This process necessarily involves in-depth analysis of every possible interpretation, followed by an elimination process, as geographic descriptions are considered from all angles—topographic descriptions, distance descriptions, military maneuvers, population relocations, and changes in national boundaries. To present the reader with all of this analysis would be cruel and confusing. What I present is the map that resulted from this analysis and the justification for the various interpretations that comprise it. You, the reader, can judge for yourself whether the locations fit the descriptions. Do keep in mind, it isn't a matter of whether one or two particular sites fit their descriptions, but whether the whole body of sites fit together.
The land north and the land south
The most general geographic locations named in the Book of Mormon for the western hemisphere are the land north and the land south. These names appear first in Helaman 6:9-10: "And it came to pass that they became exceedingly rich, both the Lamanites and the Nephites; and they did have an exceeding plenty of gold, and of silver, and of all manner of precious metals, both in the land south and in the land north. Now the land south was called Lehi and the land north was called Mulek, which was after the son of Zedekiah; for the Lord did bring Mulek into the land north, and Lehi into the land south."
By naming the land south Lehi and the land north Mulek, Mormon informs us that they are not merely directional descriptions but identifiable landmasses, with identifiable boundaries, and divided by an identifiable common border.
Alma 22:30-31 tells us that the Mulekites landed first in Desolation, which was a Jaredite possession. They did not remain in Desolation because of the destruction caused by the Jaredite civil war. Instead, they established their land of inheritance in what came to be known as the land of Zarahemla. The JSM says the Jaredites occupied Mexico and the United States, so Desolation is somewhere in Mexico or the United States. Furthermore, the JSM says the land of Zarahemla was located in southern Mexico and the former Kingdom of Guatemala. Thus, the Lord brought Mulek to North America.
The JSM says that Lehi landed “a little south of the Isthmus of Darien,” or along the upper western coast of South America. So, the Lord brought Lehi to South America. The Isthmus of Darien is the dividing line between North America and South America. Mulek, or the land north, is North America, and Lehi, or the land south, is South America.
The land northward and the land southward
The names 'land northward' and 'land southward' are not variations for the land north and land south, and neither are they merely directional descriptions. Rather, they are the two major subdivisions of Mulek —specific landmasses with identifiable boundaries and an identifiable common border.
The Book of Mormon is wholly consistent in locating the Jaredite colonies in the land northward. The Jaredites had access to all of Mulek, but they reserved the land southward as a wilderness for hunting (Ether 10:21) and did not colonize it. The southernmost Jaredite inhabited land is Desolation, which is in the land northward.
The Lord gave the Mulekites all of the Jaredite land of inheritance (Ether 13.21). However, when they landed in Desolation, “the place of their first landing,” they were discouraged because of the destruction caused by the Jaredite civil war (Alma 22:30-31). They settled in the land southward, which the Jaredites called the Bountiful wilderness. The Mulekites were later joined by the Nephites and together established the land of Zarahemla. The Desolation/Bountiful line is the dividing line between the land northward and the land southward. The Book of Mormon is wholly consistent in locating the land of Zarahemla in the land southward and identifying the Desolation/Bountiful line as the dividing line between the land northward and the land southward.
The JSM places the land of Zarahemla in southern Mexico and the former Kingdom of Guatemala. The JSM further places the Jaredites in parts of Mexico as well as in the United States. That puts Desolation, the southernmost Jaredite colony, and the Desolation/Bountiful line somewhere in Mexico.
Mormon and Moroni provide several descriptions of the common border shared by the land northward and the land southward—the Desolation/Bountiful Line. Six descriptions use the term “narrow pass,” “narrow passage,” “narrow neck of land,” or “small neck of land.”
- In Alma 50:33-34. Moroni had sent an army to head off the people of Morianton, who were attempting to get into the land northward. Mormon says, “And it came to pass that they did not head them until they had come to the borders of the land Desolation; and there they did head them, by the narrow pass which led by the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east.” (emphasis added).
- Regarding Ammoron’s efforts to get into the land northward, Mormon says, “And [Moroni] also sent orders unto [Teancum] that he should fortify the land Bountiful, and secure the narrow pass which led into the land northward, lest the Lamanites should obtain that point and should have power to harass them on every side.” (Alma 52:9, emphasis added)
- “And the Lamanites did give unto us the land northward, yea, even to the narrow passage which led into the land southward. And we did give unto the Lamanites all the land southward (Mormon 2:29, emphasis added).
- “And it came to pass that Hagoth, he being an exceedingly curious man, therefore he went forth and built him 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 63:7, emphasis added).
- “And [the Jaredites} built a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land” (Ether 10:20, emphasis added).
- “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).
