North American Book of Mormon Geography

by Theodore Brandley

By meticulously matching The Book Of Mormon text to the facts on the ground, Warren P. Aston and others have settled the Arabian geography question in the minds of most Latter-day Saints. This is not the case in America where occurred the vast majority of the events of the thousand-year saga of The Book Of Mormon. The American geography of the Book of Mormon has many competing theories that are divided mainly into two camps, those supporting a geography limited to the area of Mesoamerica and those supporting a geography in the north-central and Atlantic regions of the United States. Both groups have evidence to support their claims, which they vigorously defend and just as vigorously condemn the opposing views. There is much divisiveness among the members of the Church in regards to the American geography of The Book Of Mormon. This divisiveness and uncertainty plays into the hands of the enemies of the Church who use it as evidence that The Book Of Mormon is therefore a fable and is not true.

However, those Latter-day Saints who contend with one another over the locations of the events of the book, all know that the book is true by the power of the Holy Ghost, and mainly desire to further verify it by locating its geography. They are all good members of the Church who sometimes slip into contentious disputes over this issue. The author of this article has also been guilty of this error. I believe that the truth of the geography of The Book Of Mormon lies in the union of these two main opposing theories and therefore propose to offer a series of Interpreter Blog posts on this subject to explore, with anyone interested, other possibilities in matching the text to the American terrain. I believe this could lead us to a more common understanding of this issue.

I shall write these posts, or discussion headings, under the main title, “North American Book of Mormon Geography.” Most of the authors and supporters of the two main competing theories would agree that the North American Continent is the land to which Lehi was led and where the subsequent events of their record occurred. This is also evidenced by Moroni who told Joseph Smith in Upstate New York that, the book gave “an account of the former inhabitants of this continent” (JSH 1:34) This statement could have included South America because at that time some maps were still showing the two American Continents as one. However, Lehi’s landing and further events in North America are supported by the fact that the Panama land-bridge between North and South America is almost impenetrable. The 16,000 mile Pan American Highway that runs from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to the southern tip of Argentina, has only one break—the fifty-four mile gap through the Darien Jungle between Panama City, Panama, and Columbia, South America. Modern equipment and engineering have not yet been able to build a road through this dense swamp and formidable growth. In 1854 an American Expedition searching for a route for the Panama Canal could not hack their way through this jungle. They became so lost and hungry in this forty-mile-wide isthmus that they ate their dead.1 If Lehi had landed in South America, the Nephites could probably not have migrated to North America by land. Additionally, Jacob stated that, “the Lord has made the sea our path, and we are upon an isle of the sea” (2 Nephi 10:20). Mormon gave further evidence of that isle when he wrote that the lands of the Nephites and the Lamanites were nearly surrounded by water, except for a small neck of land that led to another land (Alma 22:32). That the small neck of land was at the southern end of the island continent is also evidenced by Moroni burying the gold plates in North America rather than in South America. I therefore propose that we begin our discussion with a consensus that The Book Of Mormon events of the Promised Land occurred on the continent of North America.

Subject to the approval of Interpreter I further propose to post subsequent blogs for further discussion under the sub-headings:

The River Sidon

The City of Zarahemla

The Land of Nephi

Lehi’s Landing

The Land of Zarahemla

The Land of Bountiful

The Land Desolation

I intend to do this not to try and prove my personal theory, but to demonstrate that there is a plausible North American setting supported by the text of The Book Of Mormon that links the two main competing theories, and everyone can keep the true evidence they have for their current positions.

  1. In Panama’s Jungle, LA Times, March 18, 2005 

71 thoughts on “North American Book of Mormon Geography

  1. “That the small neck of land was at the southern end of the island continent is also evidenced by Moroni burying the gold plates in North America rather than in South America.”

    This would indeed be an additional point of evidence, if it were at all substantiated.

    Unfortunately, you will not find any evidence in the Book of Mormon text that Moroni did anything with the plates other than “seal” and “hide” them (Moroni 10:2, Ether 4:5, Title Page, Mormon 8:4, 14) with absolutely no indication of where this “sealing” and “hiding” took place. His father Mormon did place records in the Hill Cumorah (Mormon 6:6) but specifically _excluded_ the plates the would become the Book of Mormon (Mormon 6:6).

    The “evidence” that Moroni buried any plates anywhere–let alone Cumorah–is founded on a careless reading of the text, warrantless extrapolations from Amoron and Mormon’s actions, and an insistence on answering the question “how did the plates end up in upstate New York” centuries later in gold-bible hill (which was retroactively–and baselessly–renamed ‘Cumorah’). As if nothing could happen to the plates in 1400 years, with or without Moroni’s involvement.

    I applaud this effort to untangle Book of Mormon geography, but if your analysis is going to include unexamined appeals to tradition and negligent misreadings of the text, I’m not confident that its output will be of much lasting worth.

    • Orson, thank you for your comment.

      I’m sure you will agree that Moroni showed Joseph Smith that the plates were hidden in the ground in North America, Palmyra, New York. The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that the Title-Page of the Book of Mormon was translated from the last leaf of the gold plates and was not his composition (HC 1:71). It reads, “Sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time…” As Moroni was the last to write on the plates it was he who wrote the Title-Page and “hid [them] up unto the Lord.”

      Without some evidence that Moroni originally hid the plate somewhere else and then later somehow moved them to the hill in Palmyra, your suggestion is unsubstantiated speculation. There is no suggestion of that in any recorded communication between Moroni and Joseph Smith. In fact it would have been deceptive and misleading of the resurrected Moroni to have done that and not explained it to Joseph. (As for the name of the hill in Palmyra, we will deal with that in a later installment.)

      • To clarify the issue, there is no indication within the Book of Mormon itself where the plates given to Joseph Smith were buried. Mormon 6:6 speaks of burying all of the records in Cumorah, except those entrusted to Moroni. So, according to the Book of Mormon, the one place where Joseph’s plates were not buried is in the hill Cumorah.

        There are no records of Joseph Smith designating the NY hill as Cumorah before 1842. Oliver Cowdery certainly used the term earlier, but it is difficult to suggest that Cowdery’s source was Joseph if Joseph himself didn’t use that designation. By the way, Cumorah was inserted into D&C revelations retroactively, so you can’t use the modern text and dates to verify this.

        • Brant,

          You wrote, “So, according to the Book of Mormon, the one place where Joseph’s plates were not buried is in the hill Cumorah.”

          I cannot follow your reasoning to this conclusion. The fact the Mormon gave his plates to Moroni, and hid the rest in the Hill Cumorah says nothing, implied or otherwise, and could not say anything about where Moroni hid Mormon’s plates 36 years. There is nothing in the text that can possibly preclude Moroni from hiding the plates in the Hill Cumorah.

          As for the name of the hill in Palmyra we will discuss that further in a later post.

          • Theodore:

            I didn’t say that Moroni couldn’t have circled back and put the records with all the rest of the plates in Cumorah. Perhaps he did. What can be said is that the text of the Book of Mormon doesn’t say where they were buried, and the only thing it says is that (at least when the rest of the plates were buried) they were not in Cumorah.

            Having the plates that Joseph received in Cumorah is either an inference or a traditional guess–but it is not based on the text of the Book of Mormon, nor on Joseph Smith’s specific declaration.

          • I agree that Mormon did not hide the writings in Cumorah that he gave to Moroni. I also agree that there is no indication in the Book of Mormon as to where Moroni did or did not hide the plates.

        • Is it possible that Mormon was making a distinction between his hiding up all the (bulk) records “in” the hill Cumorah from the abridgment that his son Moroni would complete and place “on” the top of the same hill? Could the stone box, when considered in context of the entire hill (and its room of records with ‘wagon loads’ of plates as was described by those who claim to have entered the room with Joseph) was not ‘in’ the hill, but rather ‘on’ it in such context?

          While the Introduction to the Book of Mormon mentions “After Mormon completed his writings, he delivered the account to his son Moroni, who added a few words of his own and hid up the plates in the hill Cumorah,” a question comes to mind. Which plates are being referenced here? All the records, or only the final abridgment by Moroni? One might assume that the plates being referenced here are those of the abridgement only, because of the word ‘added’ but isn’t it also possible that Moroni ‘added’ comments to be kept with the original records as well as inscribing them in the abridgment that would then be concealed ‘on’ the summit of the same hill Cumorah, while the original plates were sealed ‘in’ the room of records deep within the hill?

          While it has already been pointed out that the claim that the “one place where Joseph’s plates were not buried is in the hill Cumorah” cannot be substantiated and that indeed the text does not disqualify the same hill as being the final depository of the abridged record, the simple distinction between the records being ‘in’ or ‘on’ the hill could indicate two different repositories; a large room ‘in’ the hill, and a small stone box ‘on’ it.

          • Rod:

            It is always possible to come up with different ways to read words, or ways to create a meaning that isn’t obvious from the text. Of course, ‘on’ is different from ‘in,’ but then it is odd to have something buried ‘on’ a hill. As for the Introduction, I am sure you are aware that it is a later addition to the text as wasn’t part of the 1830 edition. That a more modern editor uses the phrase isn’t as good as Oliver using it, and I have already spoken about that.

            Lots of things are possible, but it is not possible to say that the text of the Book of Mormon tells us where the plates given to Joseph were buried. They only say that they weren’t buried in Cumorah. Perhaps they were later. Perhaps in and on can be seen as different. Perhaps lots of things. The only thing the actual text allows us to say is that when the other plates were buried in Cumorah, the plates given to Moroni were not. After that, the text doesn’t say–which means that Moroni never wrote it down (though I agree he knew).

            The vision of the cave is a different historical question–but it is demonstrably not in the NY hill. For those interested in the cave with the plates, you can read the article by Cameron J. Packer in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies

        • I agree. I add this thought. It seems unlikely to me that Moroni would return to the hill Cumorah 36 years later and bury the plates there. The Book of Momon indicates that the land was being overrun with Lamanites who were killing all the Nephites who would not deny the Christ. .

    • I appreciate this comment, except for its tone. I hope that future posts, from either and any view would be more tolerant in statements of “facts” without the undertones. I am no expert on any of this but believe that what the BofM has said and not said is what the Lord intended to say or not on a subject.

      What remains is that the only thing that matters is a confirmation of the books truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ BYU the Holy Ghost.

  2. Before guessing where the Nephites might have been able to migrate by land, it must be remembered that there was quite a rearrangement of geography between the time of Lehi’s family landing and Moroni burying the plates, most specifically during the time of 3rd Nephi.

    • Trevor,

      That has been an point of discussion for geography for a long time. While the 3 Nephi text certainly indicates that there were changes, no one at that time forgot where they were, or where the cities were that had been damaged. There are natural causes for altering geography. In modern times we have volcanoes that can raise up land. Earthquakes can change the level of the land, and rivers can alter their previous course. All of that can happen in historical times. However, there isn’t anything known that would so significantly alter geography that basic relationships were altered. Mt. St. Helen’s certainly changed the face of the land in the immediate environs, but the mountain is still there.

      I agree that we always have to look to historical times to verify any proposed changes. For example, suggesting that Book of Mormon geography is solved by positing massive changes in sea level would not be supportable since we have archaeological evidence of people living in those areas during Book of Mormon times when the model says they were under water (yes, that is an actual example from one of the more speculative geographies).

      • I would also add that we derive most of our understanding of the geography from Mormon, who wrote his description of the geography about 350 years after the cataclysmic changes.

        • Except that Mormon edited (lightly) sources from earlier. The most important one from Alma 22:27, is from prior to the destruction of 3 Nephi. it is also (and we often miss this important point) a description from and on the basis of Lamanite geography rather than Nephite. It describes the border between Nephite and Lamanite lands, but may not describe the Nephite lands north of the strip of wilderness. Note, I’m not saying it doesn’t, only that the context limits the geographic extent of that verse and cannot be applied to Nephite lands without specific argumentation and discussion.

          • Alma 22:28-35, where the complete overview of the geography is given, was written directly by Mormon and not a copy of some other record. Mormon had first-hand knowledge of it as he fought Lamanites from the land of Zarahemla through to the land of Desolation.

