Book of Mormon Covenant Lands According to the Best Sources

The Divided Neck

Could the Book of Mormon's “narrow neck of land” be separate from the feature described as “a small neck of land” and called “the narrow pass” or “the narrow passage”? A few scripturally plausible interpretations (Divided Neck hypotheses) are presented in this article. Phyllis Olive’s current model, which consolidates “the narrow pass” with “the narrow neck” into a single, small isthmus, remains the most unified interpretation; but certain Divided Neck ideas are worth considering. One of these may turn out to be most correct!

 Divided Narrow Neck

Scripture states: “And they built a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land.” (Ether 10:20)

Instead of referring to that great sea which divideth the lands [plural] (Ether 2:13), the verse above refers to a “narrow neck of land” in an American setting, and a “place where the sea divides the land [singular]”.

Circled in the map above are three interpretations of a “narrow neck of land” divided by “the sea”. In each case “the land” divided by the sea is interpreted to include “the narrow neck”. In hypothesis 3, “the sea” is interpreted to be Lake Erie + Niagara River + Lake Tonawanda.

The feature described in scripture as “a small neck of land”, called “the narrow pass”, having waters of a "sea" (singular) “on the west and on the east” of it (Alma 50:34) is interpreted to be the Batavia Moraine. Batavia is a Dutch place name meaning good land surrounded by, or near water”.

Notice that the Batavia Moraine also appears on the Ontario side of the Niagara Isthmus, running more or less parallel with the isthmus. So “the narrow pass” (or rather the linear mound of the Batavia Moraine) is to some extent found within "the narrow neck" (considering the whole Niagara Isthmus to be "the narrow neck of land" - proposal 3). In other words, though the geological feature giving rise to "the narrow pass" is separate and distinct from the Niagara Isthmus, in a sense, the moraine becomes one with the isthmus!

It’s a geological fact that the Batavia Moraine passed through ancient Lake Tonawanda, dividing the inland sea into an unobstructed, effluent western part, and a more stagnant eastern end. As depicted in the map above (adapted from Heidi Natel’s master’s thesis in geology), Lake Tonawanda can be viewed as an arm, or extension of Lake Erie. This doesn't necessarily mean that ancient peoples of the area referred to both lakes using the same name. The waters of Lake Tonawanda were also fed by Tonawanda River - now a creek. Tonawanda” is a Native American name meaning “confluent stream” or “swift water”.

Given the scriptural location of the Book of Mormon land Cumorah (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20, Mormon 6:4) in relation to the nearby land Zarahemla (Mosiah 8:7-8; 21:25-26), Lake Erie is the most likely candidate for the Book of Mormon’s “west sea” - bordering the lands of Bountiful, Zarahemla and Nephi. (Alma 22:27-33; 50:11, 52:11-12, Helaman 4:5-8)

In Phyllis Olive’s straight forward model, the Book of Mormon’s “small neck of land”, “narrow neck”, “narrow pass”, “narrow passage” all relate to a single geological feature – the Batavia Moraine.

Olive has considered various geological facts, and numerous literary setting scenarios. Olive’s model (featuring Lake Tonawanda and the Batavia Moraine) remains the most unified interpretation. Even so, seeing the narrow neck and narrow pass as two different things, resolves and simplifies other aspects of the Book of Mormon  American setting. Occam's razor has something to say about preferring the simpler explanation. It is left to the reader to decide which interpretation fits scripture best .

Olive's Setting (1998)

Olive's remarkably accurate depiction of the Book of Mormon's authentic literary setting near Cumorah. The map tacitly favors a Consolidated Neck model. The land of Desolation is labeled on the east of a small neck of land (the Batavia Moraine), but extends west to the Niagara as "the land" (singular) divided by "the sea" (Lake Tonawanda) - Olive's interpretation of Ether 10:20.

The biggest challenge to Olive’s Consolidated Neck model is a verse in Alma 63 which reads:

5  And it came to pass that Hagoth … 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.

Combine the above verse with the only other reference in the Book of Mormon that explicitly names “the narrow neck”   (Ether 10:20-21):

20  And they built a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land.

21  And they did preserve the land southward for a wilderness, to get game.  And the whole face of the land northward was covered with inhabitants.

