Examining the Heartland Hypothesis as Geography

The Heartland hypothesis really doesn’t care much about geography. In fact, it is literally the last kind of analysis it cares about. Bruce H. Porter and Rod L. Meldrum lay out their methodology in an important book that provides an excellent overview of the Heartland hypothesis: “The proposed methodology presented in this book utilizes four highly corroborative resources that assist in coming to an understanding of the lands described in the Book of Mormon text. These resources are 1) the prophetic evidence found in scriptures; 2) the prophetic statements of the inspired translator, Joseph Smith; 3) the physical evidences; and 4) the geographical passages.”1 I realize that by examining the Heartland hypothesis on the basis of geography I am inverting their order of evidence. However, regardless of the analytical approach, if the resulting geography fits with the Book of Mormon, and a good case has been made. If it does not, then the hypothesis must be revised.

The Heartland hypothesis is clearly built first on scripture, second on statements from early brethren, third on the archaeology of the mound builder cultures, and only in a distant fourth place—geography. Jonathan Neville has recently approached the issue of methodology in a slightly different way:

Everyone agrees that the text of the Book of Mormon describes geography. Everyone also agrees that the text doesn’t identify any modern sites in the New World, so there is no frame of reference. Most people who read the book still want to know where the events took place.
There are [two] ways to solve the problem:
1. Compose an abstract map from the text and search for a real-world match. This is how Mesoamericanists and other theorists approach the problem.
2. Consult latter-day revelation, realize that two key modern-day identifiers exist, and use those as placeholders when evaluating the text. This is how I recommend people approach the problem.2

Neville sets out the idea that a geography can be worked out based on two locations identified in revelation. The rest of the geography can then be constructed from those two known points. Even knowing one firm location (Jerusalem) had made the examination of Lehi’s trail from Jerusalem to Bountiful much more secure than most New World geographies.3 Two known points should provide a similar advantage to discovering the New World location where the Book of Mormon took place.

For the Heartland hypothesis, the two identified locations are the hill Cumorah in New York and the city of Zarahemla. There is a long tradition of accepting the New York hill as the Book of Mormon Cumorah. The identification of Zarahemla comes from Doctrine and Covenants 125:3, “Let them build up a city unto my name upon the land opposite the city of Nauvoo, and let the name of Zarahemla be named upon it.”

Although I disagree with the logic that leads to Cumorah and Zarahemla as revealed fixed geographic anchors, I accept them for purposes of this examination. The question I will examine is whether or not the geography extrapolated from those two fixed points corresponds to the geographic descriptions in the Book of Mormon. My only foundational assumption (of which I am aware) is a belief that the Book of Mormon is translated from an ancient source whose ultimate authors lived in the times described and were familiar with the land in which they lived. Although not written as a guide to geography, it nevertheless describes geography from time to time.

There is so much that might be examined for Book of Mormon geography that beginning with even two known points creates challenges. The Heartland geography that extrapolated from those two points appears to borrow from previous Great Lakes models, but necessarily expands south along the Mississippi River to include the purportedly revealed location of Zarahemla. I can only give an outline of the overall Heartland geography because it is only promoted with generalities. Lehi’s family would have landed somewhere near the mouth of the Mississippi, and then used that river as either the guide, or even perhaps the method, for traveling north. The land of Nephi is not well defined, but is indicated as below the junction of the Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers. The land Bountiful is along the Ohio River Valley, and the Great Lakes become the seas described in the Book of Mormon. The one feature all geographies have to be able to locate is a narrow neck of land, and that is proposed as the narrow land bridge separating Lake Ontario from Lake Erie. Apart from Cumorah and Zarahemla, the only generally located city (of which I am aware) is Manti. The land or city of Manti is placed north of the confluence of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers.

Although very few geographic features are located, there are enough specifics that a reasonable test can be made. I will examine the Heartland model’s locations for the land of Nephi, the land of Manti, and the narrow neck of land. Each of these are defined well enough in the hypothesis that they may be compared to the requirements for those locations based on the Book of Mormon.

The Heartland Hypothesis and the Land of Nephi

One of the most important scriptures in the Book of Mormon for understanding geography is Mormon’s interjection into the story of Aaron and the king of the Lamanites. Mormon notes that the king sent out a proclamation to all his people, and Mormon used that proclamation to elaborate on the nature of the Lamanite holdings compared to those of the Nephites. Mormon’s literary side trip lasts from Alma 22:27 to 22:34. I will only examine the geographic information in verse 27:

And it came to pass that the king 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, and which was divided from the land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders of the seashore, and the borders of the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla, through the borders of Manti, by the head of the river Sidon, running from the east towards the west—and thus were the Lamanites and the Nephites divided. (Alma 22:27)

I will look at this verse in two sections. The first part is: “And it came to pass that the king 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, and which was divided from the land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders of the seashore.”

The king of the Lamanites sends a proclamation to all his people to allow Aaron and his brothers to preach the gospel in Lamanite lands (see verse 26 for this context). To give his readers an idea of what this meant, Mormon describes the extent of Lamanite lands. Removing what I suggest is an errant comma,4 the Lamanite lands extend from “the sea on the east and on the west.” That Mormon clearly intends that his readers understand that there were Lamanites near both seas is clear from Alma 22:28-29:

Now, the more idle part of the Lamanites lived in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents; and they were spread through the wilderness on the west, in the land of Nephi; yea, and also on the west of the land of Zarahemla, in the borders by the seashore, and on the west in the land of Nephi, in the place of their fathers’ first inheritance, and thus bordering along by the seashore.

And also there were many Lamanites on the east by the seashore, whither the Nephites had driven them. . . . (Alma 22:28–29)

This creates a problem for the Heartland hypothesis.