          • Of course this is simply another example of the problem of using the text for geography. Because Mormon clearly wrote this section, you can say that he gave the information based on what he knew. However, Mormon (as far as I can determine) was pretty faithful to his sources when abridging them. This particular geographic information is given in the context of where a Lamanite king sent the proclamation. Therefore the context suggests that Mormon is restating something from his record that indicated the extent of the land into which the proclamation was sent.

            Verse 28 shifts to more of Mormon’s description and does put Lamanites in the context of Nephite territories, but it still gives the perspective of the land of Nephi, not Zarahemla.

            Verses 29 and 30 finally gives some information about the Nephites. There is certainly geographic information here that describes both, but the greatest information on extent, and particularly the nature of the narrow strip, are given from Lamanite perspectives.

            None of this says we can’t use this information, but it does suggest that it should be used carefully rather than simply applying the assumption that it defines the entire Lamanite and Nephite world. Other than rather generic, and often symbolic definitions, the ancient world rarely had much information about geography that was very far away from the city in which they lived.

      • I was speaking specifically of the dismissal of a landing in South America based solely on the difficulty in passage through Panama. It’s quite possible that things looked quite different there during BOM times than they do today.

  3. What about Letter VII is deemed so dubious as to not consider it as true? It clearly identifies the hill near Palmyra as Cumorah, both the scene of the final battle and where the plates were deposited by Moroni for Joseph to find later. Why is this completely ignored?

    • That is a difficult question to answer simply based on the way it is asked. There is nothing that would suggest that the letter isn’t “true.” The problem comes when we try to define what that means. The point of referencing Cowdery’s letter is to point out that Cowdery used Cumorah quite early. That is absolutely true. The letter is obvious historical evidence that he did.

      Now, the question is whether or not the fact that Oliver used the term early means that he got it from Joseph Smith. There are possibilities:
      1) Joseph had the location of Cumorah revealed to him, and Joseph passed it on to Oliver.
      2) Oliver read about Cumorah in the Book of Mormon–heck, he didn’t have to read it, he heard Joseph dictate it. Oliver associated the name and the New York hill.

      Since these are both possible options, which is historically more probable? There is no conclusive proof, so we have to discern what probably happened from the available evidence. Beginning with the first, is there any evidence that Joseph received a revelation and was the source of the association between the New York hill and the name? The answer is that not only is there none, there is contrary evidence. Joseph himself did not use Cumorah to designate the New York Hill until 1842, long after Oliver and pretty much everyone else was calling it Cumorah. If Joseph had a revelation, it is surprising that he would ignore it for so long.

      Could Oliver have made the deduction from hearing or reading the text? Yes, he could have. Did he? There is no way to positively demonstrate that he did–but in the absence of any evidence linking Joseph to the name, it becomes more probable that it was Oliver. That it was a misperception (further indicating that it wasn’t Joseph’s revelation) is that it is based on a very easy misreading of the text. As noted, Mormon 6:6 specifically mentions plates buried in Cumorah. Only reading it closely can it be discerned that the plates given to Joseph were excluded and not buried there.

      So, taking historical information in account, Oliver gives a “true” rendering of the story as he understands it, using terminology he has begun using. Similar to the way W.W. Phelps’s association of the biblical urim and thummim with the interpreters altered the later vocabulary of the Saints, and eventually changed Joseph’s terminology (again, Joseph lagged significantly in adopting the newer designation of urim and thummin and didn’t use that term until after others had been using it for years). All of these suggests that Oliver’s letter is true to his understanding, but is not a revelation, and is not based on a revelation to Joseph. It appears to be his interpretation–made quite early, and repeated enough that it clearly became the dominant way to speak of the hill where the plates were found.

      • Brant, you wrote:

        “Only reading [Mormon 6:6] closely can it be discerned that the plates given to Joseph were excluded and not buried there.”

        I thought we just agreed on this? You don’t even have to read it closely to discern that what Mormon did with the plates has no influence, bearing, or even a hint as to what Moroni did with them 36 years later. What Mormon wrote does not exclude Moroni from hiding the plates in Cumorah.

      • Besides the possibilities listed here, Oliver was present with David Whitmer and Joseph Smith in 1829 when they were traveling to the Whitmer farm and encountered the messenger who was taking the plates to Cumorah. Whitmer said this was the first time he heard the name; he hadn’t read the text because the translation wasn’t even finished at that point. He didn’t say Oliver used the word, but that the messenger did.
        In the letters, Oliver also described details about Moroni’s visit that are not included in Joseph’s official account, such as when Moroni told Joseph the record was “written and deposited” not far from Joseph’s home. We can either accept that Joseph helped Oliver write the letters, as claimed at the time, or we can take the position that Oliver made up these details.
        I take the evidence on its face; i.e., Joseph helped Oliver write these letters, including Letter VII. He had them copied into his journal as part of his history. He approved their republication (they were published at least 3 times prior to 1842). Everyone living in Nauvoo in 1842 knew that Joseph and Oliver taught the final battles were in New York. The reference to Cumorah in D&C 128 was written in this context.
        It’s misleading to claim Joseph never used the term when throughout his life, he relied on scribes to write for him. In this case, he explicitly helped Oliver write the letters and fully endorsed them. The evidence of Joseph’s direct association with Letter VII is far more conclusive than the evidence of his association with other writings long attributed to him, such as anonymous letters in the Times and Seasons.

        • And of course you remember that while the event was remembered from 1829, it wasn’t recorded until about 50 years later, when Cumorah was the established name. By that time, even Joseph was using it. There is no surprise that it shows up in a late remembrance, but that cannot be conclusive evidence for what happened in 1829.

          Please note that your use of “explicit endorsement” is placing a value on his participation that may or may not be accurate. You might use implicit endorsement, but then that would be the same problem with the authorship issues surrounding the Times & Seasons comments on Central America. We can suggest implicit endorsement, but if you are going to argue that once case has to be handled with more historical accuracy, then you necessarily should apply the same standards universally.

          When I suggest that Joseph didn’t personally use the term in print, I am basing in on the research of two LDS historians who went through the documents and came to that conclusion. Implicit endorsement or not, there is not direct textual evidence that can tie the name Cumorah to the hill in Joseph’s writing.

          Remember, I am not suggesting that Oliver did not say or believe these things. I am noting that we have evidence of the way Joseph interacted with others who interpreted things about the Book of Mormon. He allowed their speculations, didn’t contradict them–but also didn’t adopt them until much, much later.

          • This is a helpful analysis. I’m glad we can have an amiable discussion and get down to real issues.

            In one sense, there is no such thing as conclusive evidence of what happened in pre-photographic history; all we can go by is what people wrote about what they observed and experienced. By that standard, anything goes; we don’t have to believe anything (and plenty of people reject the Three Witnesses on that basis). But the whole point of witnesses is to establish the reality of what they observed.

            David Whitmer’s statement was a first-person account of what he saw and heard, and the circumstances are highly credible; i.e., the first time he heard the term Cumorah was from a heavenly messenger while transporting Joseph and Oliver to the Whitmer farm. Not many people would forget such an event. The probative value of a recollection is enhanced when the event is highly unusual, regardless of how late the recollection is. And, of course, the fact that Whitmer told Joseph F. Smith about this 50 years after the fact does not mean he did not tell others about it within a day of the event. Furthermore, Whitmer’s account corroborates Oliver’s identification of Cumorah.

            Anyone can choose to believe or disbelieve his statement, but if we’re going to start disbelieving the Three Witnesses, then we’re having an entirely different conversation.

            I wrote “explicit endorsement” because of the documentary evidence. First, there is this introduction to the letters, which I copy here from Joseph Smith’s 1834-1836 history:
            “That our narrative may be correct, and particularly the introduction, it is proper to inform our patrons, that our brother J. Smith Jr. has offered to assist us. Indeed, there are many items connected with the fore part of this subject that render his labor indispensible. With his labor and with authentic documents now in our possession, we hope to render this a pleasing and agreeable narrative, well worth the examination and perusal of the Saints.”

            Second, there is this, from Journal, 1835-1836: “my scribe commenced writing in journal a history of my life, concluding President [Oliver] Cowdery 2d letter to W. W. Phelps, which president Williams had begun.”
            All of Oliver’s letters were copied into Joseph’s journal, including Letter VII. The handwriting for this entry is apparently Warren Parrish’s, but other entries in this journal are in Joseph’s own handwriting (as well as Oliver Cowdery’s).

            Letter VII was published in the Messenger and Advocate in 1835. In 1841, Benjamin Winchester reprinted it in the Gospel Reflector, explaining that “I had it in contemplation last spring to publish O. Cowdery’s letters giving a history of the coming forth of The Book of Mormon, which I asked permission or advice of J. Smith who said I was at liberty to publish any thing of the kind that would further the cause of righteousness. I also asked advice of S. Rigdon, who said he had no objection.”
            Also in 1841, Don Carlos Smith reprinted Letter VII in the Times and Seasons.

            When we apply the same historical standards to the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons, the difference is stark. Unlike with Letter VII, there is no mention in those articles that Joseph assisted or had anything to do with writing them. There is no mention of the anonymous articles in any of his journals or other writings. Nor is there any mention that he specifically authorized someone else to write or publish those articles.

            I readily acknowledge that we don’t have a holographic writing of Joseph’s that uses the term Cumorah. We don’t even have the original holographic version of D&C 128. But we don’t have many holographic writings of his at all. With the exception of a couple of verses, the Book of Mormon itself isn’t in his handwriting. It’s in Oliver’s. Just like Letter VII.

            From this are we supposed to conclude that the Book of Mormon is Oliver’s idea?

            This is not a case of Joseph merely allowing Oliver’s speculations. He helped Oliver write Letter VII, had his scribe copy it into his own journal as part of his own history, and authorized Winchester to republish it. (I presume Don Carlos consulted him before reprinting in the Times and Seasons the letters that Oliver Cowdery had written, since Cowdery had left the Church, but of course that is merely a presumption.)

            So taking all this evidence into account, there are few examples of Joseph so thoroughly participating in and endorsing a historical account the way he did the Cowdery letters, from inception in 1834 through at least 1841.

            On the point that 1834 (when the series of letters started) is “late,” and disregarding David Whitmer’s statement about 1829 and Lucy’s statement that Joseph referred to Cumorah even before that, 1834 was really the first chance Joseph and Oliver had to get together and write down and publish the history they had participated in. Looking back from 2016 we might think they were derelict in not writing this all down as soon as it happened (although Cowdery does mention they had “authentic documents” which we don’t have now, which could have been contemporaneous notes made during the translation, angelic ministrations, etc.), but when we understand the historical context, 1834 is hardly “late.” The first printing press in Missouri had been destroyed. Joseph sent Oliver back East to buy another one, which he set up in Kirtland. All this took place under difficult circumstances, and it is impressive that Oliver and Joseph were able to write this detailed history at all as early as 1834.

            In fact, compared with the New Testament, Oliver’s letters are anything but “late.” (David Whitmer’s recollection is more contemporaneous than the New Testament gospels, for that matter.)

            In my view, if we look at the historical evidence apart from any ideology about Book of Mormon geography, it is difficult to reach any conclusion other than that Joseph helped Oliver write these letters, that they reflected his own experiences, that they are highly credible, and that he fully endorsed them.

          • Jonathan:

            You have a long comment, so I’ll just reply to one point. You said: “Anyone can choose to believe or disbelieve his statement, but if we’re going to start disbelieving the Three Witnesses, then we’re having an entirely different conversation.”

            I think your statement needs some qualification. I certainly don’t dismiss David Whitmer as a witness. I don’t dismiss the things he said early, and repeated enough that he had it down to a formula. However, I also believe David Whitmer to be quite human, and as a human being had 50 years worth of entrenched use of Cumorah for the hill to color his remembrance of the 1829 event. I don’t doubt that the event occurred, but using that late recollection to prove that there was an early connection between the hill in New York and the one in the Book of Mormon makes a tremendous leap across too many decades. I agree it would be a strong argument if it had a contemporary record. There is, however, a big difference between contemporary and a 50 year old reminiscence.

          • Hi Brent. Thanks for your response. I don’t see any way to respond to your separate comment about David Whitmer and 50 years, so I’ll do it here. I know this is another long answer, but this is fresh on my mind so I’m just writing it up.

            I’m assuming you don’t reject every statement that is made 50 years after the fact, so I offer a few considerations for those interested in weighing the reliability and credibility of David Whitmer as a witness.