Unlike “the narrow pass” or “passage”, “the narrow neck of land” was not a continuous isthmus, or so it can be interpreted. The “narrow neck of land” was divided by “the sea”, “the west sea” (or an extension of it). Notice in the passage of scripture about Hagoth (Alma 63:5), that “narrow neck” is mentioned, whereas Moroni, in abridging the ancient Jaredite record, makes the effort to engrave “narrow neck of land”. (Ether 10:20) This becomes important when considering that “the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land” clarifies which land [singular] is meant by “the place where the sea divides the land”. The narrow neck itself was divided by the sea.

Large catamaran in the mouth of Buffalo River

A large shallow draft catamaran in the mouth of the Book of Mormon's "river Sidon" (Buffalo River), on the southwest borders of "the land Bountiful" (at Buffalo NY), a little south of the Niagara Isthmus.

In the Divided Neck scenario, Hagoth launched an “exceedingly large ship” directly into Lake Erie near the divided Niagara Isthmus. The western side of the divided isthmus (across “the west sea” from Hagoth’s launch site) was that part of “the narrow neck which led into the land northward” (Ontario, Canada in this case).

Bordered in each  direction by seas

The "land northward" of Helaman 3:8, with Lake Ontario as "the sea east" (meaning sea on the east). The Hebrew word designating "east" connotes "sunrise". The western part of the Niagara Isthmus (lower right) leads into "the land northward". (Alma 63:5) Scripture doesn't say that "the narrow neck" led into the land southward. It was "the narrow pass" (the Batavia Moraine) that connected northern and southern lands on what is now U.S. soil. (Alma 50:34; 52:9, Mormon 2:29; 3:5)

It’s crucial to understand that the Book of Mormon expressions, “land northward”, and “land southward” are not the names of particular lands, as, for instance the name of the land “called Desolation”, or the land “called Bountiful”. (Alma 22:30-31) The expressions “land northward”, and “land southward” are relative. These expressions give the directions to lands based on frames of reference. The expression “land northward”, or “land southward” mean the same as “land on the northward”, or “land on the southward”, respectively.

In the reference frame of Alma 22:31 the land “called Bountiful” is referred to as “the land on the southward”. In the reference frame of Helaman 4:5-8, however, “the land southward” refers to land south of Bountiful. Consider also 3 Nephi 3:23-24; 6:2.

Likewise, the expression sea east is not the name of a particular body of water. (Helaman 3:8) Nor was there a sea called the west sea, south. Scripture explains that the expression, on the west sea, south ... simply means in the borders of the land on the south by the west sea. (Alma 53:8, 22) The sea referred to was called “the west sea”. That was the  Nephite name for the body of water, even when viewed as the sea south (sea on the south) relative to places in Ontario Canada.

As you come upon relative expressions in scripture like sea north” and land north (Helaman 6:10) ask yourself - north etc. with respect to what? And then try to identify the reference frame in scripture.

The elevated Jaredite seat of power at “Moron” near the land “called Desolation by the Nephites”, was built on prophetic ground that would later be associated with a singular “nation” - the United States of America – “free from … all other nations under heaven”. (Ether 2:9-12; 7:5-6, 17; 14:11)

In Alma chapter 22, “the land on the northward … called Desolation” featuring a “small neck of land between the land northward” and the more elevated “land southward”, (Alma 22:30-33) fits the NY, Lake Ontario coastal flatland, and the Tonawanda basin – all on United State soil. The fertile country to the south is elevated just as scripture describes. (Alma 22:31)

Olive has chosen to make the generalization that the passable “small neck of land” (Batavia Moraine) is one and the same as the “narrow neck” mentioned in other verses, including the verse about Hagoth’s great ship (raft, catamaran, shallow draft sailing vessel).

The scriptural term “curious” describing Hagoth, relates to the biblical Hebrew מַחֲשָׁבָה, fromחשׁב . The Hebrew implies clever, well thought out, contrived, highly skilled. (See Exodus 35:32, 1 Nephi 18:1, Helaman 6:11) The translated adjective “curious” therefore has more to do with describing Hagoth as an engineer than an explorer. Hagoth stayed ashore and “built other ships.” There is no scriptural account of Hagoth going on a voyage – ill fated or otherwise. (Alma 63:4-9) As for the account of the lost passengers, it is possible they sailed from Lake Erie “northward” into Lake Huron, or after arriving in “the land northward” embarked into Lake Ontario and “were never heard of more.”

Hagoth's ships were not launched into the Pacific Ocean. Any real connection between Book of Mormon peoples, and peoples of the Pacific Islands, must involve distant migrations from North America, and intermarriage with islanders. It is entirely possible that Pacific Islanders long ago navigated to American shores, and there interacted with local peoples, including descendents of immigrants from temperate North America.

