealed something, he will not hold us responsible for knowing it and the Lord has revealed nothing concerning the location of Book of Mormon events.  The Book of Mormon is a religious book first and foremost, and a geography / history book second.

However, does that mean that we as Latter-day Saints shouldn’t study such things as Book of Mormon geography? LDS authors Allen and Allen answered this question best when they said:

“Of what value is Book of Mormon research?”  The answer is simple…the more we understand about the culture, language, history, and geography of the Book of Mormon, the better we understand the Book of Mormon. …
From personal experiences, we know that our understanding and motivation for studying the Bible increases as we walk on the Mount of Olives and as we sail on the Sea of Galilee.  Likewise, our hearts are touched and our thoughts are enlightened regarding the history of the restored gospel as we stand in the Sacred Grove and as we ponder at Carthage.  These same kinds of experiences await us concerning the Book of Mormon.[2]

This is the very reason why President Joseph F. Smith also went on to say that studying these things is “of interest certainly.”[3]  The purpose of this article is to therefore attempt to give some insights as to where on our present map the characters in the Book of Mormon actually lived.    

Lehi’s Route in the Wilderness

We will begin our study the same place the Book of Mormon begins: at Jerusalem.  We know that Lehi left Jerusalem in 600 B.C., but where did he go from here?  This is what the Book of Mormon text says concerning the matter:

The Book of Mormon teaches us that when Lehi left Jerusalem, he traveled with his family to the Red Sea,[4] and then made a 3-day journey from the Red Sea[5] to a valley which he called Lemuel.[6]  (It was here where Lehi and Nephi beheld the vision of the tree of life and where Lehi found the Liahona.)  After returning a few times to Jerusalem, Lehi and his family packed up and traveled in “a south-southeast direction” to a place they called Shazer.[7]  From Shazer, they traveled to the camp where Nephi broke his bow.[8]  From this camp, it was on to a place “which was called Nahom.”[9]  When Lehi’s party left Nahom, the record states that they “did travel nearly eastward from that time forth,”[10] until they arrived at the sea.  The sea they called Irreantum, and the seashore they called Bountiful.[11] 

The below map, is the likely route that Lehi’s family took once they left Jerusalem:





Here is what we know about this land Bountiful, as taken from, “Discovering the Lehi-Nephi Trail”:[13]

(1)  It was "nearly eastward" from Nahom. (1 Nephi 17:1)
            (2)  It had abundant and a wide variety of fruits. (17:5; 18:6)
            (3)  It had wild honey. (1 Nephi 17:5)
            (4)  It had an accessible seashore. (1 Nephi 17:6)
            (5)  It was adjacent to "many waters." (1 Nephi 17:6)
            (6)  There was a mountain nearby. (1 Nephi 17:7)
            (7)  There was ore available. (1 Nephi 17:7)
            (8)  There were stones available to make fire. (1 Nephi 17:11)
            (9)  There were beasts ("skins") available for Nephi to make bellows. (1 Nephi 17:11)
            (10) There was "meat from the wilderness" available. (1 Nephi 18:6)
            (11)  Such things as were required to build & sail Nephi's ship. (1 Nephi 17:8)
                        (a)  A harbor to build it and launch it from.
                        (b)  A protected port to outfit the ship.
                        (c)  Materials to construct the ship...
            (12)  Cliffs directly above deep water. (1 Nephi 17:48)

As it turns out, there is only one area in this entire region that fits all of these descriptions.  It is the area as shown below in Figure 2.  This satellite photograph shows a small green area completely surrounded by desert:
Satellite Photograph of the Land Bountiful
Figure 2 - Satellite Photograph of the Land Bountiful


Photograph of the Land Bountiful
Figure 3 - Photograph of the Land Bountiful
Because this small oasis is the only area in the entire Arabian Peninsula that matches the description found in the Book of Mormon, it is the most likely location of Bountiful.  It was likely here where Nephi built the ship that would carry his family to the Promised Land.  But after the ship was built, where did it go from here?  What route did it take? 