            First, Oliver’s missionary statement about Cumorah was made within roughly a year of when David encountered the messenger. Some have questioned the source of Oliver’s information. David’s account offers one source. IOW, Oliver’s statement corroborates David’s, although made about 48 years apart.

            Second, David had little involvement with things Mormon after 1838, apart from his brief nominal leadership of the Church of Christ (Whitmerite). There is no evidence or even any reason to believe he was influenced by any LDS writings about Cumorah between 1838 and 1878 (if there even are any).

            Third, his statement is not derivative of any “entrenched use” of Cumorah. His experience is unique to him (and Joseph and Oliver, both of whom used the term in a similar way.)

            Fourth, Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt are presumably reliable witnesses to the statement; i.e., they didn’t misunderstand or misrepresent David’s testimony.

            Fifth, while passage of time is a factor to consider in assessing the reliability of a witness statement, David’s statement is detailed and specific. It is corroborated by other evidence that in fact he, Joseph and Oliver were riding to the Whitmer farm from Harmony at this time. It was not the product of a leading question. It does not contradict any other evidence. He had nothing to gain or lose by relating his experience first hearing the term Cumorah. His statement was made while David was alert and mentally sharp, as evidenced by his final address to “All Believers in Christ,” made 9 years later. All these indicia of reliability, combined with his overall credibility as a witness, are important factors to consider in assessing his testimony.

            Sixth, it’s important to read his statement in entirety to determine whether he was reliable and credible. Here’s the relevant excerpt, but his entire statement is much longer: “When I was returning to Fayette, with Joseph and Oliver, all of us riding in the wagon, Oliver and I on an oldfashioned wooden spring seat and Joseph behind us; while traveling along in a clear open place, a very pleasant nice-looking old man suddenly appeared by the side of our wagon and saluted us with, “good morning, it is very warm,” at the same
            time wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and, by a sign from Joseph, I invited him to ride if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, “No I am going to Cumorah.” This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant. We all gazed at him and at each other, and as I looked around enquiringly of Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared so that I did not see him again.

            J. F. S. Did you notice his appearance?

            D.W. I should think I did. He was, I should think, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches tall and heavy set, about such a man as James Vaucleave there, but heavier; his face was as large, he was dressed in a suit of brown woolen clothes, his hair and beard were white, like Brother Pratt’s, but his beard was not so heavy. I also remember that he had on his back a sort of knapsack with something in, shaped like a book. It was the messenger who had the plates, who had taken them from Joseph just prior to our starting from Harmony.”


            The detail in these descriptions is apparent, and the comment about appears to be one of the details that made this encounter so memorable.

            Seventh, David was careful to answer only questions for which he knew the answer. “The first question from Orson Pratt was, “Can you tell the date of the bestowal of the Apostleship upon Joseph, by Peter, James and John?” David answered, “I do not know, Joseph never told me. I can only tell you what I know, for I will not testify to anything I do not know.””

            Eighth, Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith obviously thought David was a reliable and credible witness or they wouldn’t have interviewed him and made their report. They didn’t accept everything he said at face value, but probed when appropriate over two days of interviews. When they asked about the copies of the text, “Mr. Whitmer replied that, according to the best of his knowledge, there never was but the one copy.” J.F.S. notes that “he is evidently uniformed” that there was an original manuscript and a printer’s copy. Apart from that one detail, they seemed satisfied with his statement, and even on that one detail, David accurately reported what he knew from his own experience. David was not involved with the Grandin print shop and had no reason to know about the extra copy. Normally, in assessing witness statements when the witness is no longer available, the conclusions of the interviewers is an important factor. We weren’t there–J.F.S. and O.P. were.

            Ninth, as I mentioned before, David’s statement is closer in time to the events than the New Testament Gospels are. The 50-year rule would eliminate those Gospels (and lots of other scriptures). Plus, the events David describes happened to him personally. He was not merely repeating hearsay, as the Gospels do.

            All in all, the evidence suggests David Whitmer was a highly reliable and credible witness regarding the Cumorah question, despite the 50-year gap. Apart from ideological objection to its significance, there is no reason to reject this testimony.

          • That is heavy weight to hang on thin evidence. I agree with most of it. I think David Whitmer was accurately remembering an event. I haven’t questioned the event. The only issue is the use of the name Cumorah. Everything else you listed is irrelevant to that single issue. For that question, you exactly one point:

            “First, Oliver’s missionary statement about Cumorah was made within roughly a year of when David encountered the messenger. Some have questioned the source of Oliver’s information. David’s account offers one source. IOW, Oliver’s statement corroborates David’s, although made about 48 years apart.”

            The problem, of course, is that we are still relying on Oliver. Let’s hypothesize, for the moment, the Oliver were the source of the labeling of the NY hill as Cumorah. Then he isn’t corroborating Whitmer, he is the ultimate source of Whitmer’s recollection of the name (not the rest of the event). Strictly from the source documents, Whitmer’s recollection is interesting, but not conclusive. Oliver’s use of the term is much more important, but we still have the problem of where he got the name. We do not have any firm contemporary evidence that can tie Cumorah to anyone earlier than Oliver. Let’s say that Oliver got the name directly from Joseph. If he did, then why didn’t Joseph ever refer to the hill by that name? You would think that if Joseph had heard it by revelation, he wouldn’t forget it and use other designations until he finally adopts the name in 1842. No matter what evidence is available (and there is a lot) that the Saints thought that Cumorah was the name for the New York hill, we are left with two problems.
            1) The Book of Mormon says the plates that Joseph received were not buried in Cumorah. We can create a story that suggests that they were buried there much later–but that is something we have to invent. Inventing that would also require creating a reason why the other plates weren’t with the ones Joseph received, since they were explicitly buried in that hill.
            2) Joseph used other designations for the hill until 1842. The one person who should have known the name didn’t use it. We have to find a way to explain that. On the other hand, we have the example of how interpreters became the urim and thummim as a parallel example of how Joseph resisted a renaming, and then eventually accepted it.

          • Thanks for replying to my original post. While I find Jonathan Neville’s regarding Letter VII more convincing, I really love tone and lack of contention in your approach. I do have one question for you. Hypothetically, if Letter VII is correct and the Hill Cumorah (the one where the battles took place) is the same hill as the one in Palmyra, in your opinion, would that be a fatal blow for the Mesoamerican limited geography theory? For that matter, would it be a fatal blow for all theories that do not have the Hill Cumorah in New York? Thanks again for you time and interest in this blog.

          • If the Book of Mormon hill Cumorah were ever absolutely identified anywhere, it would be an anchor in Book of Mormon geography and any hypothesis that didn’t use that location would be incorrect. Of course that is also true of any other Book of Mormon location (save Jerusalem, which is pretty non-controversial).

          • Thanks for the discussion, Brant. This has been very helpful for me to understand your thinking and I hope it’s been helpful to you to understand mine.

            If I understand your argument, you say David Whitmer remembered and reported everything accurately except for the word Cumorah. Is that correct?

            This leads me to two points. First, the term Cumorah was one of the unusual aspects of the event that stuck in David’s mind; he not only remembered the name, but remembered never having heard it before. This contradicts the assertion that he got the name from Oliver. Second, because he first heard the name in such a memorable fashion–from a heavenly messenger–isn’t that a plausible origin for the subsequent use of the name? Oliver and Joseph had heard it when they translated the text, but now, in the presence of the messenger, all three men heard it in the context of New York. The easiest explanation for all of the evidence is that David Whitmer remembered everything correctly–including the name.

            (BTW, I don’t agree that David Whitmer’s statement is thin evidence. I went through all the reasons he is reliable and credible precisely to show it is not thin evidence. It is uncontradicted by any other evidence and corroborates everything we do know about this topic. The only reason to reject it that I’ve seen so far is its implications for the geography issue, which should have nothing to do with the probity of the evidence.)

            If I understand you correctly, you think David Whitmer heard something else from the messenger but forgot what it was and substituted Cumorah because he heard that term later and elsewhere from Oliver Cowdery. This seems highly improbable in the context of the entire interview, where he refused to answer questions if he didn’t have personal knowledge.

            That said, I don’t understand your objection to Oliver being the source anyway. It’s not only Letter VII that is in his handwriting, but the entire Book of Mormon. He and Joseph had a long-established practice of Joseph dictating and Oliver writing, and Joseph explicitly helped write Letter VII.

            As for Oliver, who other than Joseph had more interviews with angels? Not only was he one of the 3 Witnesses, he was with Joseph for the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods and the restoration of keys in the Kirtland temple, accompanied by the visitation of Christ (several months after publishing Letter VII). I find the assumption that he lied about Cumorah–after all, in Letter VII, he wrote that it was a fact–highly implausible. Particularly where in other letters he clearly distinguished between times when he was speculating and times when he was stating facts. The letters give us a lot of detail that Joseph never gave separately, but why would he need to when the letters were part of his journal and were published three times for all the Church to read? What more could Joseph have done to endorse these letters?

            You end with two problems, which I’ll address in reverse order.

            2) Joseph used other designations for the hill until 1842.

            I don’t know what designations you’re referring to here. You apparently reject Letter VII because Oliver wrote it instead of Joseph, but in what holographic source does Joseph refer to the hill at all? I can’t think of an example of him writing about that. His History, circa Summer 1832, has his own handwriting up to the First Vision but not when he talks about the plates. The journal I cited starts in Joseph’s handwriting but soon shifts to Oliver’s, then Frederick’s, then to Warren’s. Do you take the position that only the things written in Joseph’s handwriting are reliable?

            This means that whatever designations you’re referring to were written by others–just like Letter VII. Therefore, I can’t reconcile your position that Joseph never used the name Cumorah with the facts that Joseph helped write Letter VII and had it copied into his journal as part of his history. The explicit designation in Letter VII is as much Joseph’s as any other designation attributed to him.

            If you only accept Joseph’s holographic writings, then we have to throw out most if not all of the D&C, Pearl of Great Price, and the Book of Mormon itself. Instead, we accept things he dictated or had others help him write–such as Letter VII.

            Regarding other designations, even in the letters, Oliver referred to “this hill, “the hill,” etc.

            1) The Book of Mormon says the plates that Joseph received were not buried in Cumorah.

            Earlier in this discussion you wrote, “To clarify the issue, there is no indication within the Book of Mormon itself where the plates given to Joseph Smith were buried. Mormon 6:6 speaks of burying all of the records in Cumorah, except those entrusted to Moroni. So, according to the Book of Mormon, the one place where Joseph’s plates were not buried is in the hill Cumorah.”

            Your first sentence here is correct, but it contradicts your last sentence and your point 1). Moroni didn’t say where he buried the plates–end of story. He didn’t say he did not bury them in Cumorah. Mormon 6:6 does’t say where Moroni did or did not bury them.

            To summarize, the text doesn’t say where Moroni buried the plates, and it doesn’t exclude Cumorah as the place where he buried them. In Letter VII, Moroni tells Joseph the plates were “written and deposited” not far from Joseph’s home. (As an aside, the only two sources Oliver could have had for these details were Joseph or Moroni.) Letter VII, which Joseph helped write and endorsed entirely, specifically designates the valley west of the New York hill as the scene of the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites. It is unequivocal, and corroborated by every piece of evidence we have, and contradicted by no piece of evidence we have.

            Unless I’m missing some evidence you know about….


            Thanks again for the discussion. I hope it is productive for everyone.

          • Jonathan:

            My suggestion of how Joseph didn’t use Cumorah comes from two very well respected historians who have been through the documentary evidence.Rex C. Reeve Jr. and Richard O. Cowan, “The Hill Called Cumorah,” In Regional Studies in LDS History: New York and Pennsylvania. Edited by Larry C. Porter, Milton V. Backman Jr., and Susan Easton Black. Provo, Utah: BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1992, 73–74.

            At what point in modern times this New York hill was first called Cumorah is difficult to determine. In his account in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith refers to the hill where the plates were buried, but never calls it by any name. In the Doctrine and Covenants the name “Cumorah” only appears one time, in an 1842 epistle written by Joseph Smith: “And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah!” (D&C 128:20 ). No other uses of “Cumorah” have been found in any other of Joseph Smith’s personal writings. When this name does appear it has been added by later editors or is being quoted from another individual.

            You might suggest that they were lax in their examination, but I’m willing to accept their research.

