in the Book of Mormon’s American Setting

Near Cumorah Setting - Travel Times (distances)

The above map is adapted from maps created by author Phyllis Carol Olive. Note that the Book of Mormon “east sea” is simply a lake - analogous to “the east sea” (הַיׇם הַקַדְמוׄנׅי) of the biblical setting. (Joel 2:20, Numbers 34:3, 2 Chronicles 20:2) There is no capitalization in Hebrew. “the east sea” is a proper noun, or name. The Book of Mormon “west sea” is Lake Erie. Ancient Lake Tonawanda is one of a number of “large bodies of water” in “the land which was northward”. (Alma 50:29) Note “the narrow pass” (Batavia Moraine) that bridged the diminished water of Lake Tonawanda in Nephite times (Woodland period; Alma 50:33-34). The “large bodies of water” in “the land northward” include the exceedingly large “waters of Ripliancum” (Ancient Lake Iroquois, Ether 15:8).

Center of the Land

Expressions like “land northward” and “land southward” are relative expressions, and are not proper nouns or names. In general, “the land northward”, called “the north countries”, are vast compared to the relatively small principal lands of the Book of Mormon. (Helaman 3:3-8, Mormon 2:3) Likewise, the wide open Book of Mormon “south countries”, south of Lake Erie (Mormon 6:15, 8:2, LDS Doctrine and Covenants 75:8, 17) are vast compared to the principal lands (Nephi, Zarahemla, Bountiful, Desolation) featured on the map near the coast of the “west sea”. The American west sea of the Book of Mormon (Great Lake Erie) is comparable to the great west sea of the land of Israel (Numbers 34:6-7, Joshua 1:3-4; 23:4). Neither of these scriptural bodies of water are oceans. Scripture locates the Book of Mormon west sea on the west of the lands of Bountiful, Zarahemla and Nephi. (Alma 22:27-33) The west sea clearly extends southward of the land of Zarahemla to form a shore, west of the land of Nephi. (Alma 53:8, 22; 50:11) From the Atlantic Ocean, Lehi’s company crossed “the large waters into the promised land”, finally arriving near the shore of the freshwater west sea. (1 Nephi Summary, Alma 22:28, Helaman 11:17-20)


Drawn and numbered on the map above are the following scriptural distances (travel times):

(1) One and a half day journey along the Desolation – Bountiful Line (Alma 22:32); possibly along an easily traveled trail that ran parallel to the Onondaga Limestone Escarpment.

(2) One day journey on the southern, fortified Bountiful line (Helaman 4:5-7) running from the west sea (Lake Erie) to the east, possibly to an ancient body of water in the vicinity of what is now Tonawanda Creek.

(3) One night march from the Land Bountiful to the city of Mulek (in the Land of Nephi, Alma 53:6). The city of Mulek was one of the fortified cities near the east sea. A string of these cities situated eastward from Manti and the headwaters of the river Sidon - Buffalo Creek/River. (Alma 50:8-14; 51:24-26; 56:25; 59:5-6) Note that at least one fenced city by the east sea was directly across the headwaters of Sidon from Manti. The distance from Bountiful to the city of Mulek is comparable to the distance from Mulek to Bountiful marched by Teancum in a day - along ancient shoreline in what is now the Tonawanda Creek region. (Alma 52:18-19, 22-34, 39) The distance from the valley of Gideon (east of the river Sidon, east of the city of Zarahemla; Alma 6:7) to the course of the land of Nephi, was likewise covered in a day, with a return trip the next day. (Alma 2:20-24)

The foregoing is consistent with it requiring part of a day’s march northward to come near Zarahemla, downhill from the city of Manti and the headwaters of Sidon. (Alma 58:13-27; 56:13-14, 25) It makes sense that it was about a night’s march inland from the coast of the west sea to the city of Cumeni (Alma 53:22; 57:7-8); and another night’s march from Cumeni to Manti by the head of Sidon (Alma 58:13-14; 22:27).

