One of the difficulties Mormon faced is keeping his readers in touch with the expansive nature of the Nephite and Lamanite societies. He has neither the time nor the space to record every element of these very complex societies, or meticulously track their changing national boundaries. Nonetheless, he does provide significant information about the colonization of the land northward and the role that colonization played in the development of the Nephite nation.
At the time of Alma 22, the Nephites protected the land northward from occupation by the Lamanites so the Nephites "might have a country whither they might flee, according to their desires" (v. 34). By the 20th year of the reign of the Judges (72 B.C.), Nephites had begun to colonize the land northward. Mormon says they possessed “all the land northward, yea, even all the land which was northward of the land Bountiful, according to their pleasure” (Alma 50:11). He refers to these colonies in Alma 50:32 as he describes the alarm over Morianton’s flight towards the land northward: “Now behold, the people who were in the land Bountiful, or rather Moroni, feared that they would hearken to the words of Morianton and unite with his people, and thus he would obtain possession of those parts of the land, which would lay a foundation for serious consequences among the people of Nephi, yea, which consequences would lead to the overthrow of their liberty.” The they must refer to the colonies of Nephites in the land northward, because Mormon states that Moroni’s military strategy is to “head the people of Morianton, to stop their flight into the land northward.”
In Alma 63, Mormon changes his focus from local to general, and in the process describes more extensive colonization of the land northward. The city Zarahemla was still the Nephite capital, both political and religious, but Mormon’s descriptions make it clear that the greater part of the Nephite population lives outside ZARAHEMLA.
During the 37th and 38th years of the reign of the Judges (55-54 B.C.), a colony of 5400 men, with their wives and children, moved to the land northward. Other companies went by ships built by Hagoth and launched “into the west sea, by the narrow neck which led into the land northward” (Alma 63:5). These ships were launched from ports on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Hagoth built “other ships” which brought companies into the land northward. Hagoth’s first ship returned for “provisions, and set out again to the land northward,” but it was never heard from again (Alma 63:7-8), evidently lost at sea. The Nephites also lost contact with one other ship that was launched (Alma 63:8). Mormon concludes this colonization narrative with the comment, “And it came to pass that in this year there were many people who went forth into the land northward” (Alma 63:9).
The Nephite colonization resumed in the 46th year of the Judges (46 B.C.), when “an exceedingly great many” moved to the land northward “to inherit the land” (Hel 3:3). This colony traveled “to an exceedingly great distance, insomuch that they came to large bodies of water and many rivers” (Hel 3:4). Other colonies “spread forth into all parts of the land” (Hel 3:5), and included “many of the people of Ammon, who were Lamanites by birth” (Hel 3:12). When they colonized areas without timber, they used cement (Hel 3:7). They also overcame timber shortages by shipping timber from the land southward to the land northward. The colonization was so extensive that Mormon says “they 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” (Hel 3:8).
How important were these colonies to the Nephites in ZARAHEMLA? Did these colonists found new lands governed by the central government in Zarahemla, or separate, self-governing entities? Mormon makes no direct reference to these new colonies being governed by Zarahemla, but he repeatedly includes the Nephites in the land northward as part of the collective Nephite identity.
In Helaman 3:31, he describes the Nephite peace in terms of "all the land which was possessed by the Nephites." When the Lamanites occupied Zarahemla in 35 B.C., Mormon specifically limits the occupation to "the possession of the Nephites which was in the land southward" (Helaman 4:8). Mormon would not have distinguished the Nephite possession in the land southward if the colonies in the land northward were not part of the collective Nephite identity. No longer does he refer to the Nephite nation as ZARAHEMLA.
With the mass conversion of the Lamanites in 30-29 B.C., national boundaries seem to disappear. The conversion was so profound that the Lamanites "did lay down their weapons of war, and also their hatred and the tradition of their fathers" (Helaman 5:51). Converted Lamanites then preached to the wicked Nephites, bringing about another mass conversion. As a result, "the Nephites did go into whatsoever part of the land they would, whether among the Nephites or the Lamanites. And it came to pass that the Lamanites did also go whithersoever they would, whether it were among the Lamanites or among the Nephites; and thus they did have free intercourse one with another, to buy and to sell, and to get gain, according to their desires" (Helaman 6:6-7).
With this new development, the distinctions of ZARAHEMLA and NEPHI no longer work when trying to emphasize Nephite and Lamanite. So, Mormon resorts to describing all the people [or land or possessions] of the Nephites, and all the people [or land or possessions] of the Lamanites.
A new enemy -- the Gadianton Robbers
The radical change in the relationship between the Nephites and Lamanites was further accentuated by the rise of the Gadianton Robbers, about 25 B.C. At first, the Gadianton Robbers were more numerous among the more wicked part of the Lamanites, but the Lamanites employed "every means in their power to destroy them off the face of the earth" (Helaman 6:20). The Nephites, however, for the most part supported and joined the Robbers. By the end of 23 B.C., the Robbers "had overspread all the land of the Nephites . . . and did obtain the sole management of the government" (Helaman 6:38-39). Again, Mormon's descriptive "all the land of the Nephites" clearly shows that the Nephites in the land northward were a vital part of a cohesive Nephite culture, and his reference to "sole management of the government" shows that all Nephites, whether in the land southward or the land northward, were governed by a single central government. In addition, the six-year rise of the Robbers paralleled Nephi's and Lehi's extended mission to the land northward (Helaman 6:6; 7:1). Nephi and Lehi returned from the land northward because the people had rejected their teachings (Helaman 7:1).
Mormon continues to emphasize the cohesive relationship between Nephites in the land southward and the land northward. He says, "the contentions did increase, insomuch that there were wars throughout all the land among all the people of Nephi" (Helaman 11:1). He makes the same emphasis regarding the famine that replaced the wars: "And there was a great famine upon the land, among all the people of Nephi" (Helaman 11:5).
When the famine ended in 16 B.C., "the whole face of the land was filled with rejoicing" (Helaman 11:18). In the midst of a new prosperity, the Nephites built "up their waste places, and began to multiply and spread, even until they did cover the whole face of the land, both on the land northward and on the southward, from the sea west to the sea east" (Helaman 11:20). In 17 B.C., the church "spread throughout the face of all the land; and the more part of the people, both the Nephites and the Lamanites, did belong to the church" (Helaman 11:21).
Are Mormon's claims hyperbolic? Is it possible that the Nephites had a population sufficient to inhabit all of the land northward (Mexico and the United States) as well as the land southward (Southern Mexico and Central America)? The answer is, "No, he is not being hyperbolic" simply because his claims do not require a concentrated population in the land northward, only that settlements existed throughout the land northward. By 1850, the United States spread from sea to sea, and yet a very large area remained unorganized and huge expanses were sparsely populated. This animated map shows population concentrations as they spread from 1790-1990.
Let's not imagine that Mormon is saying anything other than settlements existed throughout the land northward.
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