If the Heartland hypothesis uses the Great Lakes as the seas assigned to the cardinal direction, this verse would place the Lamanite lands north of Lake Ontario and west of Lake Erie. It also places Lamanite lands north of the narrow neck of land. That scenario completely contradicts the descriptions in the Book of Mormon.

Avoiding that obvious problem, the Heartland hypothesis doesn’t place Lamanite lands that far north. They are appropriately south of Nephite lands, just as the Book of Mormon requires. However, in that location, the only available seas are the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. While those oceans are in the correct cardinal directions, there is no east-west feature that extends across the whole of the current United States from ocean to ocean. Added to that difficulty would be the absolute improbability that any ruler in the Middle Woodland period, such as some Hopewell culture leader, would have influence over such a vast territory. Nor is it feasible that messengers would be sent that far.

The Book of Mormon very clearly outlines Lamanite lands. If the Heartland seas are right, their location of Lamanite lands is wrong. If their location of Lamanite lands is right, their seas are wrong. In either case, the Heartland geography fails to conform to clear requirements written by the people of the Book of Mormon who lived in those lands.

The Heartland Hypothesis and the Land of Manti

The second part of Alma 22:27 deals with the land and city of Manti: “and the borders of the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla, through the borders of Manti, by the head of the river Sidon, running from the east towards the west—and thus were the Lamanites and the Nephites divided.” This section declares that the northern reach of Lamanite lands was defined by the wilderness strip. Zarahemla was north of that strip of wilderness, but the land and city of Manti are in that strip of wilderness “by the head of the river Sidon.” This section of the verse has had multiple interpretations in the various proposed geographies. I will attempt to reduce it to only the most important aspects.

1) there is a narrow strip of wilderness that serves as a physical divider between Nephite and Lamanite land during the time when the Nephites are centered in Zarahemla.

2) the strip of wilderness runs on a roughly east-west line, which appears to reach close to the sea west. The eastern end of the wilderness is not defined.

3) this strip of wilderness also runs through “the borders of Manti, by the head of the river Sidon.”

There has been quite a debate over what “the head of the river Sidon” might mean.5 The Heartland hypothesis suggests that it means the confluence of two bodies of water, possibly following the twenty-third definition in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary: “23 Body; conflux.”6 I will not look at the merits of the selected definition, but simply accept it for purposes of this examination.

The confluence suggested for the land of Manti is the joining of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, at the southern tip of Illinois (search for Future City or Cairo, IL on a favorite online map). Manti must be near that confluence, or head. The first problem is the absence of a strip of wilderness in which one would locate the “borders of Manti.” Some maps following the basic Heartland hypothesis use the Appalachian Mountains as the narrow strip of wilderness. That correlation cannot be correct for two reasons. First the Appalachian Mountains cannot be described as running “from the sea east even to the sea west.” Second, the location of Manti is nowhere near the Appalachian Mountains. If the Heartland hypothesis has Manti right, it has the narrow strip of wilderness wrong. If it has the narrow strip of wilderness right, it has the location of Manti wrong.

There are other aspects of Manti that are important to understand. The borders of Manti play importantly in the action described in the Book of Mormon. During one of the wars with the Lamanites, Alma the Younger “inquired of the Lord” and was able to tell Zoram (“the chief captain over the armies of the Nephites”) that “the Lamanites will cross the river Sidon in the south wilderness, away up beyond the borders of the land of Manti” (Alma 16:6). In Alma 16:7 Mormon gives important details: “And it came to pass that Zoram and his sons crossed over the river Sidon, with their armies, and marched away beyond the borders of Manti into the south wilderness, which was on the east side of the river Sidon.”

Zoram and his army crossed the river Sidon and marched south to the borders of Manti, entering “into the south wilderness, which was on the east side of the river Sidon.” This description is difficult to reconcile with the confluence of two major rivers. Both the Lamanites and the Nephites cross the Sidon, but no mention is made of either army crossing any other river. Nevertheless, Zoram’s army couldn’t reach the Heartland hypothesis’s Lamanite lands from the east side of the Sidon without also crossing the Ohio River. It is possible that this is simply not mentioned, but the explicit mention of the need to cross the Sidon makes it an unusual absence.

The land of Manti also figures in the next major war with the Lamanites:

Behold, now it came to pass that they durst not come against the Nephites in the borders of Jershon; therefore they departed out of the land of Antionum into the wilderness, and took their journey round about in the wilderness, away by the head of the river Sidon, that they might come into the land of Manti and take possession of the land; for they did not suppose that the armies of Moroni would know whither they had gone. (Alma 43:22)

The Heartland model does not locate Antionum. However, the text places it in the eastern holdings of the Zarahemla hegemony: “Now the Zoramites had gathered themselves together in a land which they called Antionum, which was east of the land of Zarahemla, which lay nearly bordering upon the seashore, which was south of the land of Jershon, which also bordered upon the wilderness south, which wilderness was full of the Lamanites” (Alma 31:3). At this point I won’t worry about the logistical problem of having the Lamanite army on the borders of a seashore marching such a long distance west to Manti. The problem is with the selection of Manti as the entry point to Nephite lands. If Antionum is somehow on the west side of the Ohio River, then they have land access to Manti, or at least possible lands of Manti on the east of the Mississippi. However, they also have land access to a wide berth around Manti. With the target of Zarahemla, there is no need to go so far south as Manti.

If Antionum is on the east of the Ohio (and therefore at least possibly near a coast), the Lamanite army has to cross the Ohio River (and perhaps the Mississippi if Manti is in the confluence). If they are making that long a journey, and have so little problem crossing major rivers, they can cross the Mississippi far enough south of the Heartland Manti that they would not be detected, and then cross the Missouri later, which would avoid Manti entirely.

