Heartland as Hinterland: The Mesoamerican Core and North American Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography

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Abstract: The best available evidence for the Book of Mormon continues to support a limited Mesoamerican model. However, Alma 63 indicates that there was a massive northward migration in the mid-first century bc. I argue that these north-bound immigrants spread out over the centuries and established settlements that were geographically distant from the core Nephite area, far beyond the scope of the text of the Book of Mormon. I introduce the Hinterland Hypothesis and argue that it can harmonize the Mesoamerican evidence for the Book of Mormon with Joseph Smith’s statements concerning Nephite and Lamanite material culture in North America. Archaeological and anthropological evidence is used to demonstrate that migrations and cultural influence did in fact spread northward from Mesoamerica into North America in pre-Columbian times.

I have been trying to avoid the topic of Book of Mormon geography for several years now, for it is a messy and oftentimes ugly endeavor. The Church, of course, has no official position on where the Book of Mormon took place. Nevertheless, there have been heated debates concerning its geography for the better part of the last century. Currently, the bitterest divide is between those who advocate for a Mesoamerican setting and those who believe that the “Heartland” of the United States is the true location. Despite what my somewhat inflammatory title may suggest, this paper is actually an attempt to synthesize [Page 112]some aspects of these two models and build a bridge between the two camps insofar as possible.

My basic thesis is this: The core locations and events detailed in the text of the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica, but many Nephites and Lamanites migrated and established settlements far northward of the core area and are thus simply outside the scope of the text. I am certainly not the first to make this argument or to note the significance of this northward migration; but from countless conversations I have had about Book of Mormon geography over the past few years, I have found that many people are unfamiliar with the ideas. I am admittedly doing little more than repackaging previous research and giving it a catchy name — which brings me to the Hinterland Hypothesis.1

The term hinterland is used in reference to regions that are remote from urban areas. They are at the outer fringes or periphery of a core urban population. Large-scale migrations from the core out to the periphery and beyond are not uncommon due to population pressures or other causes. In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, for example, city-states often organized migrations to establish military garrisons or trading posts at the periphery of their domains.2 As Latter-day Saints, we, of all people, should understand the function of migrations, as our history and identity are largely defined by movements from Kirtland to Missouri to Nauvoo and the exodus west. As soon as the Saints were established in the Salt Lake Valley, colonies began springing up in the hinterlands: southern Utah, [Page 113]Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, California, as far north as Canada, and even as far south as Chihuahua, Mexico.3

In the Book of Mormon, massive migrations were due to persistent Lamanite encroachment from the south, which caused Nephite populations to be perpetually driven northward, beginning with Mosiah1’s flight from the city of Nephi to Zarahemla (Omni 1:12–15) and culminating centuries later at the Hill Cumorah (and we will return to the Cumorah question a little later).

One of the first to highlight the significance of the northward migration in the Book of Mormon was John E. Page, who had been one of the Twelve Apostles under Joseph Smith.4 In 1848 he noted, “All who are familiar with the Book of Mormon are probably aware of the fact that the whole account of the history of the fore fathers of the American Indians, called the Nephites, Lamanites and Zoramites, is confined to Central America entirely until the 394th page.”5

John Page is here referring to northward migrations discussed in Alma 63 that occurred in the 37th and 38th years of the reign of the judges, around 55 bc. Alma 63:4 informs us that “five thousand and four hundred men, with their wives and their children, departed out of the land of Zarahemla into the land which was northward.” That’s 5,400 men, plus their wives, plus their children. Even if each couple had only one to two children, the migration would have been composed of between 16,000 to 22,000 individuals.

That same year, Hagoth built and launched two ships from the west sea, “and they took their course northward” [Page 114](Alma 63:5–6). Hagoth was not on either of the first two ships, incidentally, and the following year he built more ships, at which point “the first ship did also return, and many more people did enter into it; and they also took much provisions, and set out again to the land northward” (Alma 63:7).6 That third ship was “never heard of more,” and yet another ship that set sail that same year suffered the same fate. We also read that in the 38th year “there were many people who went forth into the land northward” in addition to the previously mentioned groups (Alma 63:8–9). The point is that Alma 63 describes an era of northward movement and migration sometime in the mid–first century bc, away from the Nephite core area and thus outside the scope of Nephite history. My argument is that these Nephite migrants continued to expand northward throughout the centuries — often due to Lamanite pressure from the south. During this expansion, both Nephites and Lamanites established settlements, or colonies, or outposts, or whatever you want to call them. I believe that every statement made by Joseph Smith or his contemporaries concerning Nephites or Lamanites in North America can be accommodated by the Hinterland Hypothesis.

To be clear, I am not arguing for a return to a “hemispheric” model of Book of Mormon geography. Hemispheric models take specific, named cities in the Book of Mormon and disperse them far and wide across the whole of North and South America. I am very much a proponent of a more limited geography, and I believe that the best available evidence places the core narrative of the Book of Mormon squarely in Mesoamerica. Now, as to which specific Mesoamerican geography is correct — the Grijalva model versus the Usumacinta model — I frankly don’t care. The preponderance of evidence always has and always will favor a Mesoamerican setting, to the point where for me to even talk about it here feels like beating a dead horse (or a dead tapir, as it were). What I am suggesting is that there were likely [Page 115]countless Nephite and Lamanite settlements spread across the continent, including within the so-called “Heartland,” whose history is not contained in the Book of Mormon; they are simply external to the text. It does not make them any less Nephite or Lamanite; it just means that their history is not recorded in that book.