According to several LDS scholars, Nephi and his family likely followed the coastline for as long as possible, before making the long voyage across the Pacific Ocean.  In other words, according to Allen, "they stopped for provisions along the way."[14]  For example, LDS Historian Kelly DeVries stated,

Nephi, no doubt, kept close to shore when he could.  This was not something that was just tradition among shippers, this was used for safety, and also used for re-supply purposes.[15]

Similarly, LDS Anthropologist John L. Sorenson asked of this journey,

Did they stop on the way?  Surely!  Why go without water when you can go ashore and get it?[16]
Since boats routinely had to be beached for repairs after storms, or to have their bottoms scraped, or to await favorable winds, it is reasonable to assume that Lehi's party would have stopped from time to time on their journey [along the coast line and] through [the Pacific] islands.[17]

Thus, Nephi’s route to the Promised Land probably looked something like this:[18]

Nephi's Ocean Route
Figure 4 - Nephi's Ocean Route

The reader will notice that this route would have placed Lehi and Nephi right in the area known today as Mesoamerica. The “water currents” in this area, writes LDS scholar Joseph Allen, “would have taken them into the Gulf of Tehuantepec,” which is located right on the west coast of Mesoamerica.[19]  As it turns out, this is only one of several reasons why LDS scholars believe this was the actual landing spot of Lehi and his family.

A Written Language

Perhaps the most convincing reason for placing Book of Mormon events in this area of Mesoamerica is due to the fact that archaeology is able to determine which ancient cultures located throughout North and South America had a written language between the years of 600 B.C., and 420 A.D., and which cultures did not.  Because we know that the characters in the Book of Mormon had the ability to both read and write, we have a great resource which can help us to determine their probable location.  So what does Archaeology
Map of Mesoamerica
Figure 5 - Map of Mesoamerica
say?  As it turns out, there is only one small geographical
area in all of North and South America that contained cultures who had the ability to read and write during Book of Mormon time periods!  This is the area of Mesoamerica.  
LDS Scholar Joseph Allen stated,


The Book of Mormon was made possible as a result of a written language…Scholars have determined that the only place on the American continent where a written language was in use during the time period in which the Book of Mormon history, coupled in the context of a high civilization, was in Mesoamerica….This fact alone virtually eliminates any other geographical area from being considered as “lands of the Book of Mormon.”[20]



Proposed Book of Mormon Sites

With this knowledge, we may actually be able to determine where certain Book of Mormon cities and landmarks were located.  To accomplish this task, we must take everything we know about Book of Mormon geography, and see if it matches our present map of Mesoamerica.  In order for this to work, every city, lake, river, hill, sea, wilderness etc. mentioned in the Book of Mormon must be in perfect relation to one another on our present maps.  Other factors such as distances from city to city as described in the Book of Mormon must also be exact.  

For example, LDS writer Alan Miner states,

Around 61 percent of the whole Book of Mormon story takes place in and around Nephi and Zarahemla. Alma the Elder's group, with their flocks and herds, took a few more than 21 days to traverse the distance between these two lands. This means that 61 percent of the Book of Mormon (about 600 years of history) probably took place within a 200 to 400-mile radius. All the necessary population centers, cultures, written languages, bodies of water, wilderness areas, and strategic landmarks such as the narrow neck of land had to be circumscribed within or close to that 400-mile radius.”[21]

With this introduction, we now present the possible locations of Book of Mormon sites and landmarks, as they relate to the area of Mesoamerica:
Proposed Book of Mormon Sites
Figure 6 - Proposed Book of Mormon Sites

The remainder of this article will be based on these proposed sites.  (The complete list of references and justifications for these proposed sites will not be given in the body of this article, but will rather be presented at the end for those who would like to continue their study.)

As we can see, near the bottom of the above map is the proposed site of Lehi’s landing.  The below photograph, taken from Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, shows the view of this coastline as Nephi and Lehi might have seen it when they arrived:

The Soconusco Valley - Lehi's Proposed Landing Spot
Figure 7 - The Soconusco Valley - Lehi's Proposed Landing Spot

The Book of Mormon teaches us that Lehi’s group called this area “the land of first inheritance.”[22]  This is where they lived for several years after their arrival in the Promised Land.  Shortly after Lehi’s death however, the Lord warned Nephi to flee this land.  We read:

And it came to pass that the Lord did warn me, that I, Nephi, should depart from them and flee into the wilderness, and all those who would go with me… And we did take our tents and whatsoever things were possible for us, and did journey in the wilderness for the space of many days. And after we had journeyed for the space of many days we did pitch our tents.  And my people would that we should call the name of the place Nephi; wherefore, we did call it Nephi. (2 Nephi 5:5-8)

According to several LDS scholars,[23] the most likely route taken by Nephi at this time is as follows:

Nephi Flees the Land of First Inheritance
Figure 8 - Nephi Flees the Land of First Inheritance

Around this same time period, the Book of Mormon informs us that there was an additional wave of people to cross the ocean and inhabit this land.  These people were the Mulekites who fled Jerusalem sometime after 587 B.C.  Most LDS scholars and archeologists put their landing spot in this region[24], as shown in Figure- 9:

Mulekite Landing Spot
Figure 9 - Mulekite Landing

For the next several hundred years, the Book of Mormon is mostly silent concerning our three groups: the Lamanites, the Nephites, and the Mulekites.  What we do know however, is that the Mulekites, under their leader Zarahemla, traveled south several hundred years later, sometime around the year 200 B.C., and established a city which they named Zarahemla (after their leader).  Their route may have looked something like this:

Mulekites Route to Zarahemla
Figure 10 - Mulekites Route to Zarahemla

Around the time that this city of Zarahemla was being established, Mosiah, the King of the Nephites, was told by the Lord to leave the Land of Nephi and depart into the wilderness:

Mosiah…being warned of the Lord that he should flee out of the land of Nephi, and as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord should also depart out of the land with him, into the wilderness… And they departed out of the land into the wilderness, as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord (Omni 1:12)

We are told that upon their travel they stumbled into the newly built city of Zarahemla:

and they were led by the power of [God’s] arm, through the wilderness until they came down into the land which is called the land of Zarahemla. And they discovered a people, who were called the people of Zarahemla. (Omni 1:13-14)

Their travels in all likelihood looked something like this:

King Mosiah's Route to Zarahemla
Figure 11 - King Mosiah's Route to Zarahemla

In Zarahemla, these two nations united and Mosiah was made King over both groups:

And it came to pass that the people of Zarahemla, and of Mosiah, did unite together; and Mosiah was appointed to be their king. (Omni 1:19)

Shortly after this event, Zenniff and a small group of Nephites decided that they would rather go back down into Lamanite territory and inherit the land of their first inheritance:

I [Zenniff] being over-zealous to inherit the land of our fathers, collected as many as were desirous to go up to possess the land. (Mosiah 9:3)

Their travels probably looked something like this:

Zenniff's Route to Lehi-Nephi
Figure 12 - Zenniff's Route to Lehi-Nephi

Zenniff, after a treaty made with the Lamanites, was allowed to inherit a land called Lehi-Nephi.  It was in this land that Zenniff’s son, King Noah reigned and where Abinadi preached repentance.  It was also in this land that Alma repented and fled with a group of righteous followers to the nearby waters of Mormon.

After the wicked King Noah died, his son King Limhi reigned.  King Limhi, being tired of the Lamanite bondage they were put under, decided to send for help.  Lemhi recalled:

Being grieved for the afflictions of my people, I caused that forty and three of my people should take a journey into the wilderness, that thereby they might find the land of Zarahemla, that we might appeal unto our brethren to deliver us out of bondage.  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, having discovered a land which had been peopled with a people who were as numerous as the hosts of Israel. And for a testimony that the things that they had said are true they have brought twenty-four plates which are filled with engravings, and they are of pure gold. (Mosiah 8:7-9)

These 43 men, in trying to find Zarahemla, got lost and ended up in Jaredite territory before they returned to the land of Lehi-Nephi, as shown in the map below:

Limhi's men discover Jaredite territory while trying to find Zarahemla
Figure 13 - Limhi's men discover Jaredite territory while trying to find Zarahemla

(For more information on why these Nephites got lost along their journey, read our article on Captain Moroni's fortified cities.)

Meanwhile, back in Zarahemla, right after King Benjamin’s famous sermon at the temple, his son King Mosiah thought it would be a good idea to send a few men to check in on this group of people and find out whatever happened to them:

And now, it came to pass that after king Mosiah had had continual peace for the space of three years, he 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… And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted that sixteen of their strong men might go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi, to inquire concerning their brethren. (Mosiah 7:1-2)

Their route probably looked something like this:

Mosiah send's 16 men to search for Zenniff / Limhi's Group
Figure 14 - Mosiah send's 16 men to search for Zenniff / Limhi's Group

These men were eventually able to help King Limhi’s people escape and travel back to Zarahemla:

Limhi's Group Returns to Zarahemla
Figure 15 - Limhi's Group Returns to Zarahemla

Soon after, Alma was also able to make the journey with his followers from the waters of Mormon to the land of Zarahemla:

Alma's Route to Zarahemla
Figure 16 - Alma's Route to Zarahemla

While these are just a few of the stories associated with the Book of Mormon, it is enough to give the reader some insight as to where these stories actually took place in relation to one and other.  It is recommended that the reader keep a Book of Mormon map close bysuch as the one shown above (Figure 6)the next time they read through the Book of Mormon.  Doing so may help its contents come to life.