The land around Manti is an important gateway into the land of Zarahemla. It appears to be the logical entryway to Nephite lands as one crosses the strip of wilderness. Manti is clearly a fortified position placed to guard entrance from the Lamanite lands south of the strip of wilderness into Nephite land to the north of that same strip of wilderness. The Heartland location is too easy to avoid. There are simply too many places where it is just as easy to enter Nephite lands as at the land of Manti, and Manti would be ineffective at deterring an invasion crossing a river at a different point, say even a day away from the land of Manti.

Placed as it is in the Heartland hypothesis, the land of Manti loses all of its strategic advantage. It might be reasonably located near the confluence of two rivers to meet the requirement of being near the head of the Sidon, but it fails the strategic military purposes described in the Book of Mormon.

The Heartland Hypothesis and the Narrow Neck of Land

The most well-known feature geographic feature in the Book of Mormon is the narrow neck of land. During the time period in which we have the geographic description in Alma 22:27, Nephite lands extend north only to a line that divided the land Bountiful from the land of Desolation. The dividing line between Bountiful and Desolation was called a “small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward” (Alma 22:32). The Jaredites also used the narrow neck as a border, living in the land northward and preserving the land southward as a hunting wilderness:

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

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. (Ether 10:20–21)

The city of Bountiful was close to this narrow neck and functioned as a protection against passage from the land southward into the land northward: “And he [Moroni] also sent orders unto him 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).

Prior to the Nephite demise they were pushed through that narrow neck of land and began to inhabit the land north of the narrow neck:

And in the three hundred and fiftieth year we made a treaty with the Lamanites and the robbers of Gadianton, in which we did get the lands of our inheritance divided.

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 2:28–29)

These details cannot be reconciled with the proposed Heartland narrow neck. At the end of the Book of Mormon, the Nephites have moved through the narrow neck of land. South of the narrow neck is Lamanite territory. The Heartland geography places the hill Cumorah to the east of the narrow neck, and in the land southward. The text requires that it be in the land northward. Once again, if the Heartland narrow neck is right, the location of the hill Cumorah is wrong. If the hill Cumorah is right (as the Heartland hypothesis declares it to be by putative revelation), then the narrow neck is wrong.

Conclusion Concerning Geography and the Heartland Hypothesis

Perhaps there is a good reason that the Heartland geography rests so strongly on non-geographic data. I have tested only three specific elements of the proposed Heartland geography, and each of them fails entirely when compared to the text of the Book of Mormon. Regardless of the strength of the prophecies and promises that form the most important part of the Heartland hypothesis, the resulting geography fails to show any reasonable connection to the descriptions written by people who lived in the land. If the prophecies and promises are correctly interpreted, then the Book of Mormon is providing false and misleading geographic information. However, if the Book of Mormon is true, then the interpretations of the promises and prophecies should be revisited. Contrary to the declaration of Heartland hypothesis methodology, those prophesies and promises have led to a geography that is impossible to reconcile with the Book of Mormon.

  1. Bruce H. Porter and Rod L. Meldrum, Prophecies & Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America, (New York: Digital Legend, 2009), 1. 

  2. Jonathan Neville, “Geography overview for Mesoamericanists,” August 15, 2015, http://bookofmormonwars.blogspot.com/2015/08/geography-overview-for-mesoamericanists.html Jonathan lists a third option, “Pretend it doesn’t matter.” That is not intended as a serious analytical method, so I have deleted it to concentrate on what he suggests should be done. 

  3. Warren P. Aston and Michaela Knoth Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi’s Journey across Arabia to Bountiful. Lynn M. Hilton and Hope A. Hilton, Discovering Lehi: New Evidence of Lehi and Nephi in Arabia. George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness: 81 New, Documented Evidences That the Book of Mormon Is a True History. 

  4. The original dictated manuscript had no punctuation at all. John Gilbert, a non-LDS compositor, added them as he saw fit. Some of his punctuation choices have been officially changed. This one remains, but the text is clearer without it. 

  5. See J. Theodore Brandley, “Five Misunderstandings of the Book of Mormon Text that Veils Discovery of its Geography,” Interpreter Blog, http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/five-misunderstandings-of-the-book-of-mormon-text-that-veils-discovery-of-its-geography/ (accessed Aug. 2015). 

  6. “Head,” in Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language. 1828, Kindle edition. 

Posted in Blog and tagged , , on . Bookmark the permalink.

About Brant A. Gardner

Brant A. Gardner (M.A. State University of New York Albany) is the author of Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon and The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, both published through Greg Kofford Books. He has contributed articles to Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl and Symbol and Meaning Beyond the Closed Community. He has presented papers at the FairMormon conference as well as at Sunstone.

24 thoughts on “Examining the Heartland Hypothesis as Geography

  1. This is a good article and very fair. You do have several typos that should be fixed at one point you wrote “eartland Heartland” at another you have “in” instead of “is”. Also an additional space crept in to the world “only” in your conclusion.

    I was in Nauvoo recently and a native of that area was explaining this theory to my children. We listened attentively and asked a few questions. Then after we moved on, I was very proud when my 12 year rejected it on her own because the Mississippi does not flow north and the whole thing is ridiculously big.

  2. I’m also flummoxed by the Heartland location of Zarahemla in relation to Cumorah. The Book of Mormon places Zarahemla in the land southward, below the narrow neck of land, and Cumorah in the land northward. Yet in Heartland geography Cumorah is not even roughly north of Zarahemla: It’s 800 miles east-northeast.