Prophets from Jacob to Moroni lamented that they could not include even a hundredth part of their proceedings, meaning that we have less than one percent of Nephite history to work with.7 Nephite authors, by their own admission, are able to give only abbreviated accounts of events in their core area or, at best, from their fairly limited sphere of interaction. As to those who went northward in the mid–first century bc, they were part of the 99% of the proceedings that did not make the cut — out of sight and out of mind.

I believe that we do ourselves a disservice with the “either/or” mentality when it comes to issues of geography in the Book of Mormon. And I am afraid that we often play the dangerous game of “General Authority chess”: “Elder so-and-so said this!” “Oh yeah? Well, President such-and-such said that!” And so we go, pitting the words of one early Saint against another, chasing each other around the chess board trying to check each other but never really able to end the game.

To the Saints of Joseph’s day, any and all evidence from anywhere on the continent was deemed proof of the Book of Mormon. Within a single editorial paragraph from the 15 July 1842 issue of the Times and Seasons, the editor rejoices in both the North American evidence gleaned from Josiah Priest’s American Antiquities and the Mesoamerican evidence put forth by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. After quoting extensively from Josiah Priest, the editorial reads:

If men, in their researches into the history of this country, in noticing the mounds, fortifications, statues, architecture, implements of war, of [Page 116]husbandry, and ornaments of silver, brass, &c. — were to examine the Book of Mormon, their conjectures would be removed, and their opinions altered; uncertainty and doubt would be changed into certainty and facts; and they would find that those things that they are anxiously prying into were matters of history, unfolded in that book. They would find their conjectures were more than realized — that a great and a mighty people had inhabited this continent — that the arts sciences and religion, had prevailed to a very great extent, and that there was as great and mighty cities on this continent as on the continent of Asia. Babylon, Ninevah, nor any of the ruins of the Levant could boast of more perfect sculpture, better architectural designs, and more imperishable ruins, than what are found on this continent. Stephens and Catherwood’s researches in Central America abundantly testify of this thing. The stupendous ruins, the elegant sculpture, and the magnificence of the ruins of Guatamala [sic], and other cities, corroborate this statement, and show that a great and mighty people — men of great minds, clear intellect, bright genius, and comprehensive designs inhabited this continent. Their ruins speak of their greatness; the Book of Mormen [sic] unfolds their history. — ED [emphasis added]

This editorial makes it clear that the early Saints embraced all evidence for the Book of Mormon, regardless of whether it came from across the continent. So how can we suggest that the core area of the Book of Mormon is in Mesoamerica and relegate North America to the periphery? Let us take a look at Joseph Smith’s statements that are typically used by proponents of the Heartland Theory and see if they can be accommodated by the Hinterland Hypothesis.

Let us start with Zelph. The version of the Zelph story used by proponents of the Heartland Theory relies on the History of the Church[Page 117] as its source, which is problematic because that work is merely a composite created by piecing together a number of different accounts.8 There are six primary source accounts written by men who were present, none of them Joseph himself. For those unfamiliar with the story, it goes something like this: While on the Zion’s Camp march in June of 1834, some men dug into a large mound and found a skeleton a foot or two below the surface. Either Joseph was there when it happened or they brought him there later — perhaps even the next day — and he proclaimed that the skeleton was that of a righteous Lamanite warrior named Zelph who served under the command of a chief or a king named Onandagus, who was known from the eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains. Zelph had been killed in battle, as evidenced by the arrowhead found lodged in his ribcage; but who exactly battled against whom is unclear. It may have been Nephite versus Lamanite, or it may have been Lamanite versus Lamanite; the accounts are conflicting on this detail, as well as on many others. One important detail that the History of the Church gets wrong is the statement that Onandagus was known from the Hill Cumorah to the Rocky Mountains. None of the primary sources indicates that Joseph made that claim.9

Although Joseph himself never mentions Zelph in any of his journals or letters, he did write (or, more precisely, dictate) a letter to Emma the next day. It was actually penned by James Mulholland and then signed by Joseph.10 In the letter, he mentions the satisfaction he felt while “wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once [Page 118]beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as proof of its divine authenticity.”11 To proponents of the Heartland Theory, this is an open-and-shut case. Joseph makes it plain that this was Nephite territory. Mesoamerican proponents, on the other hand, have suggested that perhaps Joseph was simply conjecturing or sharing his opinion rather than declaring that this information was received by revelation.

I believe that the Hinterland Hypothesis can reconcile a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon while accepting that Joseph’s statements were revelatory. How so? The individuals and geographic features that are named in these accounts are nowhere to be found in the text of the Book of Mormon. They are external to its history. There is no Zelph and no Onandagus named in the Book of Mormon. As the apostle John A. Widtsoe suggested, “Zelph probably dated from a later time when Nephites and Lamanites had been somewhat dispersed and had wandered over the country.”12

Likewise, the “plains of the Nephites” are never mentioned in the Book of Mormon. To be sure, there are “plains” mentioned between the cities Bountiful and Mulek in Alma 52:20, and we read of the “plains of Nephihah” in Alma 62:18, but the general term “plains of the Nephites” is absent from the Book of Mormon. Because there are multiple plains attested to in the text, the general phrase “plains of the Nephites” is too vague to be of any use in pinpointing it geographically. Even among the Jaredites, we read of the “plains of Heshlon” (Ether 13:28) and the “plains of Agosh” (Ether 14:15); but significantly, never just “the plains of the Jaredites.” Mentions of plains in the text of the Book of Mormon are always attached to a specific city. Those in Joseph’s letter to Emma are not.
[Page 119]