            As for David Whitmer, both historians and cognitive scientists understand a lot about what happens to memory over time. In the case of Cumorah, there is such an obvious adoption of the term that it was either correct from the beginning, or its later adoption became sufficiently dominant that it was the standard designation–often inserted in reverse like the later additions Reeve and Cowan note. So focusing on any point other than the beginning simply begs the point. Of course we find Cumorah after it had been widely adopted, including in a reminisce 50 years after the fact. As for Oliver, he either learned it from Joseph or he made the connection himself–probably because he was the scribe for the Book of Mormon. The question still isn’t about Oliver, but where Oliver got the idea. We really don’t know. We can assume that it was Joseph, but that is an assumption and it has no documentary support. We can use logic to back the assumption, but it is still an assumption. What evidence do we have that it didn’t come from Joseph? We have Joseph not using the term while Oliver did. Suggesting that Joseph must have used it and told Oliver is nothing more than the conclusion dictating what the evidence must be.

            Now for the plates. We seem to agree on this one. The Book of Mormon itself doesn’t say where the plates Joseph unearthed had been buried. The Book of Mormon itself only says that it wasn’t Cumorah. Could Moroni have returned there? Of course. We still have to figure out what happened to all of the other records that the Book of Mormon said had been buried there–and if it wasn’t safe for those, why it was safe for these. You should note that your only evidence is Oliver Cowdery’s letter–which circles back to the problem of where Oliver got the information. Using disputed evidence as the solid evidence for a different question creates an argument that might look good, but still fails because it begs the question.

            We can take the question a step further and look at archaeology and historical cultures around the NY hill. There is no help from those sources, however, as there is no indication of large populations in the area nor any indication of any kind of battle. I agree that there are some very old stories, but those come from times before archaeology was much of a science, and modern research has never been able to support them–or many similar stories from that time period (including some published through the Smithsonian).

          • Hi Brant. Thanks again for responding.

            I’m familiar with the Reeve/Cowan article. I’ve cited it myself. I certainly don’t think they were lax in their examination and I’m not rejecting their research. In fact, I’m going to see Brother Cowan next week and I’ll mention all of this new information to him. But I have learned not to accept others’ work on its face just because it confirms what I want to believe. Their article is 24 years old, predates the Joseph Smith Papers, and doesn’t respond to the question I posed in my last post; i.e., where does Joseph refer to the hill at all, whether as Cumorah or any other designation? I presume from your response you don’t know of any holographic writing of Joseph’s on this question, either.

            Reeve/Cowan refer only to the account in the Pearl of Great Price, but of course that was not holographic, either. It was taken from the History, circa June 1839-circa 1841 [Draft 2] (History, 1838-1856, volume A-1). The first 59 pages, which include Joseph Smith-History 1:51, were written by James Mullholland. Verse 51, of course, is the reference to the hill. “51 Convenient to the village of Manchester, Ontario county, New York, stands a hill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood. On the west side of this hill, not far from the top, under a stone of considerable size, lay the plates, deposited in a stone box.”

            With the benefit of the Joseph Smith Papers, we can see that this verse was added by Mullholland, not by Joseph Smith. Mullholland inscribed an insertion on a loose slip of paper, which was pinned to page 7 of the manuscript. Here’s the link: and

            On one side, the slip of paper reads, “Convenient to the [crossed out] village of Manchester, Ontario County, New York, Stands a hill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood. On the west side of this hill not far from the top”

            On the opposite side of the slip of paper, Mullholland wrote this: “I mentioned to President Smith that I considered it necessary that an explanation of the location of the place where the box was deposited would be required in order that the history be satisfactory. J.M.”

            So not only was the designation not written in Joseph’s handwriting, it was not even Joseph’s dictation. It was Mullholland’s idea and writing.

            Furthermore, Mullholland never lived in Palmyra. He apparently got this description of the hill from Oliver Cowdery’s letter VII, which was among the materials used to compile this history. When Cowdery described the hill in Letter VII, he wrote “before arriving at the little village of Manchester.” Mullholland originally wrote “little” but crossed that out, so that word is not in the Pearl of Great Price. But you can compare the Letter VII description with Mullholland’s and see the similarity, even though Mullholland used his own words.

            IOW, the one instance cited by Reeve/Cowan turns out not to have been written by Joseph, but by Mullholland, using Letter VII.

            Joseph Smith’s history focused on what he did, not Book of Mormon geography or even the history of the Book of Mormon. There is no reason for Mullholland to have named Cumorah there. Besides, it was no secret among the Saints at the time that Cumorah was in New York. Letter VII had been published in 1835, and would be republished in 1841.

            I recommend everyone read the Introduction to History Drafts, 1838-1842, found here:

            On David Whitmer, I’m a little familiar with witnesses and memory, having been a trial lawyer dealing with witnesses. Two years ago I attended the trial of the murderer of my brother, which involved witness testimony about events that happened over 25 years previously when he was killed (it was a cold case that got solved after that long of a time). People have no problem remembering significant events, and the jury believed these witnesses.

            If you believe David, he specifically remembers when he first heard the term, and it wasn’t from Oliver Cowdery. (As an aside, like you, Dan Vogel thinks David heard it first from someone else, although he picks Joseph Smith instead of Oliver Cowdery. If we’re going to disbelieve David Whitmer, I think Vogel has a stronger case than you do, but I disagree with Vogel’s inferences just as much as I disagree with yours.)

            I think it’s unfair to Whitmer to dismiss his testimony, which he gave to two Apostles after emphasizing he would only relate what he personally knew, just because we don’t like what he remembered.

            You write, “What evidence do we have that it didn’t come from Joseph? We have Joseph not using the term while Oliver did.” First, Joseph never used any term, not even hill, until Sept 1842, and if we’re insisting on holographic evidence, we don’t have that letter, either. Second, we have Joseph and Oliver using it together; they worked on the letters together, and Joseph considered them part of his life history. You seem to keep insisting that if Joseph didn’t write it, he didn’t say it, but as I pointed out, that leaves us with very, very little–and no Book of Mormon. For that matter, no Joseph Smith history.

            The Joseph Smith papers point out that “For the first two years after the organization of the Church of Christ on 6 April 1830, Smith assigned the work of keeping a history first to Oliver Cowdery and then to John Whitmer, two of the early believers.” In addition to the letters, Oliver wrote other entries in Joseph’s journal, along with other scribes.

            You write, “Suggesting that Joseph must have used it and told Oliver is nothing more than the conclusion dictating what the evidence must be.” It’s not my suggestion; it’s what they said. Joseph helped Oliver write the letters. They include details only Joseph and Moroni could have known. So either Oliver made everything up, or Joseph helped write the letters. You can argue that Joseph helped with part, and Oliver made up the rest, but Joseph’s explicit endorsement and multiple publications of the letters make these letters even more his than most of the other things his scribes wrote.

            On the plates, you write “The Book of Mormon itself only says that it wasn’t Cumorah.” That’s just not true. Moroni didn’t say where he buried them.

            My only evidence is not Cowdery’s letter, anyway. We all know the account related by Brigham Young of multiple visits to the storehouse of plates in the hill.

            On archaeology and historical cultures, I’ve written about this on my blog, and I have a book on it that will come out this summer. You write “there is no indication of large populations in the area nor any indication of any kind of battle.” I presume you’re relying on John Clark and David Palmer for that, both of whom I’ve addressed elsewhere. If you have other sources, I’d be very interested.

            Again, as always, thank you for the cordial and productive discussion.

          • Jonathan: I took your advice to search through the Joseph Smith Papers–at least to the extent that the indexing can help sort through the large amount of material. I didn’t find direct evidence of Joseph indicating that the plates were buried in Cumorah–until we get the “glad tidings from Cumorah.” I searched on “hill” and found a couple of documents where Joseph related his history and simply said that they were buried in “a hill of considerable size,” or “in a hill in Manchester, Ohio.” In another, Joseph is the editor of a journal and the report is from someone interviewing Joseph. The question is asked about the plates, and Joseph only indicates that it was in a hill.

            So, it remains true that we cannot tie anything to Joseph directly. It is an inference that he didn’t use Cumorah, but it is possible that the more public nature of his statements might have eliminated the name for an audience that wouldn’t have known it–except that the interview was with a member. Not conclusive.

            We remain with the documentary history firmly having Oliver using the term early, and very obviously becoming the standard method of referring to the hill. He may or may not have heard it from Joseph. One might assume so, but it is an assumption that has no verification.

            As for your statement: “On the plates, you write “The Book of Mormon itself only says that it wasn’t Cumorah.” That’s just not true. Moroni didn’t say where he buried them,” I beg to differ. Mormon 6:6 talks about the plates buried in Cumorah, and specifically excludes the ones given to Moroni. You are correct that the text never says where Moroni buried the plates, but that is the point. The Book of Mormon only talks about plates and Cumorah in the context of those that Joseph didn’t receive. We can assume that Moroni returned and buried them there, but that uses an assumption to create an assumption.

            What we can clearly say with regards to NY Hill Cumorah is that Oliver used that designation early, and it early became the standard way to reference the NY hill. It is the very same thing we can say about the urim and thummim–except we can date when that term was first used. It became so thoroughly entrenched in tradition that I thought I had to figure out how the Old World urim and thummim got to the New World (before I knew much or LDS history, or what the urim and thummim were).

            As for the prophets since then, the tradition is clear and undisputed. They used Cumorah. Is that evidence that the NY hill was the Book of Mormon hill, or is that evidence of the force of the traditional label? That is the question that a historian must ask–without assuming the answer beforehand.

          • Hi Brant. This is becoming a long exchange, but I find it extremely helpful. Thanks.

            I remain unclear on your point. You write “it remains true that we cannot tie anything to Joseph directly.” Can you help me understand what criteria you use to agree that something is “tied” to Joseph Smith?

            I assume from your comment that you mean we don’t find the word “Cumorah” in his holographic writings. By that standard, however, we can’t tie very much at all to Joseph Smith, including the Book of Mormon, D&C, PofGP, etc.

            So if holographic writings are not the only standard for tying things to Joseph directly, what additional standards do you have?

            JSP lists all his known holographic writings here:

            The introduction explains: “Although Joseph Smith left a sizeable collection of written records, few documents remain that are considered holographs, that is, written in his own handwriting…. The majority of the time, Joseph Smith relied on scribes and clerks to compose, copy, or take down his dictation of the thousands of pages attributed to him, including sacred texts, correspondence, journals, histories, administrative records, and other documents.”

            Normally, we tie the Book of Mormon to Joseph because he and Oliver said he dictated it while Oliver wrote. They are the only sources for that information (at least with respect to the part Oliver wrote). We tie other material to Joseph, such as most of the D&C, because they are mentioned in his journal and the various histories (written by scribes, except Joseph referred to D&C 86 in his own writing) or people said Joseph dictated or wrote the revelations, letters, etc. But none of these are written in Joseph own handwriting.

            If you reject as “inconclusive” anything in Joseph’s journal not written his handwriting, this excludes almost everything we know about his life. I’m not aware that Joseph wrote much history at all in his own handwriting, apart from two accounts of the first vision. I’m not aware of any account in Joseph’s own writing of Moroni’s visits, for example.

            On the other hand, if you accept what is written in his journal and other non-holographic writings, including the Book of Mormon and D&C, on what basis can you exclude Letter VII, since it is also included in his journal as part of his own history?

            Letter VII is among the very few documents Joseph explicitly helped to write, incorporated into his own journal, and saw republished multiple times during his lifetime. (In fact, I believe these letters are the only Church history accounts to have received this special treatment. The only other material that was published multiple times during Joseph’s lifetime are some of the sections from the D&C.) These letters are more closely tied to Joseph than much of what I presume you accept as tied to Joseph, but I don’t want to presume.

            Rather than ask for a list of what you consider to be tied to Joseph, if would be helpful if you could explain what criteria you use to make this designation.


            Your analogy to the Urim and Thummim doesn’t hold up. I assume you’re referring to Phelps’ use of the term in 1833, after which it was more widely used to apply to the interpreters, meaning both the spectacles that accompanied the plates and Joseph’s seer stones. Oliver mentions this in the letters, but he clarifies the point. “Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummin, or as the Nephites would have said, “Interpreters,” the history or record called “The Book of Mormon.” ”

            It’s true that people used the term generically to apply to all the interpreters, but that was a convenience. No one suggested or implied that the seer stone Joseph used was of ancient Nephite origin just because they used this convenient term to refer to all the implements Joseph used. I can see how you might have been confused by this term, thinking it referred to the Old World Urim and Thummim, but Phelps, Cowdery, and Joseph’s other contemporaries were not.