While it’s true that the description “exceedingly large ship” is relative, Hagoth’s motive for building the huge craft was probably to acquire “onties” (Nephite monetary weight in silver, i.e. Alma 11:25). He wanted to establish a large shipping business. To that end, his “exceeding large ship” was likely optimized and much larger than even a tree long Jaredite barge; which, according to scripture, was regarded as “small”. (Ether 2:16-17)

The fact that Hagoth’s great ship took its course northward doesn't necessarily mean it sailed due north, right away, without a course change. The Hagoth verses (Alma 63:5-6) allow for the possibility that after Hagoth launched his exceedingly large ship ... into the west sea, it could have sailed southward along the Erie coast picking upmuch provisions and many passengers, before they took their course northward (perhaps northwest).

Hagoth could have built several great vessels that sailed out into Lake Erie. A ship launched into “the west sea”, could have entered the mouth of Canada’s Grand River, and from there sailed "northward" into Ontario Canada and back.

From the Erie coast, by the divided isthmus, some of Hagoth’s “other ships” (if not the large forerunner) could have sailed expeditiously into the Niagara strait to the shores of Desolation. In this case, returning to Lake Erie, might require towrope and poles - if sail and oar were not enough to overcome the current in the shallows. Lighter craft could of course, be transported overland back to Lake Erie. This is yet another possible route Hagoth’s ships could have sailed in the authentic Book of Mormon setting - near Niagara’s isthmus.

We might ask, how the Nephites would have described the divided isthmus? Would they have called it a “neck of land”? It seams reasonable that they would have. They could have at least viewed parts of the isthmus at a time. In the mind’s eye, based on their explorations, they could have perceived the whole isthmus as a “neck of land”. A crucial question remains:  If Niagara’s “neck of land” is not “small” like “the narrow passage” near Batavia (Bountiful), is there any scriptural justification for describing some sizeable part, or all of the divided isthmus as “narrow”? There is:

19  For thy waste and thy desolate places, and the land of thy destruction, shall even now be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants; and they that swallowed thee up shall be far away [Heb. thy devourers shall be distant] . (1 Nephi 21:19, Isaiah 49:19, KJV)

The word צר translated “narrow” can mean “cramped”, “tight” or “strait”. In the passage above, “narrow” applies to the coastal land of Judah after the exile. This covenant land is some miles in breadth and length. Thus the word “narrow” may also appropriately describe a once crowded desolate land in America – a “narrow neck of land” – “narrow” by reason of the former inhabitants. (Helaman 3:5-6)

In short, there could be a reason for the different names: “the narrow pass” and “the narrow neck”.

The Hebrew word translated "passage" (1 Samuel 13:23) can also be translated ford or pass. (The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon, 4569, מעבר, pg. 721) But the Hebrew word for "neck" is an entirely different word. So are we dealing with two different names for the same thing, or two different things?

The feature described as “a small neck of land” was named “the narrow pass”. (Alma 22:32; 50:34, see Helpful Notes: Truth Table) This feature with the waters of a “sea” (singular) “on the west and on the east” of it, was not a continental isthmus that took more than a day to walk across, but was so localized and guarded that scripture describes it as a “point” (Alma 52:9); this in contrast to the breadth of Bountiful which is described as a “line”. (Alma 22:32-33, 3 Nephi 3:23)

Olive convincingly associates the “pass” that spanned the inland sea, with the Batavia Moraine. What a find she has made! While the moraine certainly fits the description of a soggy but passable narrow neck, it’s possible that the geographic feature named “the narrow neck of land” was part of, or all of the divided Niagara Isthmus.

Lake Wainfleet and lake Tonawanda

Isthmuses exposed by the receding waters of Wainfleet Bog (west) and Lake Tonawanda (east). Adapted from a map by archaeologist William Ritchie, and provided by author Phyllis Olive.

The term “narrow pass” doesn't appear in the abridged Jaredite record - at all! The Jaredite account predates the Nephite record with its multiple mentions of “the narrow pass”. What appears in Moroni’s abridgement of the more ancient account, is a reference to a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land! (Ether 10:20)

The level of Lake Tonawanda was higher during the archaic times of the Jaredites. This raises a question: Was the Batavia Moraine swamped during much of this period? If so, during the poisonous serpent pestilence, was the way to the south in the vicinity of Bountiful? In other words, were Jaredites near the southern shore of Lake Tonawanda, the ones hedged in by the serpents, so that they “could not pass” by the way “towards the land southward, which was called by the Nephites Zarahemla”? (Ether 9:31-34; 10:19)

Prehistoric Lake Tonawanda

Prehistoric Lake Tonawanda may date back to ~12,000 years BP. As Lake Erie receded, the exposed Batavia Moraine parted Lake Tonawanda into western and eastern portions.