The Altar at Adam-ondi-Ahman

A few years after the Zelph incident, Joseph led a number of expeditions up to Daviess County, Missouri, to survey potential settlement locations for the Saints.13 On 19 May 1838, George W. Robinson, who was serving as general church recorder and clerk for the First Presidency at the time, recorded in the Scriptory Book:

The next morning we struck our tents, and marched crossed Grand river at the mouth of Honey Creek at a place called Nelsons ferry. … We next kept up the river mostly in the timber for ten miles, untill we came to Col. Lyman Wight’s who lives at the foot of Tower Hill, a name appropriated by Prest smith, in consequence of the remains of an old Nephitish Alter an Tower, where we camped for the sabath.14

The History of the Church account mistakenly refers to this as a “Nephite” altar. The original source material quoted here clarifies that Joseph Smith referred to it not as a “Nephite” altar but rather a “Nephitish” altar. What is the difference? Here we can only speculate. Although we find the term “Lamanitish” twice in the Book of Mormon (both times in reference to royal servants among the Lamanites), 15 the term “Nephitish” never appears. In fact, as far as I know, that altar is the only thing ever to have been described as being “Nephitish.” As for Joseph’s description of the altar, some have suggested that the Prophet was merely speculating rather than claiming inspiration as to its origin, relying on Joseph’s own statement that “a prophet [Page 120]was only a prophet when he was acting as such.”16 But what if he was “acting as such” in this instance? What if it was revelation? Does that require that Tower Hill in Missouri was the location of a known Book of Mormon city? No, not at all. Joseph does not link the altar to any named Nephite city;17 he merely generalized it as Nephitish. According to my hypothesis, this Nephitish altar would have been built by the migrant Nephites of Alma 63 — or, more likely, by their descendants many generations later. Joseph’s statement, then, can be considered revelatory without precluding a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon or requiring a North American one.


Let us turn our attention now to the Cumorah question. If any specific Book of Mormon site is known for sure, it must be the Hill Cumorah, right? We know that Moroni buried the plates in Cumorah anciently and that Joseph Smith dug them up there. Or do we? To be clear, Moroni never says that he buried the plates in the Hill Cumorah, and there are no firsthand accounts indicating that Joseph Smith ever referred to the hill in New York by the name Cumorah. In fact, a careful reading of Mormon 6:6 makes it clear that all of the Nephite records were buried in Cumorah except the abridgment that would become the Book of Mormon. Mormon explains:

And it came to pass that when we had gathered in all our people in one to the land of Cumorah, behold I, Mormon, began to be old; and knowing it to be the last struggle of my people, and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy [Page 121]them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni.

A few years earlier, when the Nephites were being pushed northward toward Cumorah in their never-ending battles with the Lamanites, Mormon informs us, “And now I, Mormon, seeing that the Lamanites were about to overthrow the land, therefore I did go to the hill Shim, and did take up all the records which Ammaron had hid up unto the Lord” (Mormon 4:23). This was actually contrary to Ammaron’s instructions. When Mormon was just a 10-year-old lad, Ammaron sat him down and said,

When ye are about twenty and four years old I would that ye should remember the things that ye have observed concerning this people; and when ye are of that age go to the land Antum, unto a hill which shall be called Shim; and there have I deposited unto the Lord all the sacred engravings concerning this people. And behold, ye shall take the plates of Nephi unto yourself, and the remainder shall ye leave in the place where they are; and ye shall engrave on the plates of Nephi all the things that ye have observed concerning this people. (Mormon 1:3–4)

Why did Mormon decide to take all of the records instead of just the plates of Nephi, as he was instructed? It is because the land was being overrun by Lamanites and, with the plates being deposited in the Hill Shim, he feared that they would fall into Lamanite hands and be destroyed.

In Mormon 8, Moroni laments the destruction of his people at Cumorah and speaks only vaguely of his plan to “hide up the records in the earth” (v. 4), a comment he made more than twenty years before he actually buried them. In Moroni 1, written many years later, he states, “I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life” (v. 3). In other words, [Page 122]he is long gone from Cumorah. He also makes the interesting comment that the Lamanites continue to put to death any Nephite that will not deny the Christ, making it clear that not all Nephites had been destroyed at the time of the “final” battle. As Hugh Nibley explains, “to destroy is to wreck the structure, not to annihilate the parts.”18 By analogy, the Jews have been “destroyed from generation to generation” (2 Nephi 25:9), which would make little sense if destroy meant to utterly annihilate.

So where were these remnant Nephites that the Lamanites were putting to death? They must have been north of Cumorah, for we read in Mormon 8:2 that “after the great and tremendous battle at Cumorah, behold, the Nephites who had escaped into the country southward were hunted by the Lamanites, until they were all destroyed” (emphasis added). By implication, the only Nephites that were left were those in the northward colonies in the hinterlands that had been established by migrants several centuries prior.