            The situation is entirely different regarding the use of the term Cumorah. This was not a term of convenience employed as a kind of shorthand. It’s not the name itself that is important. It wouldn’t matter if Cowdery never used the term; in fact, the proper noun does not come up in Letter VII until after Cowdery describes the hill as “the highest hill for some distance round.” He writes, “At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former… when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.”

            Only after that description does he mention the name Cumorah.

            Letter VII focuses specifically on the historical events that took place in Western New York, from Moroni’s visit to the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites. You can delete the terms Cumorah and Ramah from the text and it doesn’t change the description at all. “By it [this hill], or around it, the famous army of Coriantumr pitched their tent. The opposing army were to the west, and in this same valley, and near by… In this same spot, in full view from the top of this same hill, one may gaze with astonishment upon the ground which was twice covered with the dead and dying of our fellow-men.”

            What we should be focused on is not the use of the name Cumorah, but on the details Oliver provides about the final battles in New York. Oliver provides unique details about Moroni’s appearance, what Moroni told Joseph Smith, what Joseph was thinking when he first went to get the plates, what the vegetation on the hill looked like both when Joseph visited and when he, Oliver, later visited, how the stone box was constructed, etc. There are only two possibilities for these details: Oliver either made them up, or he got them from Joseph Smith (as he said). These letters are consistent with Joseph’s common practice of having others write for him. They contain details only Joseph could have known. Joseph fully endorsed them by having them copied, in their entirety, into his journal. He had them republished at least 3 times while he was alive.

            I remain puzzled how, in light of all these facts, you can say these letters are not tied to Joseph directly, but I’m eager to understand your position better.

            As always, thanks for the discussion.

            (BTW, now you see why I wanted to go to lunch and just discuss this instead of having to write such long responses back and forth.)


          • I’ll try to simplify the volume of the exchange. You ask: “I remain unclear on your point. You write ‘it remains true that we cannot tie anything to Joseph directly.’ Can you help me understand what criteria you use to agree that something is “tied” to Joseph Smith?”

            No one directly cites Joseph as the source of the information. It is assumed. It is not an unreasonable assumption, but an assumption nevertheless. We know that Joseph never contradicted the use of the name, but he didn’t make a lot of other clarifications–such as urim and thummim for interpreter. Let’s take the example of the infamous Zarahemla in Central America passage. Regardless of the author, Joseph never contradicted it. As editor, he may have directly approved it. Say he didn’t, but John Taylor did. If so, we have a man who became the prophet later–so he was a pretty decent guy. We have John Taylor on record saying that it looked like Quetzalcoatl was Jesus Christ, which rather requires that he thought a Central American location for some of the Book of Mormon was plausible. Are we really suggesting that someone who was as close to Joseph as John Taylor was confused as to what Joseph had said or intended?

            Now, I should point out that I think the Quetzalcoatl statement John Taylor made was correct in that he was expressing an opinion based on the evidence he had seen, and not on any revealed information. I think he, and many others (and I would include Oliver) thought a lot about many topics and expressed opinions that has personal understanding rather than revelation as their source.

    • I agree 100 percent, how is it that Letter VII is never addressed. It is crystal clear and was written by the 2nd Elder of the church, the same man that literally wrote almost the entire Book of Mormon as Joseph dictated it to him. Joseph endorsed and published this letter multiple times. I believe Oliver and Joseph were qualified experts.

      • Oliver Cowdery, Second Elder of the Church and Co-President with Joseph Smith, stated in 1831 that it was Moroni who first said that the hill near Palmyra was called Cumorah:

        “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.)

        We will discuss more about Cumorah in a later post.

        • I do not disagree that Oliver Cowdery used the term very early. That is well documented. It also isn’t the actual issue. Please note that historians rightfully exercise caution when using very late remembrances to establish much earlier events. It isn’t that it isn’t possible, but time can affect a lot of things in the remembrance.

          When you get to looking at Cumorah, please remember that caution. The use of Cumorah became very well established pretty early in the church. There is no disputing that. The issue has nothing to do with the community of the Saints, but everything to do with how they came to that conclusion. That is the important point, and at the crucial juncture we have Joseph Smith a reluctant hold out. That is quite odd were he the source of the name.

          • The comments on this blog have been very interesting.
            BOM internal maps have been developed many times over, but without a pin to place that internal map somewhere geographically it is fairly useless.
            Right or wrong, we who believe in a North American/US location of the Nephites have pins we use to locate internal maps such as Oliver’s Letter VII, Zarahemla in the D&C, Joseph’s letters to Emma as he walked the plains of the Nephites, the Zelph discovery, the Book of Mormon text itself as Christ described that the BOM would come forth in “this land,” etc. The genuine question I have for those that believe that the Nephites lived elsewhere is…what is your pin? What is the quote, article, scripture, reference that would direct someone to look to Mesoamerica or any other location to place the Nephites?

          • The idea of an indisputable pin is wonderful. There certainly isn’t one that is indisputable. From an official standpoint, there is no officially sanctioned geography fore the Book of Mormon. That means that even those who were closest to Joseph Smith who thereafter led the church, didn’t feel that there was an undisputed geography. That is what allows all of us to make our speculations.

            What all of us must do is test geographic hypotheses against the text of the Book of Mormon, current and historical geography, historical events that might satisfy the 3 Nephi destruction, and archaeology/culture. If we find something that fits all of those criteria, we have a reasonable hypothesis. If we fit one or two, but fail the others–we probably need to go back to the drawing board.

            Of course, all models require interpretation and speculation. It is the quality of the data that will eventually help us find the answers. Let’s take the example of Zarahemla in the D&C. Using that as a pin requires a major stretch of both imagination and rereading of the text. The text says “let it be called,” not “it use to be called.” There is a Manti in Utah. There is a Las Vegas and Madrid in New Mexico. Naming a location after some other location from a very different place has a long history in human experience. The assumption that the D&C Zarahemla might be the original location is not only speculation, but one based on a strained reading of the text. If there is a pin available, it would be Cumorah–but not the D&C Zarahemla. I strongly suspect that should archaeological excavations be undertaken at that location that nothing close to a city would be found. They simply did not exist in that region during Book of Mormon times.

          • Hi Brant. I’m still unclear on one of your points. “At the crucial juncture we have Joseph Smith a reluctant hold out.”

            What juncture are you referring to here? And how did he hold out?

            Do you mean he didn’t personally write the term “Cumorah” until September 1842? If so, what is your evidence that he personally wrote it even then? Or that he ever wrote anything about the hill? He deferred to his scribes to write nearly everything, starting with the Book of Mormon and continuing through all the modern scriptures, as well as all of his journals and most of his correspondence.

            Thanks for clarifying this.

          • Hi Brant. I agree with you on the analysis we should pursue: we should test theories “against the text of the Book of Mormon, current and historical geography, historical events that might satisfy the 3 Nephi destruction, and archaeology/culture. If we find something that fits all of those criteria, we have a reasonable hypothesis.”

            By those criteria, the New York Cumorah pin fits very well. Not only that, but the New York Cumorah was undisputed for the first 100 years, as Joseph Fielding Smith pointed out. It has never been disputed by any Church leader that I know of. It is disputed only by some LDS scholars, and only starting around the 1920s.

            The Zarahemla pin is another topic that I expect we’ll get to when Brandley writes about Zarahemla.

          • Brant: Since some of your comments are in the 3rd generation of posts, I can’t comment directly to them, which would make it easier, but I just wanted to pass on a couple of additional thoughts.

            Previous articles on the subject of the ‘cave’ accounts and the hill Cumorah in New York, have tended to dismiss the New York hill because of it being a glacial drumlin or ‘rubble pile’ of rock and debris scoured up by the leading edge or ‘snout’ of a glacier rather than a karst or limestone deposit which is typically associated with dissolution and natural cave formation.

            While it is true that the referenced hill in New York is a glacial rubble pile and not conducive to natural cave formation, the majority of the accounts talk of a ‘room’ rather than calling it a ‘cave.’ Isn’t it possible that the room wherein ‘wagon loads’ of sacred Nephite records were said to be stored was not a natural formation but man-made, yet thought of as a ‘cave’ by those who followed Joseph Smith into the opening in the hill as described?

            In other words, is there a specific requirement, based on the 10 second hand accounts, for the room in the hill to be natural and not man-made? Only half of the accounts actually use the word ‘cave’ in describing the room of records, while the descriptions of ‘room,’ ‘cell,’ ‘apartment’ and ‘department’ in the hill are found in 6 of the 10 accounts.
            The word “cave” as used in the 10 accounts in Cameron J. Packers article could just as well have been speaking of a man-made room as a natural one. In fact, in note 3 of his article, Packer mentions an account of a hill just north of the Hill Cumorah which “was said to feature a cave dug by Mormons” which clearly indicates that a dug out man-made room may have also been referred to as a ‘cave’ even though not a natural feature.

            The argument that the glacial drumlin known as the Hill Cumorah in New York cannot be the Book of Mormon hill Cumorah because it is not conducive to cave formation is unjustified. It is just as likely to have a man-made room and be the hill having the ‘cave’ or room of records described as any other hill. The fact that every account seems to share a common thread that their eye-witness experiences occurred at the New York hill Cumorah should not be simplistically dismissed because of the use of the word ‘cave.’ All the early brethren understood the Hill Cumorah to be the hill in New York, and in 7 of the 10 accounts they call the Hill Cumorah by name. They all spoke of this hill as where their ‘room of records’ experiences occurred.

            It is hard to imagine why anyone would not be willing to accept that the New York hill qualifies – in at least this regard – as the Book of Mormon’s hill Cumorah which housed the sacred room of records in a man-made cave. That is unless that person was simply unwilling to alter a preconceived opinion on the matter.

          • I understand that you have strong feelings on the matter. However, suggesting that someone who disagrees with your particular option is “simply unwilling to alter a preconceived opinion” doesn’t seem to allow for any kind of honest disagreement. At least in my case, I didn’t come to my opinion on the topic through a preconceived opinion that I am unwilling to change. I approach all of my research with a willingness to change, and have done so when the evidence leads me to the conclusion that I should change my opinion. Once of those topics happened to be the issue of whether the NY hill and the Book of Mormon hill were the same. I understand that you find it “hard to imagine” why I might disagree with you, but I do request that you accept that we differ without suggesting that it is solely due to stubbornness.

          • Brant: Again, I’m sorry that I cannot reply directly below your comments for clarity.
            You mentioned in regard to the naming of Zarahemla across from Nauvoo in D&C 125:3 that “There is a Manti in Utah. There is a Las Vegas and Madrid in New Mexico. Naming a location after some other location from a very different place has a long history in human experience.”

            While it is true that many locations are frequently named after others, which is part of our human experience, it should be pointed out that the naming in this case was not by humans, but by the Lord Himself, which would seem a monumental difference in the significance of the naming of any location. Sure, there is a Manti, Nephi, Bountiful and Lehi, Utah named symbolically or ceremonially after place names of the Book of Mormon, but so far as I know, they were not revealed by the Lord, but rather done to commemorate and respect those ancient cities.
            The location of Zarahemla as being across from Nauvoo wasn’t just a symbolic name given to commemorate the ancient site by the early brethren, it was revealed by revelation by the Lord Himself to His prophet. Big difference.

            How is it ‘straining’ the text to simply accept that the Lord carefully chooses His words, and He had an infinite number of names He could have called that location, yet he deliberately named it “Zarahemla.” Was the Lord just trying to confuse us? I think not. The Occam’s Razor answer is that the Lord commanded Joseph to use the name “Zarahemla” because it WAS “Zarahemla.” Had he wanted to differentiate it from the Book of Mormon Zarahemla, why didn’t He use the same protocol used in His naming of the symbolic “Jerusalem” in the New World as the “New Jerusalem” and call it “New Zarahemla?” The most logical answer seems to be that He did not need to differentiate it because it was the original Zarahemla. God is not a God of confusion.