    It’s even worse if one tries to work out a geography of Limhi’s expedition: They depart the Lamanite lands in the south, headed for Zarahemla, but they miss Zarahemla and end up in the land of many waters where the Jaredites perished, which is near the hill Cumorah (which the Jaredites callee Ramah). Are we expected to believe that a scouting party sent north would actually travel east for nearly 1,000 miles? It’s awfully difficult to confuse north and east when navigating using the sun.

    • You’re right. And the very idea that the New York drumlin could be of any strategic military value (unless one is playing King of the Hill) is stuptifying. In the Heartlands model, there are no ways anyone could be hemmed in. Serpents could never have cut off the lands northward because people could have simply walked around the other way. These poisonous frost serpents, though, were pretty smart as well as robust, sneaking up through the snow drifts behind the cattle and people and biting them on their southward parts! (In fact, if you go up there today during snow storms, you can look for frost serpents all you want and you can never catch one — they’re too sneaky. Even so, many people each year get frost bit by those snakes.)

      The Heartlands model is so problematic that even reading their books or watching their YouTube videos are painful. And so many people have become so wed to the model that they are like our critics, never giving on a single point. Rather than admitting they have any problems, they stretch facts so far in the extreme that it’s embarrassing. Many of their presentations are more like testimony meetings than scholarly presentations.

  3. The visceral nature of the Book of Mormon projects a certain audacity from the Latter-day Saint when he/she can look a gentile in the eye and say, frankly, that they actually believe the Nephite nation was REAL, gold plates and all. Really? REALLY?

    Yes, really.

    If we are to stand behind this, the academic scrutiny we hold ourselves to must be the very highest. I appreciate the work of the Interpreter website that maintains this rigor. It is so incredibly frustrating to see the Heartlanders come along and throw any meaningful measure of scrutiny to the wind. Any short term gains will ultimately lead to potentially huge long term losses.

    • The Heartlanders do have two things going for them:

      1. An abundance of ancient earthen structures as detailed in the text.

      2. The Hill Cumorah so named by Moroni prior to the translation of the plates.

      • Theodore, that is true as far as it goes. The problem is that none of those are conclusive. Their are ruins in lots of places during Book of Mormon times. What has to be done is more careful correlation of the dating. For example, I have seen Heartland claims that there are fortifications that fit the Book of Mormon. Of course that is true–again as far as it goes. The little research I did (not enough to be sure, but apparently more than many Heartlanders) indicates that they were features of the collapse of the Heartlanders long after the Book of Mormon ended. Little things like dates are important, not simply ruins.

        Now, what about Cumorah? Although I clearly believe that the identification of the New York hill was symbolic, what happens if we accept it? Even with that beginning point, the rest of the text has to make sense. Cumorah has to be in the land of desolation (where the Jaredites had been). The text is very clear on that. This absolutely requires that there be a narrow neck of land south of Cumorah (certainly not the west-northwest from the Heartland model).

        Let’s suppose that a teacher gives me a text with 480 questions on it (there are about that many geographic descriptions in the Book of Mormon). How well will I do on the text if I get two right and miss the rest?

        • Dating:

          The radiocarbon dating of the ancient mounds in the US ranges from 3,000 BC to 1500 AD. Some mounds in close proximity with similar artifacts are dated two or three thousand years apart. In the construction of ancient mounds, the dirt from which they were made came from pits and trenches dug deep into the soil around them. Every basket of dirt that went into the building of a mound was contaminated with the carbon-bearing particles and pieces of previous ages. Many samples for radiocarbon dating were retrieved by coring and auguring. With these conditions, deciding which particles are from the date of construction or habitation would be nearly impossible, and at best, subjective. Radiocarbon dating is also problematic for not only Book of Mormon mounds but for much of the scriptures beginning with the age of the first man, Adam. Although there have been some good advances in calibrating the variables of the C14/C12 ratio there are some variables that have not been accounted for. For example, the marine effect of a universal flood could change the C14 to C12 ratio considerably and increase the apparent age by several thousand years. What may be more significant to America is that volcanic eruptions eject large amounts of carbon of geological origin into the air, which has no detectable C14. Living plants near extinct volcanoes can have apparent ages of up to 1,000 years. What effect did the cataclysmic eruptions at the time of the Savior have on the C14 ratio in America? There are many other problems with radiocarbon dating detailed by good scientists. I am no expert on the subject, but what I am suggesting is that the science of it is not perfected to the point where it would trump other evidence supporting the scriptural text. In my opinion, the thousands of ancient mounds in North America matching the construction techniques defined in the text are the greatest archaeological evidence we have for the Book of Mormon.

          There are only two references to the “narrow neck of land”:

          “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 63:5)

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

          Notice also that the Jaredites built a great city “by” the narrow neck of land, not on it, or north of it or south of it. Also the narrow neck of land was a place where “the sea divides the land,” like a major inlet or bay creating a peninsula, rather than an isthmus creating an hour-glass where the land divides the sea. This narrow neck of land, or peninsula, could be anywhere along a coast-line. South of Cumorah along the Atlantic seaboard the obvious candidate for the narrow neck of land would be the Delmarva Peninsula, which is only 20 miles wide at the neck and the sea of Chesapeake Bay “divides the land” for 200 miles. Hagoth then launched his ships into the sea on the west side of the narrow neck of land, or into Chesapeake Bay of the Atlantic Ocean.

          I have detailed the “Journey of the Jaredites” and their landing in what is now New Jersey in an article that I submitted to to “Interpreter” about two months ago. Hopefully they will publish it where we can discuss it.

