THE ISTMUS OF PANAMA

 

The Isthmus of Panama is the natural choice for the "narrow neck of land" described in the Book of Mormon.  When one looks at a map of the western hemisphere, it seems obvious that this should be the neck spoken of.  However there are a number of problems with this site as outlined below.

 

1.  First it requires South America to be the Land Southward, or the Land of Zarahemla, and North America to be the Land Northward.  This seems correct at first glance, however, it is much too large.  The Nephite populations were not that great, the distances traveled could not have covered that much territory, and South America could not be considered an "island" as described in the book (Alma 22:32 and 2 Ne. 10:20-21).  Joseph Smith expressed the opinion in The Times and Seasons that the land of Zarahema would be located in Guatemala (which at that time included Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica).  If his opinion is correct, it would eliminate Panama as a candidate for the "narrow neck".

 

 

2.  Second, it is oriented in the wrong direction.  When looking at a large scale map of Panama, it is obvious that the country lies in an east-west direction.  The isthmus is not "northward" as required by the text (Alma 22:32). In fact, in order to go to the land "northward" (which is Costa Rica) you actually have to travel southward for some distance before curving northward again. An interesting side note: because of this southward curve, this area of Panama is the only location in North America where one can watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean.

 

3.  Third, it is not bordered by an east and a west sea, but by a north and a south sea (Alma 22:32).

 

4.  Fourth, it is too wide.  Although it is only 50 miles wide, it cannot be crossed in a day and a half as required by the Book of Mormon.  The terrain is very rough and mountainous and travel would be difficult without modern roads.  When Balboa crossed the isthmus (the first European to do so) the Indians told him it would take 6 days to cross (which is the time it took them), but when he actually crossed it, it took him 27 days.  During the California gold rush, many argonauts traveled by ship to Panama, crossed the isthmus on foot, and then traveled by ship to California.  This overland crossing required from four to six days of arduous travel, and remember they were in a hurry to get to California.  (Read a first hand account --- or see the excerpt below)

 

5.  Fifth, the Isthmus of Panama would not be a favorable highway between the land southward and the land northward.  As mentioned, the country is very rough and mountainous, cut by rivers and gorges,  covered with jungle, and difficult to travel.  According to the narrative in the Book of Mormon, the "narrow neck" was easy to travel, easy to fortify and open treeless land.  The eastern area of Panama (the Darien jungle) is still wilderness, and is the only section of the Panamerican Highway that has not been completed.

 

6.  Sixth, there is no feature comparable with the place where the "sea divides the land" as described in the text (Ether 10:20).

 

7.  Seventh, there is not an identifiable feature similar to the "narrow pass" described in the text (Alma 50:34, 52:9).

 

An excerpt from the book Mountains and Molehills, or Recollections of a Burnt Journal, by Frank Marryat. Mr. Marryat crossed the isthmus in 1853. It should be noted that by this time there was a fairly good trail over the isthmus as thousands of gold seekers had already crossed. From what I understand from his journal, it took him two days on the river (which was quicker than foot travel) and two days walking from Gorgona to Panama City, or four days total.  This does not sound like something that could be done in one days travel.

 

[Beginning the trip south across the isthmus from Chagres by going up the Chagres River in hired canoes] As I had with me my man Barnes and three large blood-hounds, I hired a boat of extra size capable of containing us all, together with the baggage, this being preferable to making a swifter passage with two smaller canoes and running the risk of separation. At about three we started, the "Cherokees" [Indians?] in boats containing from ten to a dozen each. All was noise and excitement, - cries for lost baggage, adieus, cheers, a parting strain on a cornet-piston, a round dozen at least of different tongues, each in its owner's own peculiar fashion murdering Spanish, a few discharges from rifles and revolvers, rendered the scene ludicrous, and had the good effect of sending us on the first step of a toilsome journey in a good humour. So up the river we went, and as Chagres disappeared behind us, we rejoiced in a purer air. There is an absence of variety in the scenery of the Chagres river, as throughout its whole length the banks are lined to the water's edge with vegetation. But the rich bright green at all times charms the beholder, and the eye does not become wearied with the thick masses of luxuriant foliage, for they are ever blended in grace and harmony, now towering in the air in bold relief against the sky, now drooping in graceful festoons from the bank, kissing their own reflections in the stream beneath....................

 

So we ascend the river; a-head, astern, on every side are canoes; here, surmounting a pyramid of luggage, is a party of western men in red shirts and jack boots, questioning everybody with the curiosity peculiar to their race. ............