            Too often we ‘look beyond the mark’ and strain to find alternative meanings to plain and precious truths that we deem inconvenient or incompatible with preconceived ideas.

            When such claims as “I strongly suspect that should archaeological excavations be undertaken at that location that nothing close to a city would be found” and “They simply did not exist in that region during Book of Mormon times” are made, one would hope that a commensurate amount of research has gone into making this claim as would be expected from a true scholar of the Book of Mormon.

            I wish that you would have taken the time to thoroughly examine the evidence before making these claims. Are you aware that tens of thousands of stone and metal artifacts have been recovered in that area? Do you know of “Little Mound Cemetery” northwest of Keokuk, IA,-91.4609216,491m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x87e73c69132fb4fb:0x8b9556e5d1b823f7!8m2!3d40.4080993!4d-91.4595991?hl=en, which is a Hopewell civilization mound some 500 ft long, 120 ft wide and 30 ft tall?… and that is the ‘little’ mound? What about the dozens of ancient earth mounds that can still be visited today, not to mention the hundreds or even thousands that have been destroyed by looting, farming and modern construction? Are you aware of the many burial mounds in and around Nauvoo itself or the fact that the Smith family cemetery is actually in an ancient Hopewell burial ground? Yes, Joseph, Emma, Hyrum, Lucy Mack, Joseph Sr and others of the Smith family are actually buried in what could be a Nephite cemetery – on the banks of the River Sidon – if the Zarahemla named by the Lord in D&C 125:3 is in reality the Zarahemla of the Book of Mormon.
            The overwhelming presence of ancient Hopewell earthworks throughout the area and region strongly challenges the speculation that “should archaeological excavations be undertaken…nothing close to a city would be found” not to mention the demonstrably false claim that ‘they simply did not exist in that region during Book of Mormon times.”
            The most recent estimates of Native American mound sites in America’s Heartland numbers them at more than 1 million sites, one of the highest concentrations of evidence of ancient civilization on earth. If you don’t know where that estimate came from, you haven’t done your homework. But I’d be happy to share it anyway. It comes from the most comprehensive compilation of North American earthworks to date, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Mounds & Earthworks by Gregory L. Little Ed.D, 2009, p. 2. One might ask, if there were over a million mounds, what is the chance that there might have been a few “cities?”

          • Rod:

            I agree that Joseph was the mouth for the revelation that said that the Saints should name their settlement Zarahemla. That is what it says, and I accept that. It does not say, nor imply, that the name ever was Zarahemla. This is a very simple case of English grammar.

            As for my statement that there is no qualifying city, I have been spending quite a bit of time comparing Hopewell culture to what it mentioned in the Book of Mormon. According to the archaeologists, I can’t find anything that is a reasonable fit. Of course, I do expect that we will continue to disagree, but the level of cultural complexity, the size of the population, and the reconstructions of political organization don’t describe the same types of those features we see in the Book of Mormon. For example, the Hopewell culture was still heavily hunter-gatherer with beginning agriculture. The level of agriculture supports larger groups that pure hunting and gathering, which allowed for sedentary base operations. It still has never supported the size of population and political complexity in the Book of Mormon. Archaeologists suggest that we are seeing “head-man” political organizations in the multiple hamlets that are sharing the funereal mound complexes. I think the only time we even might see those is just before Nephi’s people want a king. Even to desire a king requires a more complex development than the archaeologists find for the Hopewell.

            Now, of course we are talking here about what the archaeologists have reconstructed, and one might suggest that they are wrong. However, I haven’t seen anything that would suggest that if they are wrong, it is by any great degree. All good archaeological descriptions of the past are subject to new evidence–but none of the new evidence has yet required a change to the general outlines of their culture.

            So, I am not surprised that there is a mound. There were so many of them, that it isn’t that surprising. However, finding a burial mound is not equivalent to finding a city that could support a political hegemony of multiple cities–in which people lived rather than simply used as a common ceremonial burial ground. I understand that I haven’t read everything written on the Hopewell, but I am not unread on the topic.

            As for finding a few cities among the million mounds, it is interesting to suggest that it could happen. It has not yet. Since the nature of the mounds, and the nature of any archaeological investigation of the people who created them has not yielded a city, we can either suggest that they continue to miss the cities, or that they didn’t build them. At least at the moment, all actual evidence leads to the latter conclusion.

          • Brant: While D&C 125:3 does not explicitly make the claim that the Zarahemla spoken of by the Lord to be built across from Nauvoo was the site of the Book of Mormon Zarahemla, one might ask why, then, did the Lord chose that name? I don’t believe that the Lord does anything without a purpose so what would be His purpose in invoking the exact name as that of the Nephite capital city in the center of their lands on the west side of the River Sidon – if it wasn’t? An understanding will likely not come solely by English grammar, but by attempting to understand why the Lord revealed this name to his prophet and told him to build a city and call it Zarahemla. Of course such an exercise is speculative in nature, and we may never know definitively the mind of the Lord in doing so, but it doesn’t change the fact that He chose that name and I believe it was done purposely. Any ideas on why He specified that name if not to provide a link or clue about the ancient city of the Nephites?

            You are correct that if you study the Hopewell culture through current archaeology, most will claim that the Hopewell were limited to small clusters or bands of hunter-gatherers with only limited agricultural pursuits. Yet such an arrangement fly’s in the face of the more than 1 million mounds that literally dot the entire landscape of the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys.

            If such massive evidence for human activity and occupation were found anywhere else on earth it would be being hailed as one of the greatest civilizations on the planet for its day. However, because of Manifest Destiny and other motivating factors, Native American achievements have been kept largely hidden from the public, relegated to a people without a history, and declared to be an ignorant and savage race, which runs contrary to the astounding level of evidence of their being a massive, powerful and widespread civilization.

            That a bias exists is undeniable among the archaeological community. To generally admit that these ancient Native Americans were as advanced as any European culture, with a written (Hebrew) language system, metal smelting, cloth production, large scale agriculture and cities is to admit that their later displacement was unjustified in removing them from their lands and denying them voting rights and land ownership because of their being considered a less “evolved” race, barbarous, uncouth and uncivilized by the intellectuals of the day.
            So getting at the truth requires deeper study using specific examples of their cultural achievements and asking the question, could this have been accomplished by a few members of a small band of berry and nut hunters?

            So often the clear answer is no, and individual archaeologists and experts part from the consensus view and state the obvious, they are not getting the acknowledgement they deserve in their rightful role in the history of humanity or America. Luckily that is changing.

            As one quick example of how quickly and drastically the archaeological ‘norm’ can change, one well funded archaeological dig outside of St. Louis in 2007 resulted in population estimates of the region being raised from around 10,000 to 75,000 near 1,000 AD, which is obviously long after Nephite time frames but the point is that what was once believed about this culture has now been shown to be wrong; very, very wrong.

            Surprised archaeologists made statements like “It’s an early example of urban sprawl,” “We were caught totally off guard,” and “Scientists are also rethinking the evolution of mound-building societies, whose roots stretch back even earlier than the grand civilizations of Mesoamerica.” “There’s a growing realization that eastern Native American societies are more complicated and nuanced than previously imagined,” says Tristan R. Kidder, of Washington University in St. Louis.

            Even BYU Mesoamerican theory advocate John E. Clarke is quoted as saying, “If you found this in the Mayan lowlands, there would be no doubt this was a city…it would be a top 10 of all Mesoamerican cities.” America’s Lost City, Science Vol. 334, 23 Dec. 2011 This dig project “unearthed the remains of a sophisticated American Indian settlement no one knew existed” yet it contained the “remnants of more than a thousand prehistoric houses and the base of an earthen pyramid.” National Public Radio (

            As has been repeatedly invoked in support of Mesoamerican theories in the face of missing evidences, the phrase, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” can also be applied here, but in this case, the evidence is no longer absent.

            You commented: “I haven’t seen anything that would suggest that if they are wrong, it is by any great degree. All good archaeological descriptions of the past are subject to new evidence–but none of the new evidence has yet required a change to the general outlines of their culture.” These and literally dozens of additional articles and findings contradict the idea that the archaeology of the present is not likely to change much in the future for the Mound Builder civilizations of North America. May I respectfully suggest further study before arriving to – and posting online – such conclusions.

          • Rod:
            I confess that I am unwilling to guess the mind of the Lord. I’m stuck with what he says, and what I may learn of it. As for why that name was selected, I can think of a number of reasons, none of which require that it be a declaration of the ancient city. In fact, I would think that the Lord could figure out how to be more clear in saying “this used to be Zarahemla” instead of “let it be called.” I wouldn’t base my argument solely on grammar, nor would I think it wise to base it solely on what I think the Lord must have meant when he apparently didn’t say what he meant.

            You said:

            You are correct that if you study the Hopewell culture through current archaeology, most will claim that the Hopewell were limited to small clusters or bands of hunter-gatherers with only limited agricultural pursuits. Yet such an arrangement fly’s in the face of the more than 1 million mounds that literally dot the entire landscape of the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys.

            I’m afraid I can’t see the logic in that statement at all. Every location they have excavated has led to similar conclusions. The proliferation of burial mounds surrounded by smaller groups with minimal agriculture does not change by increasing the volume of burial mounds. There were a lot of people in the area. Indisputably. However, that quantity never arose to sufficient density to develop politicsl complexity–nor does their level of agriculture support that dense of a population. If you are suggesting that the only way to correctly understand the Book of Mormon is to ignore what the archaeologists have discovered, then we are certainly never going to find any common ground.

            For example, you reference Cahokia as a large site with complex political structures. I agree. However, following the archaeologists, I note that its earliest development was a couple of hundred years too late for the Book of Mormon, and their height of culture and complexity (witnessed in the extent of the site) came over 4-500 years after that. A great example of what we might have expected based on the Book of Mormon that is too late to have been a Book of Mormon culture is interesting, but still incorrect.

            You state:

            These and literally dozens of additional articles and findings contradict the idea that the archaeology of the present is not likely to change much in the future for the Mound Builder civilizations of North America. May I respectfully suggest further study before arriving to – and posting online – such conclusions.

            I must be reading the wrong things. I haven’t yet found a single one that supports what you suggest–though clearly you have found the ones that I have seen. I have been reading mainstream archaeologists and have seen no substantial disagreement. I absolutely agree that new discoveries can change what we know, but I have not heard of anything new that has changed what has been found. As for further study before posting, I would always suggest that. I am unsure why you think I haven’t done that. You can aid my study if you could point me to an article that describes the agriculture that would support Book of Mormon populations and political structures. I’m afraid that I really am most interested in those that actually existed during Book of Mormon times. Sites that are way too early and way too late really don’t give us the right picture of what happened during Book of Mormon times.

          • Thanks again Brant for all your time and responses. I question whether those who look elsewhere (other than the US) for evidence of the Nephites have truly allowed the significance of what Rod has said sink in. Just the proliferation of archeological sites and mounds in the US is astounding. Sadly so few people are taught about these people in schools, I know I wasn’t. So little is known about these cultures, yet they built cities remarkably similar to what is described in the Book of Mormon.
            There aren’t many things I am an expert in but I am an expert in moving dirt. I’ve been involved in excavating and earthwork for 20 years building roads and bridges and let me say any ancient group of people building a large earthwork is remarkable. It takes a ton of effort to build earthworks. It is not easy. I can’t imagine an ancient people building these mounds without heavy equipment. Even with heavy equipment it is difficult. Anyone who has used a wheelbarrow to move dirt knows….I am always surprised and depressed when I dump a large wheelbarrow full of dirt on the ground and the pile looks like an ant hill. These mound cities would take a huge amount of people working around the clock for years to move that amount of dirt. Not to mention the support staff, knowledge of survey, compaction, materials, planning, etc. Regardless of what archeologists say, anyone who has moved dirt for a living knows that these were not small groups of unsophisticated people. In fact, I would doubt without large animals and “machines” they would never be able to build these large structures. Once I had a project in Arizona where we moved 1,000,000 cy of material. We worked 24 hours a day with very large equipment – 631 and 637 scrapers, D10 dozers, 385 Trackhoes, rollers, waterpulls, etc. and it took forever! I can’t imagine what it would have taken timewise to build these 1 million earthworks in North American.
            One quick question about the city of Zarahemla. What other cities did the Lord direct to be built? I don’t have the answer, I can think of maybe one other….New Jerusalem or Zion. Can anyone think of others?