The New Jerusalem/“This Land”

The Lord revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith that the New Jerusalem will be built in Jackson County, Missouri (D&C 84:1–4), and the Book of Mormon explicitly states that it shall be built upon “this land” (3 Nephi 20:22; Ether 13:4–6). Proponents of the Heartland Theory have taken this to mean that the core area of the Book of Mormon must have been located in North America. However, Matthew Roper has compiled literally dozens of statements from Joseph Smith and his contemporaries that make it abundantly clear that the expressions “this land,” “this country,” and “this continent” are used to refer to the entire western hemisphere.19 The [Page 123]quotation previously discussed from the 15 July 1842 issue of the Times and Seasons referred to both “this county” and “this continent” while touting both the North American and Mesoamerican evidence. But what about the “prophecies and promises” concerning the mighty Gentile nation? Surely that can only mean the United States of America? Statements by contemporaries of Joseph Smith make it clear that they believed that the whole of the Americas was the land of promise. For example, Brigham Young taught in August of 1852, “The land of Joseph is the land of Zion; and it takes North and South America to make the land of Joseph.”20 George J. Adams, an ardent believer in the Book of Mormon, wrote in 1844,

We come now to inquire where has the seed of Joseph gone to? If they had taken up their residence in any part of what is technically called the old world would not history have informed us of the fact? There is no place except North and South America to which they could have gone, if the old world furnishes no trace of them. The Continent of America is the only place where the prophecies concerning Joseph and his seed could be fulfilled.21

In yet another example, we have a written debate between a pair of elders named Wharton and Appleby and a critic named Amos Wickersham in 1843. Elder Appleby declares, “[Wickersham] says ‘there were ruins known to exist in Central America,[’] (the lands he says, I said belonged to Ephraim, &c. but I contend that it is North and South America both that includes the promised land to the branches of Joseph).”22

The early Saints understood that the whole continent of North and South America, not just the United States, was [Page 124]the promised land. The assertion that the United States alone is the land of promise is actually a fairly modern construct. I am afraid that we often suffer from presentism, which is the uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes and especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts. The United States of our day is not the same as it was in Joseph Smith’s day. When the Book of Mormon came forth in 1830, there were only 24 states. Does that mean that the 26 states added since then are outside the scope of the prophecies and promises? Notably, when the Saints headed west toward the valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1846, it and all the territory south of Oregon and west of the Continental Divide to the Pacific coast was still part of Mexico; by the time they arrived in 1847, the Mexican War had made it all part of the United States. However, the Territory of Utah did not become a state until 1896; were the Saints cut off from the prophecies and promises for nearly 50 years? And who is to say that the United States will not take over the rest of Mexico, or even Canada at some point, in our quest to eradicate the twin relics of barbarism — soccer and ice hockey — that lure our children away from the divinely inspired sports of basketball and football? All joking aside, borders change over time, but God’s promises do not. The prophecies and promises given in the Book of Mormon to those who inhabit the promised land are extended to all who repent and come unto him, regardless of where they live.

Evidence for Migration? How Righteous Were the Migrants?

One perhaps unanswerable question, but one that must be considered, is in regard to the faithfulness of the migrants who left in Alma 63. The Lamanite wars had only recently ended, and “because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened” (Alma 62:41). These people had grown tired of endless conflict with the Lamanites, and they were likely seeking to put some distance between themselves and the enemy — the farther the better. Their timing was good; the window of peace was short-[Page 125]lived, a few years at best. Not long after they left, some Nephite dissenters joined with the Lamanites and another large battle ensued in Nephite territory (Alma 63:14–15).

Why does the question of their faithfulness matter? When looking for evidence of Nephite colonies, we need to ask ourselves if they had been practicing normative Nephite religion or if they had been fully acculturated into native beliefs and practices.23 Alma 63 makes no mention of them taking records or being led by righteous individuals. I think it plausible, if not likely, that their Mesoamerican identity would have been more dominant than their Nephite affiliation. As an aside, my personal view is that the Nephites lived among the larger population but were not one and the same with it, just as Latter-day Saints across the world are completely entrenched within their cultures yet maintain their subcultural identity as members of the Church. By analogy, suppose we were to take a bunch of inactive Mormons — those who were raised in the Church but have no interest in actually practicing it — and drop them in the middle of China. Would they be perceived as an American colony or a Mormon colony? If they brought no scriptures or Church literature with them and were completely cut off from the main body of the Saints, any remnant of Mormon identity would likely be completely lost within a generation or two. So it may have been with these northward-settling Nephites. On the other hand, they may have ended up like those in the Mormon colonies of Mexico, who remained faithful despite living in the hinterlands 1,000 miles from the core of the Church.

As something of an aside, but pertinent to our discussion: When I was an undergraduate student at UCLA, I spent a summer in the Mormon Colonies doing a linguistic anthropological study of bilingualism in the Mormon Colonies for my honors research project. I am always surprised at [Page 126]how many members of the Church have never heard of the Colonies. They got a little bit of press during the 2012 election cycle, since Mitt Romney’s heritage traces back to them, but they still remain relatively unknown. Perhaps we can draw an analogy, then. If the Mormon Colonies of Mexico are so little known among members of the modern Church living in the information age, it seems entirely plausible — and, I think, extremely likely — that the majority of Nephites living after the time of Christ knew little to nothing about the fate of those who went northward a century or more earlier.

Evidence for Mesoamerican/North American Interaction24

With the Hinterland Hypothesis, the question naturally arises as to whether or not there is any evidence for movement from Mesoamerica to North America. There is.

The evidence suggests that Mesoamerican cultural influence spread, primarily northward, beginning long before the Nephites ever set foot in the New World and continuing through the late Postclassic period, meaning that the trails were blazed long before the Book of Mormon era began and continued to be used long after Moroni sealed the record up.

The evidence for movement northward is incremental, slowly radiating outward over the generations. What types of evidence is there? Genetic, linguistic, botanical, ideological, and archaeological evidence are all there.

Let us begin with the genetic evidence. In 2003, a study was done that compared the DNA of the Ohio Hopewell with that of 50 indigenous populations from both North and Central America, and it found Central American and even South American markers.25 This, of course, demonstrates that [Page 127]the interaction between the two regions involved more than just the trading of goods and ideas. For the genetic markers to be so prevalent, it is likely that there was a significant amount of procreation, more than is likely from the occasional Mesoamerican merchant passing through town.

Linguistic data compiled by Brian Stubbs demonstrates that Uto-Aztecan languages spread from Mexico into North America, primary the American Southwest.26 As was mentioned previously, the northward influence was often incremental, meaning that we see clear influence from central Mexico up to northern Mexico, and then influence from northern Mexico into the American Southwest, then from the America Southwest moving further northward, and so on. There is a filtering or diluting of cultural traits, but they are nevertheless traceable. For example, non-LDS scholar Robert L. Hall recently published in The Oxford Handbook of North American Archaeology — a very reputable source — that the Cherokee word for corn, selu, is likely cognate with the Nahuatl root word for corn, xilo-.27

As for botanical evidence, one brief but potent example will suffice. The main staple food of Mesoamericans was maize, or corn. As non-LDS scholars Bruce Smith and Richard Yarnell note in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009, domesticated corn from Mesoamerica had already reached eastern North America by approximately 200 bc.28

Ideologically and culturally, there are a number of fascinating commonalities pointed out by Robert L. Hall in his Oxford Handbook chapter entitled “Some Commonalities [Page 128]Linking North America and Mesoamerica.”29 He notes the importance of the sweat bath, which is variously associated with birth, renewal, and spiritual cleansing and is found from as far south as Guatemala and across North America from Alaska to Newfoundland. Another cultural commonality is the importance of competitive sports, specifically the ball game. Although the specific game varied from culture to culture, they shared the overarching concept of team sports played with a ball. There are also many commonalities regarding their mourning rites and their rituals of sacrifice. For example, a particular rite among both Aztecs and Great Plains tribes required that warriors be tethered to a stone or pole and fight enemies using only a wooden paddle. The tethered warrior was not likely to win; it was a sacrificial rite. Another common sacrificial ritual was that of scaffold sacrifice, wherein a victim would be tied standing upright, with arms and legs spread out, and subsequently be shot with arrows.

These few examples will need to suffice. Something that nonarchaeologists may not understand is that there is frustratingly little communication between Mesoamericanists and North American archaeologists. In a 2008 article in American Antiquity, one of the top-tier journals in our field, the authors lamented, “Archaeologists in the southeastern United States and Mexico seldom communicate with each other. Basic comparisons of site data, settlement, subsistence, or other cultural systems from one region to the other are rarely attempted, even around the Gulf, where it should be easy.”30 The point is that there is a lot we still do not know.

In conclusion, I would like to restate that my hope with this paper was that I might be able to reconcile the statements made by the Prophet Joseph Smith concerning Nephites and Lamanites with what the best archaeological evidence tells us about where the Book of Mormon likely took place. I [Page 129]have attempted to show that the Hinterland Hypothesis can account for Joseph’s inspired statements while keeping the core narrative of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica. Evidence from within the Book of Mormon and from real-world archaeology demonstrates the movement of peoples and ideas from Mesoamerica to North America. But to reiterate, the Church has no official position on such matters. As members of the Church, we ought to engage in civil discourse as we discuss these matters. Let us not let questions of where the Book of Mormon took place overpower the actual message of the book: that Jesus is the Christ, and that the prophecies and promises are extended to all who come unto him.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2013 FairMormon Conference (http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2013-fair-conference/2013-heartland-as-hinterland-the-mesoamerican-core-and-north-american-periphery-of-book-of-mormon-geography). A video version of the conference presentation can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlAy1cDPLMo. Many thanks to our friends at FairMormon for all the excellent material they have made available at their website.


1. See, for example, John L. Sorenson, “Mesoamericans in Pre-Columbian North America,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and FARMS, 1992), 218–20; Tyler Livingston, The Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican Travels “Northward,” from the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum website, http://www.bmaf.org/articles/mesoamerican_travels_northward__livingston (accessed 25 August 2014).

2. Susan Toby Evans and David L. Webster, eds., Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia, 1st ed. (London: Routledge, 2013), 368.

3. Richard L. Jensen, “Colonization,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The History, Doctrine, and Procedure of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:290–94.

4. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that John E. Page was excommunicated for apostasy on 26 June 1846 for supporting James Strang as the rightful successor to Joseph Smith. His excommunication was wholly unrelated to his views on Book of Mormon geography.

5. John E. Page, “Collateral Testimony of the Truth and Divinity of the Book of Mormon. — No. 3,” The Gospel Herald, 3/90 (14 September 1848), 123.

6. Although common in Mormon folklore dating back to George Q. Cannon’s mission to Hawaii (1851–54), there is little evidence to support the belief that Hagoth himself or the ships he sent out ended up in Polynesia.

7. See Jacob 3:13; Helaman 3:14; 3 Nephi 5:8; 3 Nephi 26:6; Ether 15:33.

8. Kenneth W. Godfrey, “What Is the Significance of Zelph in the Study of Book of Mormon Geography?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 74–75.

9. Godfrey, “What Is the Significance of Zelph?” 70–79. The single account that speaks of the fame of Onandagus dates from 1893, nearly 60 years after the fact and so cannot be considered a primary source.

10. See “Source Note” for Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, 4 June 1834, in The Joseph Smith Papers website, at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/letter-to-emma-smith-4-june-1834?p=#!/paperSummary/letter-to-emma-smith-4-june-1834&p=1 (accessed 25 August 2014).

11. Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, 4 June 1834, in The Joseph Smith Papers website, beginning at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/letter-to-emma-smith-4-june-1834?p=#!/paperSummary/letter-to-emma-smith-4-june-1834&p=2 (accessed 25 August 2014).

12. John A. Widtsoe, “Evidences and Reconciliations: Is Book of Mormon Geography Known?” Improvement Era 7/53, July 1950, 547.

13. Alexander L. Baugh, “Joseph Smith in Northern Missouri, 1838,” in Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 303–307.

14. George W. Robinson, journal entry for 18 May 1838, transcribed online in The Joseph Smith Papers website, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/journal-march-september-1838?p=29 (accessed 5 September 2014).

15. See Alma 17:26; Alma 19:16.

16. History of the Church, 5:265.

17. The only physical altars that are ever explicitly mentioned among the Nephites are at the city of Sidom, in association with their sanctuaries (Alma 15:17).

18. Hugh W. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 239.

19. Matthew Roper, “Joseph Smith and the Question of Book of Mormon Geography” (presentation, FAIR annual conference, 5 August 2010); transcribed online at http://www.fairmormon.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/2010-Matthew-Roper.pdf (accessed 5 September 2014).

20. Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 6:296 (15 August 1852).

21. G. J. Adams, A Lecture on the Authenticity & Scriptural Character of the Book of Mormon (Boston: J. E. Farwell, 1844), 17.

22. W. I. Appleby, Mormonism Consistent! Truth Vindicated, and Falsehood Exposed and Refuted: Being a Reply to A. H. Wickersham (Wilmington, DE: Porter & Nafe, 1843), 17.

23. See Mark Alan Wright and Brant A. Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 1 (2012): 25–55; online at https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/the-cultural-context-of-nephite-apostasy/ (accessed 5 September 2014).

24. This section relies heavily on Livingston’s “The Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican Travels ‘Northward,’” cited in n. 1. See the article for a fuller treatment of all of the lines of evidence and supporting sources that are only briefly touched on here.

25. Lisa A. Mills, “Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of the Ohio Hopewell of the Hopewell Mound Group” (PhD diss., Ohio State University, 2003), 90–91.

26. Brian Stubbs. 2004. “A Few Hundred Hints of Egyptian and Two Dialects of Hebrew (or Northwest Semitic) in Uto-Aztecan.” Unpublished 142-page manuscript in possession of the author.

27. Robert L. Hall, “Some Commonalities Linking North America and Mesoamerica,” in The Oxford Handbook of North American Archaeology, ed. Timothy R. Pauketat (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 61.

28. Bruce D. Smith and Richard A. Yarnell, “Initial Formation of an Indigenous Crop Complex in Eastern North America at 3800 BP,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106/16 (2009): 6561.

29. Hall, “Some Commonalities,” 52–63.

30. Nancy Marie White and Richard A. Weinstein, “The Mexican Connection and the Far West of the U.S. Southeast,” American Antiquity 73/2 (2008): 230.

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About Mark Alan Wright

Mark Alan Wright earned his BA in Anthropology at UCLA and his MA and PhD in Anthropology (with a subfield of specialization in Mesoamerican Archaeology) from UC Riverside. He regularly conducts research in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. Dr. Wright is Assistant Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University and Associate Editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies at the Maxwell Institute.

39 thoughts on “Heartland as Hinterland: The Mesoamerican Core and North American Periphery of Book of Mormon Geography

  1. Pingback: Thankful for the Heartland Model – BofM.Blog

  2. Pingback: I’m Thankful for the Heartland Model – BofM.Blog

  3. The issues for me have been about weather and written language. Many people in the holy scriptures were illiterate. I like your ideas. Hinterlands peoples would not keep records but likely oral traditions. Therefore would dwindle in unbelief. Oral traditions would change over time. I won’t talk about my isses with weather.

    Good essay!

  4. I have been saying for years that this assimilation of the two settlement theories is what makes the most sense. I mentioned this to a Book of Mormon Association leader at a FAIR conference years ago. Sailing up the Mississippi drainage system from the eastern knob of mesoamerica to colonize a fertile easily traveled land is very logical. Also we know that Moroni was in North America, (though in the west), since he dedicated the ground of the Manti Temple for future temple building. I would guess that in his wanderings Moroni could have traveled through much of the United States area, often staying with Nephites and Nephite sympathizers, and sometimes acting in his role as the last great Nephite prophet and head of their church.

  5. This article is incomplete. While it discusses our friends to the north’s fetish with hockey, it leaves unaddressed their even more inexplicable devotion to curling. 🙂 Seriously, a very thoughtful and thought provoking article.

  6. With advances in our knowledge of the rise of Ancient American civilizations, I have been convinced for years that we have to give serious attention to the spread of Book of Mormon related peoples and/or cultural influences throughout the Americas. The misunderstanding that the Book of Mormon historic geography record being limited to Mesoamerica somehow excludes these distant relations has precipitated unnecessary debate that needs to be corrected. Surely, additional records in Mormon’s library will someday contribute much to the lost contemporary histories related to distant lands in North America and South America.