(4) Four to five day journey between the City of Nephi and Zarahemla. The people of Limhi, who departed the city of Nephi, did not travel a direct course to Zarahemla. They traveled a circuitous route, misdirecting pursuing Lamanites. (Mosiah 22:8-16) Alma’s people (old and young, with flocks) traveled 8 days from the environs of the city of Nephi to the land of Helam (probably not in the direction of Zarahemla). From the land of Helam, Alma’s people later traveled 12 to 13 days on foot to Zarahemla. This gives a minimum travel time between the cities of Nephi and Zarahemla of 12 - 8 = 4 days. Add a day, in consideration of the possibility that the 12 day journey in the wilderness may have started from the valley of Alma. (Mosiah 23:1-3, 19; 24:20-25)

Other travel times, relating to the Book of Mormon's American setting, help in estimating maximum possible distance. For example, we read in Alma 8:3-6 that the prophet Alma arrived at the wicked city of Ammonihah after traveling “three days' journey on the north of the land of Melek”; which land of Melek was “on the west of the river Sidon, on the west by the borders of the wilderness.” It is unlikely that Ammonihah was hundreds of miles north of Melek; perhaps a hundred miles at most. Had Alma stopped to minister (which is what he was out and about doing) on his way to Ammonihah, it is possible that his route to the big city could have been less than thirty miles. Ammonihah was proximal to the land of Zarahemla - dangerously near the western wilderness. (Alma 16:1-2) A limited local setting explains why, not long after destroying Ammonihah, the invading Lamanite army with captives, was overtaken "in the south wilderness, away up beyond the borders of the land of Manti" (Alma 16:3-6), which was near the headwaters of Sidon.

A day’s march in the wilderness is described as “a considerable distance”. (Alma 56:36-38) Several hundred miles on foot therefore qualifies as “an exceedingly great distance”. (Helaman 3:4) To ancient Jews in the land of Israel, Babylon, was considered a “far country”. (Isaiah 39:3) In modern terms, sadly, Israel is only a scud missile launch away from Iraq (Babylon).


Why did it take so long for the Nephites to discover the Mulekites?

The answer is straight forward: The Book of Mormon does not say that Mulek son of Zedekiah set foot in the land of Zarahemla. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Mulek’s people likely landed on a northern shore of the American East Coast or Canada. Mulek’s descendants eventually crossed the great waters of Ancient Lake Iroquois (Now Lake Ontario) “into the land”. (Omni 1:16) This is the region that Joseph Smith and Josiah Priest referred to as “the lake country of America”.

After first landing on a southern shore of Lake Iroquois/Ontario, the descendents of Mulek could have crossed (by portable craft) Ancient Lake Tonawanda. From the southern shore of this large body of water, it was a short distance southward to where the Nephite king Mosiah discovered them.

Thus, crossing the great waters of Lake Iroquois, the people of Zarahemla (Mulekites) landed for the first time on the shore of a land “which had been peopled and been destroyed” - a land connected with the land which the Nephites called Desolation. The first landing of these Mulekites likely happened a long time after Mulek landed (Omni 1:5-6, 12-14), and some distance away from the region in “the land North”, where Mulek settled.

Making a Birch Bark Canoe

Making a Birch Bark Canoe (Exhibit) - Rochester Museum and Science Center


Consider the following scriptures:

6 And it came to pass that many of the Lamanites did go into the land northward; and also Nephi and Lehi went into the land northward, to preach unto the people. And thus ended the sixty and third year.

9 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.

10 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. (Helaman 6:6, 9-10)

1 BEHOLD, now it came to pass in the sixty and ninth year of the reign of the judges over the people of the Nephites, that Nephi, the son of Helaman, returned to the land of Zarahemla from the land northward. (Helaman 7:1)

There is no mention of Mulek ever setting foot in the land of Zarahemla! (Helaman 8:21-22)

1 AND now king Mosiah [son of Benjamin, son of Mosiah] caused that all the people should be gathered together.

2 Now there were not so many of the children of Nephi, or so many of those who were descendants of Nephi, as there were of the people of Zarahemla, who was a descendant of Mulek, and those who came with him into the wilderness. (Mosiah 25:1-2)

15 Behold, it came to pass that Mosiah [father of Benjamin] discovered that the people of Zarahemla [Mulekite ancestors] came out from Jerusalem at the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon.

16 And they journeyed in the wilderness, and were brought by the hand of the Lord across the great waters, into the land where Mosiah [father of Benjamin] discovered them [later generation of Mulekites]; and they had dwelt there from that time forth.

17 And at the time that Mosiah discovered them, they had become exceedingly numerous. Nevertheless, they had had many wars and serious contentions, and had fallen by the sword from time to time; and their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them. (Omni 1:15-17)

Note: the above verses do not say that Zarahemla lived at the same time as Mulek. We read that Zarahemla was a descendent of Mulek. The Book of Mormon uses the expression “the people of Zarahemla” when referring to his extant people (Omni 1:14). The scripture also uses “the people of Zarahemla” when referring to his predecessors (Omni 1:15). Moreover, the Book of Mormon uses the term “people of Zarahemla” in reference to future descendents of his people (Mosiah 25:3-4).

The “people of Zarahemla” who discovered and ostensibly buried the last of the Jaredite kings (Coriantumr), were likely predecessors and not contemporaries of Zarahemla. Scripture does not tell where in “the land northward” the Mulekites discovered Coriantumr, or when exactly. (Omni 1:20-22, Ether 13:20-21; 11:20-21)

The reference to the “great waters” in Omni 1:16, definitely applies to the Atlantic Ocean. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 118:4) The term “great waters” also describes the waters of Ripliancum - Great Lake Iroquois (Ontario) which the people of Zarahemla later crossed "into the land".

It is entirely possible that Zarahemla’s people, who arrived in the land where the Nephites encountered them, were a large company to begin with, and that in a relatively short amount of time they had become “exceedingly numerous”.

30 And it bordered upon the land which they called Desolation, it being so far northward that it came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed, of whose bones we have spoken, which was discovered by the people of Zarahemla, it being the place of their first landing.

31 And they came from there [Desolation] up into the south wilderness. Thus the land on the northward was called Desolation, and the land on the southward was called Bountiful, it being the wilderness which is filled with all manner of wild animals of every kind, a part of which had come from the land northward for food. (Alma 22:30-31)

The reference to wild animals is important to note. There were ferocious predators in the forests! See 1 Nephi 18:25, 2 Nephi 5:24, Mosiah 8:21; 12:2; 17:17; 18:4, Alma 2:37-38; 25:12; Helaman 7:19.

Even large groups of people remained cloistered at that time in the principal lands of the Book of Mormon. Thus we read that the people of Zarahemla “had dwelt there from that time forth” notwithstanding their becoming “exceedingly numerous”.


Canids - "beasts of prey". In the language of the King James Bible, wild dog-like animals (Hebrew tannim) are referred to as "dragons". This may explain references to fighting "like dragons" in the English Book of Mormon. (Mosiah 20:11, Alma 43:44) Evidently, the standard English translation "dragons" carried over to the English Book of Mormon. Compare Isaiah 13:22 (KJV), with 2 Nephi 23:22, and then with Yesha'Yahu 13:22. The King James translation appears to confuse the plural word tannim (תַנִּ֖ים), which are mammals, with tanninim (תַּנִּינִ֖ם), which are typically reptiles. Compare Isaiah 51:9 (KJV), with 2 Nephi 8:9, and then with Yesha'Yahu 51:9. Wilderness "dragons", tannim (canids i.e. jackals, hyenas, wolves, wild dogs) are always mentioned in the plural in Hebrew scripture; possibly because they live together and roam in pairs, or in packs. (Psalm 44:19, Isaiah 34:13; 43:20, Jeremiah 10:22; 14:6; 49:33; 51:37, Malachi 1:3 - feminine plural) A transcription error in  Ekha 4:3 (Lamentations 4:3) suggests "sea monsters", but likely refers to canids of some kind. It is easy to mistake the Paleo-Hebrew letter mem mem for a nun nun in the word tannim, misinterpreting it as tannin. Ekha 4:3 (Lamentations 4:3) clearly refers to mammals, likely jackals; which are animals very similar to North American coyotes.


The beasts inhabiting the forests included, wild “dogs”, packs of “wolves”, “lions” (pumas), and other dangerous animals. (Mosiah 12:2, Alma 5:59; 14:29) Only occasionally would a brave venture into the forests alone. (Enos 1:3) If exploration needed to be done, it was wisest to set out in large, armed companies. But with ongoing threat of attack from neighbors, the sending away of large, well equipped expeditions had to be kept to a minimum.

In time, Book of Mormon peoples may have succeeded in clearing out wild beasts from some of their lands. (3 Nephi 4:2)

The time frame for these events is appropriately called the “Woodland period”! For the most part, the principal New York lands of the Mulekites, Nephites and Lamanites, except for certain north countries like the the land of Desolation, were heavily forested. Those who entered the woods could easily become lost after traveling only a short distance. (Mosiah 8:8; 21:25-26; 22:16; 23:30)

Taking all these things into account, we see that the Mulekites could have settled and multiplied in the land of Zarahemla (about 60 miles northward of the city of Nephi) not many generations before the people of Mosiah discovered them.

The American setting of the Book of Mormon is real, as real as the biblical land of Israel! This does not mean that the historicity of either work of scripture is firmly established by mainstream archaeology. Some opportunistic folk try to base their "Book of Mormon geography" models on dubious "archaeological" finds and interpretations. This kind of approach, though it may draw a crowd, is backwards. The legitimate setting of the Book of Mormon should be determined from careful examination of LDS scripture, and verifiable statements by Joseph Smith.

After locating the authentic literary setting of the Book of Mormon (based on proper textual analysis, e.g. LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20), if no impressive archeological evidence is immediately forthcoming, we can at least take consolation in the fact that we have located, and laid out the covenant land of scripture according to the best sources. Archeologically, we may find that the situation for the Book of Mormon is similar in some ways to that of the Bible.

The Bible, for instance, makes demographic claims that are not proved archaeologically. (2 Samuel 24:9, 1 Chronicles 21:5) According to the Bible, more than a million people were led out of Egypt - bound for a relatively small promised land. (Numbers 1:45-47) Where is the archaeological proof that millions of Israelites took possession of the relatively small land of Canaan? Of course, no one is looking for another location just because its hard to prove the Bible’s demographic claims. Ancient population controversies don't really concern Bible scholars when it comes to determining where the land of Canaan is. The Book of Mormon's literary setting, doesn’t require archaeological proof of its demographic claims either. In other words, archaeological proof of larger ancient Israelite populations is not required in order to establish the legitimate covenant land literary setting for either the Bible or the Book of Mormon.

Consider another case in point: Remains have been found of a temple in northern Syria that resemble the House of the LORD built by Solomon. Does this mean that maps should be redrawn placing the Kingdom of Judah in Syria, or that we should publically announce that the Semitic Syrians were Jews? No! The Bible tells us where the Temple of Solomon stood even though currently, there is little archaeological evidence that it ever existed. (2 Chronicles 3:1) Thoughtful readers hold to the scriptural setting despite a shortage of archaeological proof. Proving the Bible and the Book of Mormon archaeologically is a separate matter.




Vincent Coon  וִינְסֶנט כּוּן Copyright 2018


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