          • Theodore, I realize that you have your own geography that uses the New York Cumorah. The requirements of the text still apply. Although there are only two “narrow necks” there is is also a “small neck” that is just a different reference for the same feature. Let’s take your Delmarva Peninsula narrow neck. That illustrates the problem of beginning with a determination to make Cumorah fit and then hunting for a narrow neck. Delmarva Peninsula is a narrow neck, and it works as far as it goes. Now, all you have to do is fit pretty much all action in the Book of Mormon from 600 BC to say AD 300 into the Delmarva Peninsula. Perhaps it might be done, but I don’t see a good candidate for Manti along the narrow strip of wilderness providing the entryway from Lamanite lands to Nephite lands.

            As for the information on C-14 dating on the mounds, I know that dating the mounds has been done. What is required is that locations that are associated with the Book of Mormon must be there at the right times, and important features, such as fortifications, have to be present during those times. For example, you are indicating that there should be the remains of quite a large number of cities supporting large populations that must be fit into the Delmarva Peninsula. Please name one that fits into the time period of the Book of Mormon.

            The problem with discovering a geography for the Book of Mormon is that it has always been too easy to find something that works–for example the Malaysian hypothesis actually has quite a few things going for it, but not enough. Alma 22:27 is really a very good test for any geography. It is a simple set of requirements, but they all have to coincide. You might find a Manti near the head of a river, but if it isn’t in a strip of wilderness, you have it wrong. If you find a strip of wilderness and it doesn’t run at least close to sea to sea, you have it wrong. Cumorah is an easy target. Alma 22:27 is much more demanding, but all to easy to get wrong.

          • Aye, matey! But there are many more narrow necks of land (i.e. “peninsulas” from Costa Rica/Nicaragua up to and including the Baja peninsula, which could have sent Hagoth northwards towards California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia or even Alaska!

  4. Theodore’s comments bring up another major issue with the Heartland models: there are no volcanoes at all in the Heartland model regions. Indeed, there are very few volcanoes in the continental US east of the Rockies, and all have been extinct for at least 60+ million years or so. They are:

    — the Tam Sauk caldera in Missouri (last eruption: 1.5 billion years ago)

    — the Jackson volcano, extinct and 3000 feet underground (last eruption: 65 million years ago)

    — the Pawtuckaway Mountains in New Hampshire (last eruption: over 100 million years ago)

    — the Ossipee Mountains in New Hampshire (last eruption: about 90 million years ago)

    While volcanoes have been found to sometimes have an impact on C-14 readings, those effects are highly localized and inconsistent (e.g., the “1000-year-old plants” that you are referencing are living plants growing right next to active volcanic vents on the island of Santorini, thus absorbing excess geological C-12 and depressing their C-14/C-12 ratio; cf. Bowman, “Radiocarbon Dating”, pp. 26-27). There are no volcanoes that could have impacted C-14 dating of ruins within the Heartland region; the few that even exist east of the Rockies have been extinct for 60 million years or more. Trying to argue that C-14 dating of Heartland-area ruins was impacted by ‘cataclysmic eruptions’ just doesn’t hold water.

    More generally (and as suggested by some of Theodore’s comments), I am struck that there are some conceptual and philosophical parallels between those arguing for the Heartland Model and those arguing for a young-earth ‘creationist’ model, viz., starting with a premise and arguing backwards from there, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And, as I noted in my comments to Matthew Roper’s also-excellent article on this general subject, I get very worried when those promoting a particular point of view impute “evil” motives to those who disagree with it.

  5. Brant,

    You wrote: “Although there are only two “narrow necks” there is also a “small neck” that is just a different reference for the same feature.”

    This erroneous assumption, that the “narrow neck of land” and the “small neck of land” are one and the same is the primary reason that the actual lands of the Book of Mormon have not been identified over the past 185 years. They have different names because they are different places. The narrow neck of land is along the east sea by the border of the land Bountiful and the land Desolation, at a place where the sea divides the land. The “small neck of land” is south of the combined lands of the Nephites and the Lamanites. “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 [North America] and the land southward [South America]” (Alma 22:32). There is no record of Lamanites or Nephites ever going into the land south of the “small neck of land.” The combined lands of the Nephites and the Lamanites were all north of the “small neck of land.”

    This is born out by the chiasmic structure of Mormon’s Map in Alma 22:28-34:

    A:Lamanite Lands
    28 Now, the more idle part of the Lamanites lived in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents; and they were spread through the wilderness on the west, in the land of Nephi; yea, and also on the west of the land of Zarahemla, in the borders by the seashore, and on the west in the land of Nephi, in the place of their fathers’ first inheritance, and thus bordering along by the seashore.
    29 And also there were many Lamanites on the east by the seashore, whither the Nephites had driven them.

    B: Nephite Lands
    And thus the Nephites were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites; nevertheless the Nephites had taken possession of all the northern parts of the land bordering on the wilderness, at the head of the river Sidon, from the east to the west, round about on the wilderness side; on the north, even until they came to the land which they called Bountiful.
    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 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.
    32 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;

    C: Combined Lamanite and Nephite Lands
    And thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla [together] were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward [combined lands of Lamanites and Nephites] and the land southward.

    B: Nephite lands
    33 And it came to pass that the Nephites had inhabited the land Bountiful, even from the east unto the west sea, and thus the Nephites in their wisdom, with their guards and their armies, had hemmed in the Lamanites on the south, that thereby they should have no more possession on the north, that they might not overrun the land northward.

    A: Lamanite Lands
    34 Therefore the Lamanites could have no more possessions only in the land of Nephi, and the wilderness round about.