    In the meantime, lets not continue to wrench the record we have beyond its historic geographic limits, adding confusion and fodder for skeptics to argue for fiction.

    The great river highways were essential to the rise of all ancient civilizations. The Usumacinta/Sidon in Central America gave rise to the Nephite/Mulekite, and Maya civilizations during Book of Mormon times, following the collapse of Olmec/Jaredite civilization.

    What about the Grijalva/Sidon alternative? It doesn’t hold water (pun intended). Kirk Magelby argued persuasively at great length (see his Book of Mormon Resources web blog) for my identity of the Grijalva/Sidon. But Mormon revealed it simply in his Alma 22:27 map insert by locating Manti at the headwaters of the river Sidon (in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala). The fact that Manti was the first inland fortification of the NSW border from the Caribbean east sea [am I the only one who has seen this fact?] eliminates the Grijalva prospect, and doesn’t even register a strategic fortification line prospect anywhere between the Atlantic and the Mississippi headwaters,a 200-mile stretch.

    I would be excited to see expansions of Mark’s excellent introduction to this important cross cultural research with Mesoamerica, unencumbered by forced Book of Mormon historic geography speculations.

  7. Bravo on a historically sensible article especially with regards to the shifting of US borders, migrations around 100 BC as mentioned in Helaman 3:10-14, and outposts anciently as well as in our modern day. Thank you for your sound understanding of the scriptural references regarding Book of Mormon geography and history. Archaeologists, astronomers, and mathematicians are continually discovering North American ties with the earlier antiquities of Mesoamerica. Read “American Archaeology” magazine for North American archaeology reconnaissance in which most US sites studied date to time periods well after Book of Mormon times.

  8. There is additional evidence for ancient continent wide cultural and trade exchanges from the excavations at Poverty Point on the lower Mississippi. Archaeologist James A. Ford concluded that the pottery making at that site derived from Indians in Central America and was passed on through people living along the Atlantic and Eastern Gulf coasts of North America. Archaeologist Jon L. Gibson found stones at Poverty Point that came from as far north as the Great Lakes (Poverty Point: A Terminal Archaic Culture of the Lower Mississippi Valley). What facilitated these trade and cultural exchanges was the Coastal waterways and the Mississippi River System. These were the super highways of the ancient inhabitants of North America. These waterways were their principle trade routes. The Nephites were particularly a shipping and boating civilization. This heritage started with Nephi and their journey across the Pacific Ocean, and Mormon tells us that more than five hundred years later they were still a ship-building and a shipping people (Helaman 3:10-14).

    “But behold, a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people…and their shipping and their building of ships…cannot be contained in this work.” (Helaman 3:14)

    The dominant geographical feature in North America, east of the Rocky Mountains, is the Mississippi River system. Likewise, the dominant geographical feature in The Book Of Mormon is the river Sidon. Author John Gunther wrote:

    “The Mississippi River remains what it always was—a kind of huge rope…tying the United States together. It is the Nile of the Western Hemisphere.”

    The River Sidon was the Nile of The Book Of Mormon. These parallels are to prominent to ignore or to discount.

  9. Mark’s paper is on the right track for revealing the spread of Book of Mormon lands peoples and cultures (notice plural) from its true heart land in Central America, where Joseph Smith identified it in 1841-42 with ancient Maya ruins. I have also been tracking these influences for many years, including the Southwest (including Utah), Northwest, and this year more intensively to South America in Peru with shared Mesoamerican and Middle Eastern cultural ties.

    Many thoughtful comments for research in progress.

    The Nemenha books claiming to be translated from ancient records related to Hagoth’s migration up the Gulf of California to Utah have all the appearance of modern literary fiction based on a copy cat of the gold plates saga. Modern temple endowment doctrine is the most appealing. Censoring of latter-day church prophets has the ear mark of disgruntled Mormon defector authors. I looked in vain for a prominent and pervasive Book of Mormon literary style in these books as a possible mark for authenticity and could find none of it.

    This saga in no way can satisfy the west coast ship route into the land northward from the narrow neck of land in defense of the heart land theory.

    This idea fails completely on the basis of the Atlantic-to-Pacific space requirement of the narrow strip of wilderness east-west borderline between the lands of Nephi and Zarahemla in Alma 22:27, which captain Moroni later fortified from sea to sea by seven cities in strategic passage routes to prevent a southern invasion of Lamanites from the land of Nephi northward into Zarahemla. These matching routes and fortified cities in southern Mexico and Guatemala have been extensively explored and dated archaeologically to the first century B.C. as required by the text. And the location is right where Joseph Smith admonished us to look and explore in his Times and Season Oct 1, 1842 editorial titled “Zarahemla” that focused on the Maya ruins of Quirigua in Guatemala on the NSW border. So far, this is the only location in the Americas that is able to satisfy all of the geographic and historic archaeological requirements of the Book of Mormon, including and especially all of the historic geographic details of Mormon’s map insert in Alma 22:27-34. (Sorenson’s failure to get this right unfortunately caused a huge exodus of geography students from Mesoamerica.)

