A NEW MODEL FOR
BOOK OF MORMON GEOGRAPHY
By James Lee Warr
One example of distance and travel time is given in the cronicles of Columbus' fourth voyage (2). During his stay on the coast of western Panama he contacted some of the local natives who told him that it was a nine day journey from the Laguna de Chiriqui in present day Panama, where he was anchored, across the Cordillera to the Pacific--a distance of 65 miles. This would average a little over 7 miles per day. This is certainly comparable to the 20 day journey from Volcan to San Jose which I have propose as the route from the land of Nephi to the land of Zarahemla.
An even better example is that of Balboa, who was the first European to cross the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean. He set out from Antigua on the Caribbean Coast on Sept. 1, 1513 with 190 men and 1000 Indians. The Indians had told him it would take 6 days to cross to the south sea (this would have averaged 7.5 miles a day). They followed established Indian trails, but still encountered many difficulties. Finally on Sept. 28 they reached the shores of the Pacific--a total of 27 days travel to cover a distance of 45 miles, or less than 2 miles per day. (Could this possibly be the "narrow neck" which can be crossed in 1 to 1 1/2 days?)
Consider a third example, this description of travel across the mountains from San Isidro to San Jose (about a 40 mile journey) in the days before the Pan American Highway.
"One hundred years ago San Isidro was nothing more than a settlement populated by a hardy breed of pioneers. They survived on what they raised and collected locally--rice, tropical fruits and vegetables, pigs, dairy cattle, corn, coffee, sugar cane--and were basically self-sufficient. But for certain goods like clothing, tools and household utensils--manufactured items--they relied on trade with San José.
In those days there was no Inter-American highway. In fact, there was no road of any kind. (The highway came into being as a cart trail in the 1920s.) Valiant men loaded up their backs with 100- and 150-pound sacks of wild blackberries, dried corn and rice, and drove herds of pigs over the mountains to San José on foot. These men, shoeless and wearing little more than one thin shirt and a pair of pants, trudged through the mountains for a month [a month to go 40 miles!] to get their goods to market. There they traded for the much needed tools and utensils and the desired "finer" things available in the big city. After completing their trades they would make the month-long journey back to San Isidro loaded down again, this time with the clothes and refined goods that would lend a little civilization to their harsh existence."
"The route to San José took them over some of the highest mountains in Costa Rica. It was a treacherous and sometimes frightening way they walked. The most feared spot was one they named Cerro de la Muerte. Death Hill was not named, as one might imagine, for a spot where many men had fallen to their deaths. The area became infamous for the number of brave souls who lost their lives to the bitter cold as they negotiated this 11,500-foot-high section of the trail (3)."
Apparently travel in the tropics is much different than what we experience on the flat and open plains of the United States, or other such areas. When we think in terms of marathon runners, and others who can travel 50 to 100 miles per day, and try and extrapolate this to Book of Mormon geography we are only deceiving ourselves. It wasn't done by the average person in Mormon's day, or in the day of the Spaniard, and it isn't done in our day.
A Comparison of Relative Distances.
A comparison of internal distances from the Book of Mormon (as estimated by John Clark**) will now be made with the actual geography of the previous proposals. Clark has coined the term USD (Unit of Standard Distance), where one unit is based upon one day's normal travel over flat land. I am assuming that an average equivalent for one USD would be 15 miles (Clark did not give a milage equivalent for the USD and would probably equate it to a greater distance. I take full responsibility for making this specific assumption). This is of course only an approximation, but will give us a ball park range. For example if a USD is 4, the approximate milage equivalent would be 4 X 15 = 60. As these are only estimates, if locations come within plus or minus 50%, it will be considered a good match. Those proposed locations which meet the plus or minus 50% criteria are marked in red. As can be seen, 8 of the 11 meet this criteria, so the match is fairly strong. Although I have not identified the City of Zarahemla, it is felt that it is near Turrialba, Costa Rica. Therefore Turrialba will be used in comparing distances for this study. Similarly Gideon will be assumed to be near modern Suiza, Bountiful near modern Puerto Viejo, and Moroni near modern Limon. The Bountiful--Desolation border would have been near the present day Costa Rican--Nicaraguan border extending from Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific, and the city Desolation would have been just north of this border, near modern Penas Blancas, Nicaragua. A distinction needs to be made between a particular city, a land, and in some cases the overall land. For example we have the City of Zarahemla, the Land of Zarahemla (a much larger area), and the Greater Land of Zarahemla (which included all of the Nephite lands south of the narrow neck). It should also be noted that references to distance in the Book of Mormon were in most cases made by Mormon (about 350 AD), who was a military man, and thought in military terms. I am assuming that when he speaks of distances, he is speaking in terms of military movements involving infantry, not individual travel records of exceptional athletes or marathon runners, which would have little value in military planning. (Revised Nov. 13, 2003)
*Clark estimates that the narrow neck was 2-3 USD across which would make it 30-45 miles wide (using my assumption of 1 USD=15 miles). I disagree with his reasoning, and feel that the literal estimate should be 1 to 1.5 USD (or 15 to 23 miles) which is what is given in the text (Alma 22: 32, Hel. 4:7).
**Clark, John. A Key for Evaluating Nephite Geographies, in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon. FARMS. Vol. 1. 1989