It makes sense that Hagoth would have launched craft at Lake Erie by the divided Niagara Isthmus, and also at Lake Tonawanda, perhaps even in the shallow waters near the Batavia Moraine. Both bodies of water are interconnected. It's likely, however, that the Nephites had a separate name for the sea that "the narrow pass" traversed. (Alma 50:34)

Olive’s Consolidated Neck model requires that Lake Tonawanda go by the name “the west sea” to satisfy the Hagoth account. (Alma 63:5) Indeed, there was water to the west of the Batavia Moraine, near Olive’s proposed launch site, but there was also a part of Lake Tonawanda on the east. It seems more appropriate that the Nephites would have named Lake Tonawanda the north sea, consistent with how they named other bodies of water in relation to their principal lands. Better yet, the Nephites could have named the northern lake the Desolation sea! Scripture only says that there was a “sea ... on the west and on the east” of “the narrow pass”. (Alma 50:34) Scripture does not tell us the name of “the sea by “the narrow pass”. The name of the sea by the narrow neck”, on the other hand, was definitely “the west sea”. (Alma 63:5)

Scripture says that it was “the sea” that divided “the land”. (Ether 10:20) The wide Niagara River was seen as “the sea” dividing the land. The Hebrew word for “sea” can apply to a “mighty river”. Though Lake Tonawanda (as an arm of “the west sea”) took part in dividing “the land”, there is no indication in scripture that Lake Tonawanda was actually called the sea that divides the land, distinguishing it in that way from “the west sea” (Lake Erie).

This begs a question: In light of three earlier references to the narrow pass (including the one describing it asa small neck of land; Alma 22:32; 50:34; 52:9), if the narrow neck (Alma 63:5) is not the same as “the narrow pass”, why would the Nephite account suddenly mention “the narrow neck” without any distinguishing introduction? Was the different name combined with the mention of “the west sea” thought sufficient to distinguish “the narrow neck” from the previously mentioned “narrow pass”? Perhaps the answer is that simple!

According to Olive’s model, there are borders of Bountiful by Desolation near the Batavia Moraine, and also near portions of the divided Niagara Isthmus (westward). But near “the west sea” (Lake Erie), the southern borders of Bountiful at Sidon (Buffalo River) are much closer to Desolation than anywhere else. Hagoth could have built his “exceedingly large ship” as far south as “the borders of the land Bountiful”, near the mouth of Sidon; and still have been “by the land Desolation” (a short distance northward). (Alma 63:5) Today, ships routinely launch out into Lake Erie at this location - despite the currents near Niagara River.

Shores of Desolation

“...on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation ...” - “...the line which was between the land Bountiful and the land Desolation”, running nearly parallel to the Onondaga Limestone Escarpment. (Alma 22:32-33, 3 Nephi 3:23)

Bountiful by Desolation by the Narrow Neck

The southwest borders of Desolation should logically correspond to the Onondaga Lime Stone Escarpment intersecting the eastern Niagara coast. But what if the edge of the formation was obscured or missing due to erosion or removal? How could the Nephites have defined “...the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land Desolation” at this locale without excavating for limestone? (Alma 63:5) What if large amounts of Onondaga limestone were removed in this region of Nephite shipping; for the purpose of making cement? See Helaman 3:10-11.

Bountiful - Desolation borders

There is an alternate way of determining the southwest borders of “the land Desolation” near “the place where the sea divides the land” - based on the closest, southern edge of the Niagara Isthmus. (Alma 63:5, Ether 10:20)

In Summary:

Hagoth’s “exceedingly large ship” was built, not on the nether shores of Desolation, but on the borders of the forested land Bountiful. Why is “the narrow neck of land which led into the land northward”, not mentioned in Alma 63:5 until after the launch of Hagoth’s ship into “the west sea”? Is it because the narrow neck was actually parted by water? (Ether 10:20) The part which “led into the land northward” would therefore be across the water, in sight of the ship when it was launched.

Both the Batavia Moraine and the Niagara Isthmus can reasonably be described as a “neck”.