    There is no hour-glass shape between the land Bountiful and the land Desolation. There is no hour glass shape between any of the lands of the Nephites and the Lamanites. The only hour-glass shape is between north and south America and there is no Book of Mormon record of Lamanites nor Nephites ever in South America. There is no record of any city ever being built on the “narrow neck of land” that was “by” the border of the land Bountiful and the land Desolation.

    In my research I did not come up with a theory and try to jam the continent into it. In my research I carefully matched the text of the Book of Mormon to the facts on the ground and the results fit perfectly into the North American Continent.

    • Theodore, so instead of one narrow neck, you have a difference between a narrow neck and the small neck even though the descriptions of what they do for the geography are the same. Interesting, but not compelling.

      That you can create a chiasm doesn’t demonstrate anything about the geography. The point of the blog is to look at geography, not all of the other things one might use to create a model that talk about things other than geography.

      So, now you have three tasks. One is to find anything that might be a great city that existed at least in 650-550 bc. Second, locate a distinct small neck that was the bottleneck into the land northward that could be protected by a city Bountiful. That city should exist from at least the time of Christ to say AD 300. Third, describe how and why the sea west of the narrow neck is different from the sea west of the narrow strip of wilderness which reaches to the sea west. Your Delmarva Peninsula might work for one, but cannot for the other.

      You will also need to defend the need to separate small and narrow, given not only the similarity of descriptions, but the interesting similar description of the game in the land southward (compare Alma 22:31 with Ether 10: 20-21).

  6. Brant,

    I must say that I believe that your review of the Heartland Geography is very fair. I would add a comment about the Heartland proposed city of Zarahemla in Iowa. It is too far from the sea. Following a battle near Zarahemla the bodies of the Lamanites and the Amlicites were cast into the waters of Sidon, and “their bones are in the depths of the sea.” (Alma 2:26-27, 3:3) The sea could not have been more than two or three hundred miles from Zarahemla or the bodies would have decomposed before they made it there. The Iowa Zarahemla is about 900 air miles from the Gulf and probably 1500 miles on the winding river before dams. Also, Manti was by the narrow strip of wilderness, which was by the sea. This would put Manti at least 800 miles from Zarahemla, which would be unrealistic for several events which involve both cities.

    The ongoing debate over whether the Lord revealed the city of Zarahemla in Iowa, or whether Joseph Smith revealed that “the ruins of Quirigua are those of Zarahemla” is totally academic because neither location meets the requirements of the Book of Mormon. For one thing Quirigua is on the north side of a river that runs east and west, and Zarahemla was on the west side of a river that runs north and south. However, Quirigua would be a good candidate for the original city of Nephi.

  7. John Roberts on September 18, 2015 at 5:30 pm said: “the idea that the New York drumlin could be of any strategic military value (unless one is playing King of the Hill) is stuptifying.”

    Mesoamericanists love to belittle the Hill Cumorah in New York as having no strategic military value. However, the text, written by a military commander, refers to Cumorah only as a hill and does not give it any strategic value from it’s size or its shape. There are indications in the text that its strategic value was in its historical sacredness.

    Why did Coriantumr gather all his people to the hill Ramah/Cumorah for their final battle? Why did Mormon think he would have an advantage by gathering his people to the hill Cumorah for their final stand? Do not a people frequently gather to the temple of the God of their fathers to invoke the assistance of their father’s God in the day of their greatest peril? The ancient Jews have always gathered around the temple of their fathers’ God in their darkest hours, and will again in the last final battle.

    When the second great-grandson of Jared, Omer, had his kingdom overthrown and the Lord warned him to flee with his family, the Lord led him to the Hill Shim, where the Nephites first stored their sacred records. He was then led to Cumorah where the Nephites lastly stored all of their sacred records. The fact that the Lord led Omer to the two places where sacred records were going to be stored by the Nephites hundreds of years later, indicates that these places were sacred locations before the Jaredites landed. That means that they were sacred places before the flood. That means that they were sacred places in the days of Adam, Enoch and Noah.

    Perhaps the land of Cumorah was the ancient land of Cainan, where dwelt Enos, grandson of Adam, and his descendants, and all the other righteous saints of his day. (See Moses 6:15-17, 41-42) The land of Cainan had remained a land of righteousness into the days of Enoch and there would have been a great temple there. It probably stood on the top of a special hill; perhaps a hill where all the sacred records were to be left when all the righteous in the days of Enoch were translated into heaven.

    Cumorah may be a more sacred place than we know. I would not belittle it by calling it a mere drumlin.

    • Mormon does select the hill to give them an advantage: “And it came to pass that we did march forth to the land of Cumorah, and we did pitch our tents around about the hill Cumorah; and it was in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains; and here we had hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites.” (Mormon 6:4)

      Of course, you are suggesting that it was a spiritual advantage, but that is an argument that depends upon the records–which had been deposited there because they had already selected it. The Jaredites were in the area, but there is no way they would have known (or cared) about Nephite records some thousand years later. It is hard to see why a location would be selected only because Jaredites had been defeated in those locations. That doesn’t seem like much of a reason to make them sacred–at least more than any other location where the Jaredites had been.

      Why that drumlin and not another? I suppose that if you require the final battle to be in New York, one of the taller drumlins might give you some small advantage, but not much of one.

      We still have the actual problems with the label Cumorah for the NY hill. The plates that Joseph received were never there, according to the text. If the only reason for calling it Cumorah was that the plates came from that hill–then it is the wrong name. Either that, or we have to invent a reason that Moroni would return to that particular hill after so many years being away from it.

      We still have the problem of archaeology. There is no evidence of habitation near the hill. Even allowing for exaggeration in numbers, that many people in that location would have left some evidence. It isn’t there.