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 Notes:


[1] Quoted in Roper, “Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review, 22:2:15-85.   Roper references: "Book of Mormon Students Meet," Deseret Evening News, 25 May 1903; and "Where was Zarahemla?" Provo Daily Inquirer, 25 May 1903.
[2] Allen & Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, Revised Edition, p. 15
[3] See footnote 1 for reference.
[4] 1 Ne. 2:5
[5] 1 Ne. 2:6
[6] 1 Ne. 2:10
[7] 1 Ne. 16:13
[8] 1 Ne. 16:17-18
[9] 1 Ne. 16:34
[10] 1 Ne. 17:1
[11] 1 Ne. 17:5
[13] George Potter and Richard Wellington, “Discovering the Lehi-Nephi Trail,” p. 185, 209-223.


[19] Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, p. 505. While Allen is here referring to the journey of the Jaredites, it very closely resembled the Journey of the Lehites.
[20] Allen and Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, p. 245, 246; see also p. 28
[22] See Mosiah 9:1; Mosiah 10:13; Alma 22:28; Alma 54:12
[23] This is largely based on Alma 22:30, which places the Mulekite landing spot in the same area as the Jaredite civilization.
[24] See the following list of references:

For more information on this “limited Mesoamerica model” of Book of Mormon geography, see:


Books:

Allen, Joseph and Blake, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (revised edition).
Allen, Joseph L., Sacred Sites: Searching for Book of Mormon Lands.
Hauck, Richard F., Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon.
Hunter, Milton R., and Ferguson, Thomas S., Ancient America and the Book of Mormon.
Lund, John L., Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon: Is This the Place?
Miner, Alan C., Step-by-Step in the Book of Mormon.
Norman, Garth, Book of Mormon Criteria for the Hill Cumorah.
Palmer, David A., In Search of Cumorah: New Evidences for the Book of Mormon from
Ancient Mexico.
Sorenson, John L.  An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.
Sorenson, John, L., The Geography of the Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book.
Sorenson, John L.  Mormon’s Codex – An Ancient American Book.
Sorenson, John, L. Mormon’s Map.
Sorenson, John L., Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life.
Warren, Bruce W., and Ferguson, Thomas S., The Messiah in Ancient America.
Washburn, J. Nile, Book of Mormon Lands and Times.
Welch, John W., and J. Gregory, Charting the Book of Mormon.


Articles:

Clark, John E., “A Key forEvaluating Nephite Geographies,” FARMS Review, 1989.
Clark, John E., “Archaeology andCumorah Questions,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1-2, (FARMS).
Clark, John E., “Evaluating theCase for a Limited Great Lakes Setting,” FARMS Review, Vol. 14, Issue 1, pp. 9-78.
Clark, John E., “Searching for Bookof Mormon Lands in Middle America,” FARMS Review, Vol. 16, Issue 2, pp. 1-54.
Clark, John E., “Two points of Bookof Mormon Geography: A Review,” FARMS Review, Vol. 8, Issue 2, pp. 1-24.
Gardner, Brant, “Confusion ofTongues and a Map,” FARMS Review, Vol. 15, Issue 2, pp. 15-24.
Pratt, John P., “Mormon’s MapPuzzle Solved,” Meridian Magazine.
Ritchie, William A., “TheArchaeological History of New York State During the Time of the Book ofMormon,” University Archaeology Society Newsletter #15.
Roper, Matthew, “Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review, Vol. 22, Issue 2, pp. 15-85.
Roper, Matthew, “Travel Across the Narrow Neck of Land,” Insights, May 2000, (FARMS).
Smith, Joseph (Taylor, John), Times and Seasons, Vol.III, No. 22, p. 914, Sept. 1, 1842.
Smith, Joseph (Taylor, John), Times and Seasons, Vol.III, No. 23, p. 927, Oct. 1, 1842.
Sorenson, John, L., “The Book of Mormon Mapped,” An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, pp. 1-48 (FARMS).
Sorenson, John, L., "A Whole Bunch of Reasons Why Book of Mormon Geography Could Not Have Included North America"
Spackman, Randall P., “Interpreting Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review, Vol 15, Issue 1, pp. 19-46.
Sperry, Sidney B., “Were There Two Cumorahs?,” Book of Mormon Compendium.
Stoddard, Ted D., “Joseph Smith and John Lloyd Stephens,” Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum. 
Wright, Mark A., “Heartland asHinterland: A Look at Book of Mormon Geography,” Meridian Magazine, Aug, 15, 2013.



           Websites:




Videos

The below video is entitled Journey of Faith - Book of Mormon Documentary.  It is an excellent presentation of Lehi and Nephi's probable route from Jerusalem:





Here is part-2 of this documentary, entitled Journey of Faith - The New World.  It discusses more of the geography associated with the Book of Mormon: