Defining NEPHI is more difficult than defining ZARAHEMLA. The Joseph Smith Model focused on the location of ZARAHEMLA in several articles, and Mormon provides sufficient descriptions to identify the isthmus which separates the land northward from the land southward and to identify the real-world river Sidon. These two significant fixtures allow the placement of the lands Bountiful and Manti, which starts the process of location through relationship.
The descriptions of NEPHI are much more general. Alma 22:26-34 provides the earliest and most complete descriptions we have for NEPHI:
- Verse 32: Both "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." This places NEPHI in the land southward. Since ZARAHEMLA borders the land northward, we know that NEPHI is somewhere between ZARAHEMLA and the Isthmus of Darien.
- Verse 27: the King of the Lamanites "sent a proclamation throughout all the land, amongst all his people who were in all his land, who were in all the regions round about, which was bordering even to the sea, on the east and on the west," indicating NEPHI stretched from sea to sea.
- Verse 27: NEPHI was separated from ZARAHEMLA by "a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west."
While these descriptions definitively locate NEPHI in the land southward, and separated from ZARAHEMLA by a wilderness, we still are left with quite a large area to work with--most of Nicaragua and all of Costa Rica and Panama.
Fortunately, we also have the 21 travel days required for Alma's group to get from the place of Mormon, along NEPHI's northern border, to the land of Zarahemla. Alma's group consisted of 450+ men, women, and children, together with their flocks (Mosiah 18:35). They did not get lost or wander, and their travel appears to be directed. Some of their travel was hurried, as they fled to escape from their persecutors (Mosiah 18:34, 23:3). However, the last 12 days were probably more relaxed as the Lord promised them he would "stop" the Lamanites so they could no longer pursue them (Mosiah 24:25).Since we know the location of Zarahemla, we can use this travel distance in the context of a real-world map of Nicaragua to generally locate NEPHI's northern border. Since rivers frequently form national boundaries, I have highlighted distances from Zarahemla's river border, the Rio Coco, to two specific rivers--the Rio Mico and the Rio San Juan. Even if Alma's group had traveled a bee-line from the place of Mormon to Zarahemla, which is highly unlikely, the 225 miles from the San Juan to the Coco seems too far, given the terrain and the inclusion of flocks. We can pretty safely conclude that their average rate of travel (miles per day) would not have exceeded the Mormon pioneers, who averaged 10-11 miles per day crossing Nebraska--a terrain much flatter than Nicaragua's.