 

At night, having reached a small village on the river, out jumped the lady, who scrambled up the bank followed by the boatmen, and I scrambled after them as fast as I could, to ascertain the meaning of this sudden desertion;..................

 

Another day on the river, and another night spent at a hut, and on the third morning we arrived at Gorgona, from whence we had to take mules to Panama.

 

"The bargaining for mules at Gorgona was in every respect similar to the canoe transaction at Chagres; and after passing a day in the sun, and accomplishing in the evening what might, but for the vacillation of the natives, have been done at once, we started for Panama in company with the baggage, Barnes walking from choice with the dogs. With our mules in a string we plunged at once into a narrow rocky path in the forest, where palm trees and creepers shut the light out overhead; - splashing through gurgling muddy streams, that concealed loose and treacherous stones-stumbling over fallen trees that lay across our road - burying ourselves to the mules' girths in filthy swamps, where on either side dead and putrid mules were lying - amidst lightning, thunder, and incessant rain, we went at a foot pace on the road to Panama. The thunder-storm changed the twilight of our covered path to darkness, and one of my mules missing his footing on the red greasy clay, falls down under his heavy load. When he gets up he has to be unpacked amidst the curses of the muleteer, and packed again, and thus losing half an hour in the pelting storm, file after file passes us, until, ready once more to start, we find ourselves the last upon the road...................."At nightfall I reached the "Washington Hotel," a log hut perched on the top of a partially cleared hill an immense amount of fluttering calico proclaimed that meals could be procured, but a glance at the interior was sufficient to destroy all appetite. Round it, and stretching for yards, there were mules, drivers, and passengers, clustered and clamorous as bees without a hive. To my surprise the crowd consisted for the most part of homeward bound Californians - emigrants from the land of promise, who had two days before arrived at Panama in a steamer. Some were returning rich in gold dust and scales, but the greater part were far poorer than when first they started to realise their golden dreams.....................

 

[He is unable to get lodging and so] "Wet with the thunderstorm, I took up my station on a dead tree near the door, and as night closed ill and the moon rose, awaited the arrival of my man and dogs with impatience. Hours passed, and I felt convinced at last that fatigue had compelled Barnes to pass the night at a rancheria I had seen a few miles back............

 

During the night file upon file of mules arrived from Panama. These were unloaded and turned adrift to seek their supper where they could; and travellers, muleteers, and luggage were spread in every direction round a large fire that had been lit in the early part of the evening. Deserting my inhospitable tree, I found myself comfortable enough among a heap of pack saddles, buried in which I slept till morning. With the first streak of day everything was moving, luggage was replaced on kicking mules;................... In less than an hour I found myself alone at the half-way house; the crowd had dispersed on either road, but as yet my baggage bad not arrived. When it did come up at last we were all very hungry, but as there was nothing left eatable at the "Washington," we started for Panama without breaking our fast.

 

"Through a tortuous path, which had been burrowed through the forest, we stumbled on at the rate of a mile and a half an hour; at times the space between the rocks on either side is too narrow to allow the mules to pass; in these instances all our efforts are directed to the mule that is jammed; heaven knows how we get her clear - several shouts, some kicking, a plunge or two, a crash, and, the mule being free, proceeds on her path, whilst you stop to pick up the lid of your trunk, which has been ground off against the rock, as also the few trifles that tumble out from time to time in consequence...........................

 

At last the country becomes more open, huts appear occasionally, and the worst part of the journey is well over................

 

"The country became more open as we approached Panama, and when the town appeared in the distance, we bad no shelter from the sun, and the dog, panting and footsore, dragged on very slowly. Here I found a man by the roadside attacked with fever, shivering with ague, and helpless. He was going to Gorgona, but as he had no mule, he wished to return to Panama. I hoisted him on to mine, and we proceeded; he was very ill, wandered in his speech, and shook like a leaf; and before we got into Panama, he died from exhaustion. As I did not know what to do with him, I planted him by the road-side, and on my arrival at the town, I informed the authorities, and I presume they buried him. Weary and sunburnt, we arrived at the gates of the town, outside of which we found a large American encampment, in the midst of which we pitched our tent. Every bed in the town bad long before been pre-engaged, and these cribs, after the fashion of the "Washington," were packed from fifty to a hundred in a room. We slept comfortably that night under one of Edgington's tents, the baggage inside, and the dogs picquetted round us.