          • MiamiGuy:
            I can’t speak for anyone else, but my basic approach to any proposal for a geography of the Book of Mormon is to begin by accepting its assumptions, and then measure the results against the text and archaeology. Every proposed geography has something going for it–even the one that puts the events in Malaysia. I took that assumption and tried to see if it worked. I couldn’t make it fit. As for what Rod is proposing, I have been through the proposed geography multiple times, and recently the variation that Jonathan Neville has proposed. I can’t make them fit with the text or the archaeology. There are certainly some things that fit, or can be made to seem as though they fit. The end result, however, is that they fail both against the text and against archaeology.

            As far as people moving dirt, you are correct that it takes a fair number of people and some organization. The archaeologists agree with that. The evidence of how and where they live tell us that multiple small groups came together to share the mounded burial areas. They were not related to a single population under a single political entity–at least as far as archaeology can discern such from the evidence.

          • Rod: Brant: Can you give us one or two examples of why you think the Lord would have given Joseph a revelation to build up city, and command it be called Zarahemla without it giving some indication of correspondence with the Book of Mormon, the likely origin of the word for Joseph? Like you, I don’t presume to know the mind of the Lord, but there must have at least been some plausible reason, right?

            Relating to the Hopewell populations and density, you are generally correct that most archaeological site digs have produced little evidence for high density housing, but there are several possible explanations for this.

            1. Ceremonial Centers, not Residential Areas. Most Hopewell archaeological digs have concentrated around their massive ceremonial centers where obvious earthworks had been accomplished. It was initially thought that these were large villages or cities but they generally turned out to have been almost exclusively ceremonial and not residential. But the sheer size and scope of these massive earthwork undertakings required a huge amount of labor moving thousands of tons of soil, leveling the site, and building structures. They had to be well organized and it is hard to imagine how they could have created earthworks 4 square miles in extent (the largest temple complex on earth by some estimates) that are aligned to the rise and set points of the moon on the horizon over its 18.6 year cycle to within 1 degree of accuracy and not be well organized or have a written language. When combined with the fact that they didn’t just build one or two, but dozens of similarly sized, arranged, oriented and constructed sites separated by hundreds of miles it is hardly likely a few hunter gatherer individuals could accomplish such a feat, wouldn’t you agree? Yet that is what we are told by main stream archaeology because they haven’t found the housing… yet.

            2. Lack of funding. One of the biggest challenges for archaeologists is the near continual lack of funding for projects. Often this results in projects focused on less mundane researches such as homes and concentrates their efforts on excavating ceremonial centers, temple complexes and obvious signs of human activity. The reason I provided the example of a massive shift in population estimates at Cahokia is because it demonstrates the power of funding to produce better results. That dig got major funding because of its being tied with a huge bridge building project spanning the Mississippi River and they got enough funding to do a large scale dig. Most digs in the US are limited to a few dozen feet in extent so as not to disturb too much of the area, but to find thousands of homes, as was the case at Cahokia, they uncovered several acres of land that was going to be destroyed anyway due to road and bridge construction, so they didn’t need to be as conservative in opening the ground. That’s when they found the truth, thousands of ancient homes that no one had any inkling about previously. That is why the Cahokia example, apart from being a couple of hundred years after the Nephite destruction at Cumorah, is a good case in point. What might happen if a similar project was funded that fell over a Hopewell site rather than the Mississippian site at Cahokia? Isn’t a similar result possible?

            3. Difficulty of Identifying wooden structures. Another difficulty is the fact that most all the Hopewell structures were built of the preferred building material of the Book of Mormon… wood. Since no stone buildings (other than ‘walls’ around the cities) were ever mentioned in the text, and many of their cities were burned with fire, we can with confidence make the claim that the Nephites preferred building material was wood or timbers. When placed in the ground for upright supports or palisade walls (as described in the Book of Mormon) their decomposition over decades or centuries can subtly change the composition of the surrounding soil, leaving a ‘post mold’ which can, with a well trained eye and a little luck, be observed. While I was working on an archaeological dig at Cahokia I learned of the difficulty in making this observation. In order to see the post outline the soil had to be carefully ‘cut’ with a trowel to create a straight, level and smooth surface so that minute color variations could be seen. Within 30-60 seconds in that hot humid summer weather, the surface would desiccate sufficiently that you couldn’t see the post mold anymore. If any of those conditions were off, you would never be able to see it, so the average person digging a hole with a shovel would never notice the nuances of the soil color variations, much less a backhoe or heavy equipment operator.

            4. Scale of their lands. Another difficulty is the sheer size of the Hopewell civilizations land holdings. Their primary lands covered nearly a third of what is America (USA) today, occupying much of some 13 states. So they had more than plenty of land in which to expand. The scale of the Heartland geography is several times larger than the proposed Book of Mormon lands in Mesoamerica. In fact, Lehi’s family covered about 6 times the distance from Jerusalem to the Saudi Arabian coastline at Bountiful in 8 years as the Nephites supposedly travelled over their entire 1,000 year history according to the proposed geographies in Mesoamerica. In contrast, the Heartland model geography provides a much larger homeland in which to expand. People are often amazed at how truly limited the geography of Mesoamerica is. Their entire lands could fit into an area just over half the size of the state of Utah.

            5. Hunter-Gatherers. The overriding assumption of the archaeological community in America is that the ancient peoples were simple hunter gatherers, which has lead to the presupposition that they were nomadic or semi-nomadic wanderers with little need for permanent structures, so why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars looking for archaeological evidence of something that is not likely to exist anyway, based on the assumptions? In order to receive archaeological funding, most funding agencies want to know that there is going to be a high probability of successfully finding something. They don’t fund digs to check ground that doesn’t show signs of human activity, and since post molds that anciently supported Hopewell homes aren’t as obvious as mounds, they are much less likely to be funded and found.

            6. Supposed Lack of Agriculture. Another overriding assumption is that since they were mere hunter gatherers, they didn’t stay in one place long enough to make use of agriculture. But more recent studies have challenged this assumption.

            You state:
            “Every location they have excavated has led to similar conclusions. [They were] smaller groups with minimal agriculture… that quantity never arose to sufficient density to develop political (sic) complexity- nor does their level of agriculture support that dense of a population.”
            More recent findings, as an example of how the archaeological mindset is being forced to change by the evidence, can be found in pollen evidence from Fort Ancient, Ohio. In the article, Plant Cultivation and Forest Clearance by Prehistoric North Americans: Pollen Evidence from Fort Ancient, Ohio, USA by McLauchlan, Kendra, The Holocene 13, 4 (2003) pp 557-566 the abstract states, “pollen analyses of two 2000-year-old sediment records from Fort Ancient, an upland Hopewell archaeological site in southwestern Ohio, show exceptionally high amounts of pollen from cultigens – Iva annua, Polygonum erectum and Chenopodium – deposited during Hopewell occupation of the site (100 BC to AD 400). Pollen spectra indicate the area surrounding the ponds was largely deforested, and the sediment record indicates high rates of erosion during this time. Therefore, North American Woodland societies were likely modifying vegetation more extensively through agriculture and other land-clearing activities than has been assumed previously.” They go on in the article to state, “these cultigens helped to support extensive Woodland societies in eastern North America, the degree to which cultivation of these ancient crop plants affected vegetation in eastern North America is unknown…” and in their conclusions they write, “This pollen record reveals that prehistoric agriculture in North America was more extensive than previously assumed, and it raises the question of how much impact Native American agriculture had on vegetation in eastern North America. The Hopewell cleared the area within and possibly surrounding Fort Ancient, and likely cultivated crops at this site for several hundred years. This evidence causes us to reconsider the nature, extent and geographical distribution of prehistoric human impacts on the North American landscape.”
            Are you still of the opinion that “every location they have excavated” has lead to the conclusion the Hopewell were merely hunter gatherers with minimal agriculture? And what do you think of the challenge from within the archaeological community of their own presuppositions? Your assumption that we Heartland researchers are ignoring what the archaeologists have discovered is only partially true. Blindly accepting every position the archaeological community provides isn’t good science, as is well attested by the discrepancies between the archaeological community of Mesoamerica and many (formerly) FARMS and BMAF claims. Archaeology, as you know, is more subjective and speculative than most people think.

            7. Development and Farming. Another difficulty in finding archeological evidence for Hopewell cities lies in the fact that the Heartland of the United States is one of the most heavily farmed areas of the earth. Like most people, the Hopewell tended to live where it was the easiest, close to rivers in broad, flat valley’s. Not coincidentally, this type of land is also the most desirable for farming and development. Not surprisingly this has lead to millions of acres of potential residential archaeological sites being plowed under or built over. Typical Hopewell site work find that their occupation horizons are rarely more than 12-18 inches below the current ground surface with the exception of post molds. Thus historic and modern plows can quite easily encroach on and destroy evidences of clustered housing. Development clearly destroys potential sites as well.

            8. Sedimentation and Erosion. Since the Hopewell time frame was 2,000 years ago, many sites have been covered by sedimentation or conversely eliminated by erosion. And since the Hopewell, like most ancient peoples preferred living close to their water supply, river flooding with its resulting sedimentation of the landscape can cover archaeological evidence the same as erosion along those riverbanks and valleys can destroy the evidence of their occupation.

            9. Disagreement Among Archaeologists. And finally, we have found that there are often completely different ideas by archaeologists, especially those from different states. For example in Ohio and Illinois archaeologists deny the use of the bow and arrow among the Hopewell that date there from about 100 BC to AD 400. In contrast, the museums in Tennessee and Missouri openly promote the use of the bow and arrow among their Hopewell populations which predate their arrival in Ohio and Illinois. Obviously, if they had that technology at 300 BC it would seem likely that they would continue its use as they moved northward. They simply disagree among themselves.
            I hope I have provided in this long commentary at least some points to help aid in further study of this subject using actual scientific peer reviewed articles and examples that are directly within Hopewell timelines and support our research regarding Book of Mormon populations. If we are hoping for articles claiming things the archaeological community is currently loathe to accept, then we are expecting to be disappointed, but if we look at the data and the facts, they more often support a position closer to the Book of Mormon account. That is why we keep looking… and learning. John Sorenson had many similar words to say about Mayan archaeologists in Mormon’s Codex.
            It’s not that you’ve been reading the wrong things, and no one can or should be expected to know everything about everything, even scholars, which is why I believe that we, as LDS Book of Mormon researchers, should be willing to help each other with information in a non-combative, helpful attitude rather than attempting ‘gotcha’s’ and attempts to cast dispersions on the others intelligence, motives, knowledge or character. I really appreciate your restraint and respect in our exchanges. It is a refreshing change from past experiences with Mesoamerica theory advocates. I hope to reciprocate.

            I would highly suggest reading the article from the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee under the “Woodland Period” section for further information regarding the Hopewell use of cultural advances such as permanent settlements, reliance on gardening and domesticated plants, use of the bow and arrow, creation of tribal units, corn, high status and chiefdoms.

          • Rod:
            Why Zarahemla? It was in remembrance of an important name in the Book of Mormon. It emphasized that book. It continued the feel of antiquity that the name Nauvoo had. Look at all other instances of “let…be…” in the D&C. They consistently refer to what should be done without reference to the past–unless specifically saying something should be continued.

            I have been through your comments on why we don’t find Book of Mormon type civilizations. The first thing to note is that you seem to agree. They haven’t been found. You suggest that we just need to keep looking, and of course that is always the case with antiquity. The point remains, that it hasn’t been found yet, and what has been found does not match with Book of Mormon requirements. Archaeologists, and other scholars, disagree on some points. No one has disagreed on the basic nature of the societies in the Woodland Period. I read the link for the McClung Museum, and found that it covers the same ground as the other things I have been reading. There is nothing in the Woodland Period that suggests any level of political organization greater than the tribe. The Book of Mormon specifically mentions tribes–but as the devolution of their social structure.

            That there is pollen evidence is unsurprising. Archaeologists has already indicated that there was agriculture–it is required for more sedentary populations and to support the sizes that are seen.

            I want to particularly note your comment: “Blindly accepting every position the archaeological community provides isn’t good science.” I wouldn’t advocate “blindly” accepting anything. That would be reading one thing and assuming it was correct. However, when you have done your homework, and you find that every reputable archaeologist is reporting the same basic outlines of a culture, that is no longer blind.

