If building an accurate real-world Book of Mormon map were an easy thing, we would not have so many models competing for approval. Mormon did not give us a map. None of his distances are in linear measurements, only in travel days and with no mention of the travel method. Drawing a map using only Mormon's descriptions is like putting together a 5000-piece picture puzzle with no picture on the box cover. But at least with the picture puzzle, the border pieces are easily identifiable and serve as a fixed frame in which to fit the other pieces. Mormon did not provide such a precise frame--the events he describes could have occurred anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, which is a pretty big place.
I do not believe, however that this reality makes drawing an accurate real-world map impossible. I believe Joseph Smith's opinions on this subject would be an invaluable and irreplaceable guide for interpreting Book of Mormon geographic descriptions, provided those opinions could be determined with some certainty. Joseph's opinions could serve as the frame in which to fit the geographic descriptions and the picture on the box cover to help us put together the various sections.
I value Joseph's opinions on this subject because of three unique historical experiences. First, he had the mantle of the call to be the Book of Mormon’s translator. His calling was much more than converting the Book of Mormon into English. He was the principal witness of its divinity and authenticity. I believe that mantle included a solid understanding of all of its internal structures—including its geography?
Second, Joseph had many hours of conversation with Moroni, of which we have little in written form. He gives a general outline of the information he received from Moroni in the Wentworth Letter. Describing the first visit, on September 23, 1823, he says, “I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people” (Times and Seasons, 3[March 1, 1842]:707).
Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, claimed that from the time of this first visit, he would spend the evenings with his family telling them about “the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them” (History of Joseph Smith the Prophet by His Mother, 83). So, before Joseph even took possession of the Gold Plates, he had considerable knowledge of the people, culture, and civilization it describes.
Third, Joseph translated the 116 pages that were subsequently lost. Those 116 pages were the first part of Mormon’s abridgment covering the period from Lehi to King Benjamin, approximately 470 years, nearly one-half of the entire Nephite saga. In that portion of the abridgment, Lehi’s colony landed on the western hemisphere and moved to their first settlement location Nephi and his followers separated from the Lamanites and established the land of Nephi as their land of inheritance King Mosiah I and his followers fled from the land of Nephi and joined the Mulekites in the land of Zarahemla Mormon never knew this portion of his abridgment would be lost. He informs us that he discovered the small plates of Nephi and inserted them into the Gold Plates, not knowing the reason why. Only Mormon and Joseph knew how much the geographic descriptions in the latter part of Mormon’s abridgment depended upon the geographic descriptions in the 116 lost pages.
Because these three experiences were unique to Joseph, his opinions would be an invaluable and irreplaceable guide in interpreting Book of Mormon geography.
Understanding the value of Joseph’s opinions on this subject is one thing; determining what those opinions were is quite another. First choice, of course, would be a detailed document, in his own handwriting or clearly attributed to him and published in his lifetime, that contains specific identifications of Book of Mormon sites. That we do not have.
However, the absence of such a document does not make it impossible to identify Joseph’s opinions on the subject. Statements in official church periodicals during Joseph’s lifetime could be a very good source if they are repetitive and form a pattern. Some of those periodicals were under Joseph’s editorship; all were under his scrutiny. One or two statements might appear that were not representative of his opinion, but repetitive claims and patterns would not have escaped either his notice or his correction.
Four church periodicals were published in the United States during Joseph’s lifetime: The Evening and the Morning Star, The Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, The Elders’ Journal of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and The Times and Seasons. A survey of these four periodicals produced a total of twenty articles on Book of Mormon geography, with the first appearing in August 1832 and the last in January 1844. Added to these is an extract from a letter Joseph wrote to Emma, which certainly can be relied on to be an accurate representation of his opinion. These twenty-one items are listed, with complete publication information, in Appendix A.
Many of these articles are in response to press releases of archaeological discoveries. However, Joseph Smith and his generation are not learning from the archeological discoveries. Rather, they are claiming the archaeological discoveries prove what they already believed to be true and using the press reports as their occasion for expressing their opinions.
The harmony and pattern in these twenty-one items, coupled with the absolute absence of any correction or refutation by Joseph, confirm that they reflect his opinions on the subject. This is especially true of those articles that are editorials (they are signed “Ed,” the standard editorial signature) during times when Joseph was the editor on record. He surely understood that any article appearing as an editorial in a publication that bore his name as editor would be expected to reflect his opinion. That is, after all, what an editorial is.
If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome. Anne Bradstreet
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. Ether 12:27
Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season therof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion. D&C 59:18-20