      It is absolutely true that there is tradition behind the identification of the NY hill as Cumorah, but no evidence from the Book of Mormon, no evidence from Joseph Smith (until very late–he resisted calling it Cumorah for a long time, and one would think he might have heard it from Moroni if Moroni were mentioning it), and no archaeology. That there is also no military function is a small point.

      As far as I can tell, tradition is the only reason to think the NY hill and Cumorah are the same. Yet there is no clear evidence of when the name was attached to the hill or who first applied it.

  8. Brant,

    You missed the point. Why would the Lord take Omer on a journey to the Hill Shim and then to the Hill Cumorah many centuries before the Nephites? There had to be spiritual significance to those locations prior to the arrival of the Jaredites.

    You said, “Yet there is no clear evidence of when the name was attached to the hill or who first applied it.”

    You have been purposefully ignoring six items of clear documentary evidence that it was Moroni, prior to the translation of the plates, who revealed that the hill in Palmyra was anciently called Cumorah.

    1. The only first-person source comes from the epistle that Joseph Smith dictated on September 6, 1842, which was later canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 128.

    “Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfillment of the prophets — the book to be revealed.” (D&C 128:20)

    The inference is that Joseph knew the name “Cumorah” before the book was revealed. That knowledge could only have come from Moroni. This is substantiated in the subsequent documents.

    2. An early documentary source confirming the above, are the lines from a sacred hymn, written by W.W. Phelps. William Phelps lived with the Prophet in Kirtland and was in essence his executive secretary during the Nauvoo period.

    “An angel came down from the mansions of glory,
    And told that a record was hid in Cumorah,
    Containing the fulness of Jesus’s gospel;”
    (Collection of Sacred Hymns, 1835, Hymn 16, page 22,

    It was the angel who told Joseph that the record was hid in “Cumorah.” This hymn was selected by Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet, approved by the Prophet, and published in 1835 with a collection of hymns, under instructions and directions from the Lord. “And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church.” (D&C 25:1)
    This hymn was also included in the 1841 edition as hymn #262.

    3. Oliver Cowdery, Second Elder of the Church and Co-President with Joseph Smith, stated the following in 1831:

    “This Book, which contained these things, was hid in the earth by Moroni, in a hill called by him Cumorah, which hill is now in the state of New York, near the village of Palmyra, in Ontario County.” (Autobiography of P.P. Pratt p 56-61)

    The Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt was complied, edited and published in1881 by his son, from the documents and records left by his father after his death. From the length and detail of the address given by Oliver Cowdery in 1831, from which the above quote is taken, it had to have been recorded by Parley P. Pratt at the time it was spoken. “In writing his autobiography, Pratt relied heavily on his previous writings. After extensive analysis, Pratt family historian Steven Pratt concluded that almost ninety percent of the text is either based on or copied from earlier works” (Matt Grow, assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Indiana.)

    4. The Prophet’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, provides two separate items of evidence in the original manuscript of her memoirs. In the first item, Lucy is remembering what Joseph told her after Moroni first appeared to him. The quote begins with what Moroni had told Joseph:

    “Now Joseph beware when you go to get the plates your mind will be filld with darkness and all man[n]er of evil will rush into your mind. To keep you from keeping the comman dments of God and you must tell your father of this for he will believe every word you say the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place remove the Grass and moss and you will find a large flat stone pry that up and you will find the record under it laying on 4 pillars — then the angel left him.” [sic] (Lucy Mack Smith, History 1844–1845, Original Manuscript, page 41)

    Lucy dictated the above about 20 years after the fact, but it is consistent with other evidence. In the following, Lucy recalls directly what her son said in her presence. Following Joseph’s meeting with Moroni at Cumorah, one year before Joseph received the plates, Joseph told his parents that he had “taken the severest chastisement that I have ever had in my life.” Joseph said:

    “it was the an gel of the Lord— as I passed by the hill of Cumo rah, where the plates are, the angel of the Lord met me and said, that I had not been engaged enough in the work of the Lord; that the time had come for the record to brought forth; and, that I must be up and doing, and set myself about the things which God had commanded me to do: [sic]” (Lucy Mack Smith, History 1844–1845, Original Manuscript, page 111)

    In both of these quotes from the Prophet’s mother, she demonstrates that in her mind it was Moroni, who told Joseph, prior to the translation of the plates, that the hill in Palmyra was named Cumorah.

    5. David Whitmer confirmed this in an interview in his later years when he stated:

    “[Joseph Smith] told me…he had a vision, an angel appearing to him three times in one night and telling him that there was a record of an ancient people deposited in a hill near his fathers house called by the ancients “Cumorah” situated in the township of Manchester, Ontario county N.Y…” (Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration,” p. 233)

    6. Parley P Pratt wrote the following, which was published in 1841:

    “An Angel from on high, The long, long silence broke – Descending from the sky, These gracious words he spoke: “Lo! in Cumorah’s lonely hill A sacred record lies concealed.””

    How often have we sung this song without noticing that it was a quote from Moroni?

    All of the documentary evidence is consistent that it was Moroni who told Joseph Smith, prior to the translation of the Gold Plates, that the ancient name of the hill in Palmyra was “Cumorah.” There is no evidence to the contrary.

    • First, I didn’t miss your point. I disagree that it makes any sense. The Lord might direct Jaredite military activities (though the Jaredite history suggests somewhat otherwise). However, leading them to particular hills so that there would be a connection to Nephite plate-burying a thousand years later is simply an unnecessary stretch. It tries too hard to make a drumlin important in a military context.

      As for ignoring the 6–again, I am not ignoring them. What I am saying is what the professional historians who work for the Church have said. Joseph Smith did not use that name until late. The identification was made–by someone, perhaps Oliver–fairly early. It became tradition. You are citing late remembrances which occurred late enough that by that time even Joseph had begun to use the name Cumorah for the NY hill. However, Joseph did not use that name early. One would think that had it been declared by revelation, Joseph would have known it.