Scriptural justification has been shown for calling a small coastal land (measuring some miles in length and breadth), “narrow”. See also Joshua 17:15. Part, or all of the Niagara Isthmus may qualify as scripturally “narrow”. 

The entire Niagara Isthmus certainly does not qualify as a “narrow pass”. It also does not have waters of a “sea ... on the west and on the east” of it. (Alma 50:34) The Batavia Moraine fits perfectly that description. Also, unlike “the narrow pass” (Batavia Moraine), the divided Niagara Isthmus does not lead into land southward of the Onondaga Escarpment - because it is divided by an inland sea, or mighty river. Scripture says that “the narrow neck .. led into the land northward”. (Alma 63:5) It was “the narrow pass which led into the land southward” and “... into the land northward”. (Mormon 3:5, Alma 52:9)

In the annals of Nephite history the maiden voyage of vessels launched at either Lake Erie or Lake Tonawanda may have been described using somewhat similar sounding geographic references, i.e. the borders of the lands Bountiful and Desolation, the full accounts of which got abridged:

14  But behold, a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, yea, the account of … their shipping and their building of ships … cannot be contained in this work. (Helaman 3:14)

Large catamaran launching out into Lake Erie 

A large, shallow draft catamaran launching out into the Book of Mormon's "west sea" (Lake Erie) by the Niagara Isthmus.



Narrow Neck versus Narrow Pass Truth Table

Scriptural, Geographic Constraints:

“narrow neck“:

narrow pass”:

By “the west sea”.

Yes, Alma 63:5


Associated with “the place where the sea divides the land.”

Yes, Ether 10:20


Only known to lead “into the land northward.”

Yes, Alma 63:5


Connects both “land northward” and “land southward”.


Yes, Alma 50:34; 52:9, Mormon 2:29; 3:5

By an unnamed body of water referred to as a “sea”.


Yes, Alma 50:34, Mormon 3:5-8

Waters of the unnamed “sea, on the west and on the east” of it.


Yes, Alma 50:34

Small enough in width to be described as a geographic “point”.


Yes, Alma 52:9

Note: The description “a small neck of land between the land northward [Desolation in this case] and the land southward [Bountiful etc. in this case]” (Alma 22:32) best describes the Batavia Moraine or “narrow pass”. The “narrow pass” situates on prophetic U.S. soil. (Ether 2:7-12; 7:6) The description of “the narrow pass” does not appropriately describe the lateral and divided Niagara Isthmus or “narrow neck of land … where the sea divides the land”. (Ether 10:20)

Batavia Moraine Narrow Pass  

The Book of Mormon “narrow pass” as it exists today, a little north of the Onondaga Escarpment, near Batavia NY (Bountiful). In order for Hagoth to construct a great ship “on the borders of the land Bountiful” near this location, and to launch it into Lake Tonawanda, the great vessel would have to be transported down the escarpment into Desolation’s sea below. If on the other hand, the Book of Mormon “narrow pass” is different than the “narrow neck”, in that the “narrow neck” is part of, or all of the conspicuous Niagara Isthmus, then the “exceedingly large” vessel could be launched from Bountiful’s western shore directly into “the west sea, by the narrow neck ...” (Alma 63:5)

Early 1800s map of western NY

An enlarged portion of an 1804 map of western NY. Tonawanda Creek (represented in the map) flows northward over the Onondaga Escarpment at Indian Fallsinto the basin of what once held Lake Tonawanda. Note the pass (between the 13s) with wetlands on the west and on the east of it. Even in Joseph Smith’s days the Batavia Moraine was used as a pass through the marshy remnants of ancient Lake Tonawanda.

“ ... by the narrow pass which led by the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east.” (Alma 50:34)


1804 map of large city by neck and divide

An enlarged portion of an 1804 map of western NY showing the site of New Amsterdam (later Buffalo) built across from a neck-like extension of the Niagara Isthmus, near the place where Lake Erie first divides the isthmus as Niagara River.

“And they built a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land.” (Ether 10:20)

Narrow land of Judah

Hebrew source for KJV Isaiah 49:19 (1 Nephi 21:19)


The Hebrew word “narrow” (צר) spelled out by the Niagara River. The Hebrew spelling has other appropriate meanings. (Esther 7:6) Does GOD have a sense of humor or what?


You may also want to read W. W. Phelps' LAND OF DESOLATION and

Why Lake Erie, and not Lake Tonawanda, is the Western Terminus of the Land Bountiful

Vincent Coon וִינְסֶנט כּוּן כּ Copyright 2015


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