“Narrow pass” and “narrow passage” might lead us to conclude that Mormon is describing an interior pass, such as a mountain pass. However, the complete description in Alma 50:34, “by the sea, on the west and on the east,” clearly excludes an interior pass. How can it be interior if it is by both seas? An isthmus is the only logical conclusion to draw from Mormon’s description, and his and Moroni’s use of the terms “narrow neck,” “narrow neck of land,” and “small neck of land” reinforce that conclusion.
The strategic importance of the isthmus cannot be ignored. With the Lamanites not being a sea-faring people, the Nephites could effectively establish military fortifications across the width of the isthmus to prevent the Lamanites from gaining advantage over them (Alma 22:33). And, this approach assured them a vast “country whither they might flee, according to their desires,” if the Lamanites became too threatening (Alma 22:34).
The only isthmus in Mexico is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. For more detailed information on the Isthmus, including a relief map, go to Wikipedia's "The Isthmus of Tehuantepec" and also the Encarta Map.
The “sea that divides the land” (Ether 10:20) is the Gulf of Mexico. This map shows the land north, Mulek, divided into the land northward and the land southward.
Mormon makes frequent references to the east sea (or sea east) and the west sea (or sea west). For the land southward, the east sea can be either the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea, and the west sea is the Pacific Ocean.
The land southward
Lehi landed just south of the Isthmus of Darien, and the Nephites colonized first in Lehi, or South America. After Lehi's death, Nephi led a small group to a new inheritance, which they named after Nephi. Then, Mosiah I led the Nephites from the land of Nephi to the land of Zarahemla, where they joined the Mulekites, who had already been there 350 years. The Mulekites first landed in Desolation, a Jaredite colony in the land northward, but did not remain there because of all the destruction caused by the Jaredite civil war. They relocated in what the Jaredites called the Bountiful wilderness, or the land southward. A later king, Zarahemla, established the city Zarahemla as his capital. The combined Mulekite/Nephite colonies in the land southward were named the land of Zarahemla.
The problem of directions
Through macro descriptions, Mormon informs us of the vastness of the territory eventually colonized by the Nephites. Through micro descriptions, he defines only a small part of that territory. Mormon’s descriptions deal almost exclusively with Mulek, and only incidentally with Lehi. Within Mulek, his descriptions deal mostly with the land southward. Within the land southward, his descriptions are pretty much confined to the Nephite ecclesiastical and political capital, Zarahemla, and the Nephite border lands which bare the brunt of the Lamanite invasions or which are the locations of major apostasies. Mormon does provide some descriptions of lands in the land of Nephi, but only as they relate to Nephite efforts to recover the Lamanites.
So, how is Mormon dealing with directions, particularly given the shape of the land southward? Is he providing them on a localized basis, on a national basis, or on an international basis?
Today, an international highway extending from some point in Lehi (South America), passing through NEPHI and then ZARAHEMLA in the land southward and pressing on into the land northward would be dubbed a north/south highway. The highway from Lehi to the land northward would be northbound; the opposite direction would be southbound. This would be true even for travelers going only a short distance in those areas where travel would be in an east or west direction, such as in Honduras.
Perhaps Mormon dealt with travel directions in the same way. The fact that he named Mulek’s two major subdivisions the land northward and the land southward suggests he did so. Thus, in dealing with directions, a reasonable approach is to consider not only cardinal directions but also standardized international travel directions.
The Problem of Distances
A common mistake is to assume that if a specific time marker exists in the account, then all related events are to be measured by that time marker. In a few military maneuvers, we are given some specific time markers, usually camping at night, or some other activity that occurs over a single night. The general conclusion is that these time markers limit the time period for the entire maneuver and thus the travel distances.
Another mistake we must guard against is assuming that travel planned between two cities means the two cities are neighbors. One example is Alma's intent to travel from the city of Ammonihah to the city of Aaron. Many conclude that Aaron and Ammonihah are neighbors. However, in D&C 54:8, the Lord tells Joseph Smith to take his travels from Kirtland to Independence. Yet, we know that Kirtland and Independence are not neighboring cities. They are separated not only by other cities, but also by two states. In numerous other instances in the D&C, the Lord directs his servants to travel from one city to another when those cities are not neighboring cities and the cities and states in between are not mentioned. We must recognize that Mormon probably employed the same abbreviated method for describing travel between cities.
Finally, Mormon provides very little concrete information about the distances between cities: he never gives distance in terms of linear measurement, and only on a few occasions does he provide distance in terms of travel days. Our interpretations of the descriptions provided depend much on our pre-conceived opinions of how large a territory the Nephites occupied and how advanced their society was. If we insist they traveled only by foot, even though the Book of Mormon specifically tells us they had horses and chariots, and had no established road system, even though the Book of Mormon specifically tells us they did, then we are very likely to incorrectly conclude that the cities were much closer than they really were.