      Are you ignoring

      6 And it came to pass that when we had gathered in all our people in one to the land of Cumorah, behold I, Mormon, began to be old; and knowing it to be the last struggle of my people, and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni. (Mormon 6:6)

      The Book of Mormon specifically says that the plates that Joseph received were not buried in Cumorah. I know that it might be possible for Moroni to come back and bury them there much later–but that is not what the text says. There were no other records when Joseph retrieved the plates. Joseph Smith didn’t think that the NY hill was Cumorah until 1840 or so.

      There is tradition behind the association, but only tradition. Your 6 examples are examples of the effect of that tradition.

      • Brant,

        You wrote, “Joseph Smith didn’t think that the NY hill was Cumorah until 1840 or so.”

        In order to make that statement you (and your “professional Church historians”) must knowingly ignore the above fact that in 1835 the whole Church was singing the words written by W.W. Phelps and approved by the Prophet:

        “An angel came down from the mansions of glory,
        And told that a record was hid in Cumorah,
        Containing the fulness of Jesus’s gospel;”
        (Collection of Sacred Hymns, 1835, Hymn 16, page 22)

        You wrote: “The Book of Mormon specifically says that the plates that Joseph received were not buried in Cumorah.”

        I cannot comprehend by what rules of reason you can determine that because Mormon himself did not bury in Cumorah the plates he gave to Moroni, that this somehow precludes Moroni from burying them there? Mormon 6:6 only states that Mormon didn’t bury them in Cumorah. And that is self-evident because it was Moroni who buried them, not Mormon.

        It appears that your commitment to and investment in the Mesoamerica theory is clouding your otherwise excellent Book of Mormon scholarship.

        • We are not communicating very well. Cumorah was used very early–prior to 1835. People close to Joseph used the name. Joseph did not. Of course it is clear that he didn’t correct them–but one cannot make the argument that Joseph was the source of the identification if he did not use the name himself.

          It is directly parallel to the change from interpreters to urim and thummim. In that case, we know that W.W. Phelps made the argument that they were the same. Then others began using urim and thummin while Joseph did not. Finally, Joseph adopted the term that others had been using. Similar to Cumorah, someone else made the connection, and Joseph eventually adopted the term.

          As for your suggestion that Moroni could have buried the plates in Cumorah–that is certainly true. However, there is absolutely nothing that tells us that it happened. The only reason to suggest it is that the plates came from the NY hill that people began calling Cumorah. I agree that Moroni deposited the plates in the NY hill, and that Joseph retrieved them from that location. All of that is supported by good evidence.

          Everything else rests solely upon tradition–including the supposition that Moroni returned the the Book of Mormon Cumorah and put the plates there. Of course, it is unclear when the other plates that Mormon put there disappeared. Maybe someone stole them–but not the ones Moroni put there. Maybe. It is all making up stuff on the thinnest of evidence. Now, don’t misunderstand me–I make up stuff with the best of them. However, I try to have at least some evidence behind it.

          My investment in the Mesoamerican theory actually has nothing to do with the problem of naming the NY hill. The Church historians who reported the facts about Joseph weren’t dealing with Mesoamerica at all. They were simply trying to understand how the hill became known as Cumorah. It is an issue for history that has nothing to do with Mesoamerica.

  9. As I described above, I believe that the main reason that Coriantumr and Mormon both retreated to Cumorah for their final defense was to solicit the help of their God in defending the most sacred location of the ancients. However, the hill Cumorah in New York was also an ideal strategic location for mounting a defense of an infantry army of over 200,000 (Mormon 6:12-15).

    The best defense for infantry is a circular defense with no flanks and no rear. It is the “circle the wagons” concept. The hill Cumorah rising up by itself out of a large flat plain was just the right size for an army of 200,000 to use as a reference point to surround it, and for the commanders to be able to direct the battle from the top of it with a 360 degree view. An army of 200,000 would require an area of about 500 square miles (an area of 10 ft x 10 ft per person). This would be a circle, filled with infantry, with a radius of about 12 miles out from the center of the hill. Where else could you plan a better defense for such a large army than around the hill Cumorah, in what is now the state of New York?

  10. Further musings on Shim and Cumorah

    The hill Shim and the hill Cumorah were sacred locations to the Nephites. The fact that the Lord led the Jaredite King Omer to these two specific locations early in the Jaredite period indicates that their sacredness preceded the Jaredites. Matthew Brown, in his June 21, 2013 “Interpreter” article demonstrates a theophany or a temple theme in the word “Moriah” which contains the Hebrew verb rāʾâ (to “see”). I am struck by the similarity of the Hebrew word “Moriah” with Nephite word “Cumorah,” suggesting a temple theme there also. The Jaredite word for Cumorah was Ramah, which is also a good Hebrew word meaning “height” or “high point,” also lends temple significance. The hill Shim had the same name for both the Nephites and the Jaredites and is very close to the name of Noah’s son, Shem, who is referred to as “the great high priest” in the Doctrine and Covenants. (D&C 138:41). We may hypothesize therefore, that these two sites, which were sacred prior to the Jaredites and therefore prior to the flood, were significant to the last two great prophets on this continent, Enoch and Noah. Perhaps Cumorah was the site of the temple of Enoch, and Shim was the dwelling place of Shem and the launching site of the Ark of Noah?

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments are moderated to ensure respectful discourse. It is assumed that it is possible to disagree agreeably and intelligently and comments that intend to increase overall understanding are particularly encouraged.