            Finally, you suggest: “should be willing to help each other with information in a non-combative, helpful attitude rather than attempting ‘gotcha’s’ and attempts to cast dispersions on the others intelligence, motives, knowledge or character.” I agree. I sincerely hope that you don’t think I have fallen into the combative trap–or especially that I have cast aspersions on anyone. Disagreement exists, and there are reasons for the disagreement. I don’t consider understanding and accepting what professional archaeologists tell us about a culture to be a ‘gotcha.’ If we want to use archaeology to support our belief in the Book of Mormon, we are hard-pressed to do so when we simultaneously suggest that the archaeology is wrong.

  4. Theodore, you talk about the area where Mormon fought the Lamanites. And he was living at a time when both Nephites and Lamanites were comprehensively literate, letters to and from Captain Moroni indicate this almost 500 years earlier. So I have a question: The Lamanites fought great battles over fortified cities defeating a bitter enemy, would they record it? I believe they definitely would.

    How many such records dating to the 4th century, where the battles are over fortified cities have been found?

    The only such records I know of are the stela erected at cities in the Maya region, especially in Guatemala describing the overthrow of cities and new dynasties being established in that period. For example the conquest of Tikal, with its ditch and inner wall fortification, is recorded taking place January the 16th 378 according to a stela erected in Tikal by the conquerers. Other cities through the region have similar Stela and inscriptions. The August 2007 National Geographic has an article that talks about it.

    • Yes. Moroni talked about this:

      “Behold, four hundred years have passed away since the coming of our Lord and Savior. And behold, the Lamanites have hunted my people, the Nephites, down from city to city and from place to place, even until they are no more; and great has been their fall; yea, great and marvelous is the destruction of my people, the Nephites. And behold, it is the hand of the Lord which hath done it. And behold also, the Lamanites are at war one with another; and the whole face of this land is one continual round of murder and bloodshed; and no one knoweth the end of the war.” (Mormon 8:6-8)

      • My view is that if the final conflict took place in Mesoamerica this documented invasion into the Peten was part of it. And most likely one of the cities Mormon defended is known today as Tikal.

        In a large conflict people support one of two sides, after it is settled, other conflicts may arise and play out. Tikal’s stela 31 gives Jan 16 378 as the date of conquest, one week after Waka. Unless the Nephites were in an altogether different region, either down in South America or up in North America I do not believe a conflict of this scale is Lamanite against Lamanite, because 378 is right in the period of intense warfare between the Nephites and Lamanites and that must be settled first and foremost.

        If I can post some pictures I’ll share something interesting I’ve noticed.

        • Mark, I’m sympathetic to your position. However, we would like to discuss the specifics that Brother Brandley is proposing. Alternate theories have been proposed, and we can discuss them in a different series. For this particular series, may be all (directed to others as well as Mark) discuss the particulars brought up rather than suggesting alternatives. We can get to those in a different series.

          • Ok. However a point should be noted that I think is more relevant to this northern theory than the discussion you have been mainly having.

            If the hill in New York was the scene of the final Battle, and the cities conquered were up North. There was also a war of conquest being contested over fortified cities in the Mayan region on precisely the same dates, as documented by them.

  5. No contention? It appears that the fire is already raging. The only way for this to be at all constructive is for a spokesperson for each theory to be allowed a limited space to present their ideas which can then be debated.

    • There can be, and I hope we can find, the possibility for discussion that isn’t contentious. Disagreement does not equal contention, and while everyone has the right to find a way to present their ideas, we shouldn’t shy away from having those ideas examined.

      For all involved, please put on your best coat of thick skin. This is a topic that generates passion. Even simple disagreement might sound harsh.

  6. Thank you for these insightful posts. It is certainly an interesting subject and would be nice to know. That said, the Book is True. Where events occurred is not linked to my salvation and thus contention is not necessary in any search for historical evidences. Just enjoy the quest and let us all lift each other as we explore these ideas.

  7. I am disappointed that the Interpreter would limit its discussion of the geography to just North America. Since no one knows the location for the Book of Mormon stories, it is folly to restrict the discussion. If anyone is to find the geographic locations they would do well to read a small book called “Forget Everything You Know About Book of Mormon Geography” found on Kindle. No meaningful discussion may be had without responding to the claims of the book, which, admittedly, I wrote. Either read it or consider yourself uninformed.

    • Peter:

      If you have been reading Interpreter, you would know that it can hardly be faulted for limiting its discussion of Book of Mormon geography to North America. I’m afraid that Brother Brandley would be the first to suggest that it has probably been biased for another location. The idea here is to have a discussion, and being well read on the options is always important. I’ll check out that book. I wouldn’t want to be uninformed.

    • I am pleased to say that I am no longer uninformed. You might consider you assumption that time necessarily means a fixed distance. I routinely give estimates in time, but they take into account the type of roadways involved, not the distances. Similarly, while Panama fits the distance, the problem of actually making the crossing in that amount of time is questionable. Nevertheless, all proposals deserve a fair hearing.

    • Peter,

      The objective of my writing these articles is to explore a connection and to open a discussion between the two major North American theories and their proponents. As the subject is already very broad and complex and difficult to keep focused, perhaps someone else would like to offer a similar forum for offshore theories?

  8. It’s too bad that once again “mainstream” outlets are pushing a Hegelian dialectic onto geographical studies: either this or that. There is a large and growing body of proponents for a South American setting as well. Hubris? Ego? Money? Dunno. We shall see.

    • It is interesting that when Interpreter discusses one geography it is assumed that it ignores all others. I assure you that isn’t the case. It is very difficult to discuss everything simultaneously. If you have a good proponent of a South American setting, have them submit a blog and we can start a discussion on that.

  9. Tradition dies hard in the exploration for Book of Mormon lands based on new developing evidences. If the New York Cumorah could be proven to be the place of last battles of the Jaredite and Nephite destructions, would that prove hat the bulk of Book of Mormon history occurred in eastern North America? Not by a long shot. Too often we tend to scrutinize the trees so intently to solve our problems that we fail to see the forest that must embrace the bigger solution. Regardless of authority beliefs in early church history, that is secondary evidence when compared to primary Book of Mormon history evidence, if we can understand it correctly.
    For instance, assuming Mesoamerica is the land of the Book of Mormon, the traditional belief that Moroni left to survive with the gold plates after his father died about 400 A.D., and eventually ended up 3,000 miles in eastern north America, led by revelation to bury the plates where Joseph Smith would live 1400 years later to be able to
    get the plates near his home. Artists perpetuate this belief. What is the bigger picture? Sometime ending his father’s record in 400 A.D., wishing he could have written more, but the plates were full and he had no gold o make more plates, Moroni bid fairwell. What was he doing for twenty years before he buried the plates. He made more gold plates. He engraved the Jaredite record of Ether. He then got the assignment to engrave the record of the Brother of Jared, twice the volume of his father Mormon’s record, then sealed them and attached them to his record. All of this occurred in Mormon’s records cave. How long it took we cannot tell. After completed, did Moroni then leave Mormon’s hidden cave and trek 3,000 miles to New York through wilderness territory braving the hazards lugging the precious plates, jus so Joseph could get them 1400 years later? Not too believable, Neither does if force a burial hill in eastern North America. Assuming the Mesoamerican setting, the most logical answer for me is that Moroni left his record with Mormon’s records for safe keeping. When the time came for Joseph Smith to obtain the plates, they were transported by Moroni and perhaps other angel assistants by flight and re-deposited in the stone box.
    Just a word about Mormon’s map in Alma 22. I question that the map was taken from Alma’s record. I believe the bulk of evidence will show that it was entirely Mormon’s composition inserted with the Lamanite king’s proclamation to lead us today back to the lands of his record to restore his covenant Lamanite descendants beginning in their ancient homeland in Central America, and who through the centuries had dispersed throughout the Americas by land and sea to North America and South America.
    One overriding fact bears on the question of locating Book of Mormon history lands. There has never been a time in the history of the Church from 1830 to the present day when Central America has be excluded from Book of Mormon history consideration. Panama as the narrow neck of land put Central America ruins in the land northward considered to be Jaredite lands history. When Maya ruins shifted thinking in 1842 and 43 to Central America as the land southward, nothing changed with regard to Lamanites being in eastern North America as taught in the 1830’s. It is unfortunate that research focus on Mesoamerica as the lands of the Book of Mormon has been misunderstood as being exclusionary. The land northward was unbound territory reserved where the Nephites fortified on the narrow neck of land would be able to flee in times of stress “according to their desires” (Alma 22:34). During the last wars, Nephites escaped into the land southward, and we can assume into the land northward as well to avoid the slaughter, a condition we see so often in modern conflicts.

    • Garth, you wrote:

      “What was he doing for twenty years before he buried the plates. He made more gold plates. He engraved the Jaredite record of Ether. He then got the assignment to engrave the record of the Brother of Jared, twice the volume of his father Mormon’s record, then sealed them and attached them to his record. All of this occurred in Mormon’s records cave.”

      This is an excellent point. He had to have returned to the cave to finish his work before he buried the plates.

      • Theodore,
        Thank you for your acknowledgment of Moroni’s lost history at Mormon’s Cumorah records cave. What about my point that Central America has always been on the radar for Book of Mormon history lands throughout Church history from 1830 to the present?
        I have no quarrel with Nephite and Lamanite migrations and trade influences by land and sea being in eastern North America, and South America, before and after the Nephite destruction at Cumorah. There is abundant archaeological evidence accumulating for such influence.
        I applaud all the good research that has come out of the “heart land” theory focus. My suggestion is that it will not have the positive influence it deserves by forcing the entire Book of Mormon history into either eastern North America or Mesoamerica. Instead of the debate, I would recommend both sides of the istle coming together to re-examine all of the evidences–textual, archaeological, historical, etc. to try and come to a consensus just on location without trying to eat the whole elephant. This outcome could affect all proposed Book of Mormon geographies. I call this “greater Book of Mormon lands’ that goes beyond the geographic limitations of Mormon’s abridgment within a territory outlined in Alma 22:27-34. It seems to me your proposal and responses thus far are moving in that direction. What greater service could we render to the advancement of truth with he Book of Mormon in this venture?

        • Wonderful, wise and welcome words. They make me want to shout, “Hallelujah!” It is my hope and prayer that this discussion series can help commence a new era of cooperation in Book of Mormon archaeological and geographical research. Appreciation to Brant Gardner and “Interpreter” for providing and moderating this forum.

          As for Central and Mesoamerica, I believe, and intend to demonstrate the probability over the next three installments, that the land of Nephi includes all of the territory from the Rio Grande south to Costa Rica, with the original city of Nephi in Central Guatemala.

          • Theodore,
            I appreciate again your enthusiastic general agreement with my last posted observations (May 13, 11:40). What are you thinking? Not another Book of Mormon map I hope. My reference to “greater Book of Mormon lands” beyond the limited territory in Mormon’s map in Alma 22 within Mesoamerica needs some clarification, since it has sparked your curious speculation for a greater land of Nephi south of the Rio Grand. This really threw me for a loop at first. Then after pondering a bit something clicked. Where did Joseph locate Manti? In the south east of the Mississippi that naturally implies the river Sidon association as has been argued. But named by migrants from their homeland in Central America where Manti was located at the southern headwaters of the Sidon (Alma 22:27). That being the case your speculation of a conceptual greater land Nephi south of the Rio Grande seems logical from an eastern North America migrant linkage to their southern mother land perspective.
            Are we thinking on the same wave length?

          • Garth,

            My enthusiasm was particularly for your statement:

            “Instead of the debate, I would recommend both sides of the istle coming together to re-examine all of the evidences–textual, archaeological, historical, etc. to try and come to a consensus just on location without trying to eat the whole elephant. This outcome could affect all proposed Book of Mormon geographies…It seems to me your proposal and responses thus far are moving in that direction.”

            This is exactly what I have been hoping to do and you are the first one I know of to lend support to this effort. You wrote:

            “That being the case your speculation of a conceptual greater land Nephi south of the Rio Grande seems logical from an eastern North America migrant linkage to their southern mother land perspective. Are we thinking on the same wave length?”

            I believe that we are on thinking on the same wavelength. Stay tuned for more ideas and explanations.

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