    As for the relative importance of Mormon’s map to his record, he described the NSW border landmark in great detail in verse 27 so the latter-day Gentiles would know where to go to return his record to his people, to restore them “to the knowledge of their fathers [history], and also to the knowledge of Jesus Christ which was had among their fathers” (2 Nephi 3:12; 30:5). (For more info go to AncientAmerica.org)

  10. Regarding the footnote about Hagoth, how might the Mentinah Archives, or the records of the Nemenhah tribe, fit in? (I suppose step one would be to determine the veracity of these [purported?] records.)

    The Nemenhah do not allow the public to view their records, nor do they currently make PDFs of the translations publicly available. However, images of a few of the records can be found online, and they do sell books of the translations. But, if you do a little Internet archeology, links to PDFs may still work.

  11. Some of the Heartland arguments seem to rely on a belief that the USA has to be identified strongly with the Nephite nation as a prototype, and prophecy, of the future important role of the USA, including as host for the Restored Gospel. Even though the man foreseen by Nephi as first bringing people from the Old World to the Promised Land is pretty clearly Columbus, the Heartland hypothesis seems to focus on USA land instead of all of the Americas. There seems to be an investment in national pride that motivates it.

    I served 20 years in the US military, and believe strongly that the USA has had an essential role in preserving freedom, including freedom of worship, for all mankind. Nevertheless, the Book of Mormon promises are made especially to the descendants of Lehi, most of whom live in the Indian and mixed ancestry populations of Latin America. They don’t have to come to the USA to receive their blessings. They are already in the Land of Promise.

    • “There seems to be an investment in national pride that motivates it.”

      I beg to differ.

      It has nothing to do with “national pride”.

      It has everything to do with the interpretation of scripture, as well as supporting geographical models.

      If one takes the declarations found in modern and ancient revelation about the land of the latter day restoration and the designated gathering places where both the repentant Gentile and descendants of Lehi will initially and ultimately gather together to receive their inheritances, it is not unreasonable to conclude that those gathering places are located in the Center of the United States, both anciently and in modern times.

      The land of the Abrahamic covenant is identified in modern revelation, and it is not a stretch to conclude that said land could have been just as relevant during Book of Mormon times, as it was during the LDS restoration movement.

      I would suggest that you do a little cross referencing of the key words found in the following passages of scripture-

      “And I hold forth and deign to give unto you greater riches, even a land of promise, a land flowing with milk and honey, upon which there shall be no curse when the Lord cometh;
      19 And I will give it unto you for the land of your inheritance, if you seek it with all your hearts.
      20 And this shall be my covenant with you, ye shall have it for the land of your inheritance, and for the inheritance of your children forever, while the earth shall stand, and ye shall possess it again in eternity, no more to pass away.” (D&C 38 )

      “land of promise”

      “land flowing with milk and honey”

      “no curse when the Lord cometh”

      “land of your inheritance”

      “this [land] shall be my covenant with you”

      Using those keywords to search the scriptures as one studies the ancient Abrahamic land covenant and how it emerges in modern times, and the significance of the past and future gatherings in prophecy related to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, etc., can proffer a legitimate narrative that differs with your own.

      It is not my purpose to change your mind, which is unlikely, because you are so heavily invested in your own set of beliefs, but rather to suggest that accusing people of believing in the heartland model based on “national pride” is a rather petty and unfounded assumption.

      Heartlanders have their reasons for believing what they do, which are every bit as intelligent, authentic and legitimate as the geographic and scriptural assumptions upon which you base your beliefs.

  12. Hugh Nibley wrote about how religious rituals among the Hopi correlated strongly with ancient Middle East festivals. He noted that they believe they migrated up from the south , and have ties to Meso-America. They are in the Uto-Aztecan language group which has as many as 10% arguable cognates with Hebrew. They seem to be a good example of the kind of Nephite dispersion that the author hypothesizes.

  13. On the scale of importance I am sure that Mormon would be more disappointed on the failure of the book’s readers to “come unto Christ” than our failure to positively identify Book of Mormon locations. I predict that in 20-30 years from now there will be still be disagreement by believers as to Book of Mormon locations. Nephi, Jacob, Mormon and Moroni gave us better tools to test the Book’s validity. Just my view. 🙂

  14. Some here have mentioned animosity between the Heartlanders and Mesoamericanists, which I guess I see as a disagreement instead of contention. I have followed this discussion for years and started it with Hugh Nibley’s hemispheric model, but have shifted to the Mesoamerican model after further considering what the Book of Mormon actually says. Nobody has mentioned the copious amount of work found in John Sorenson’s “Mormon’s Codex”. Quite amazing. I disagree with the heartland model because too much doesn’t seem to fit , and as Dan Peterson mentioned above, untenable. Mark Alan Wright gives a knod to the supportive evidence in that model as being good and helpful, but that it doesn’t support the Heartland model as where the majority of the Book of Mormon takes place. Mark Alan Wright has done multiple interview as well explaining other reasons for his ideas that I love. Look them up. Also, nobody has specifically mentioned Brant Gardner’s plethora of work.

    At the end of the day, I agree that it isn’t ” important” where it took place, but at the same time, it was important enough for Mormon to include much of the geography, so why would that not be of any import?

    • Mormon was very particular in including detailed information that he obviously thought would enable us to understand the locations of the events he described. The fact that we haven’t identified them must be a disappointment to him. Why we haven’t been able to follow his directions could be the subject of a future article. Book of Mormon locations are important because they lend credence to the narrative. I know people who have left the Church because they became convinced that the Book of Mormon was fiction as there was no location consensus. Also, as anyone who has been to the Garden Tomb or the Sacred Grove can testify, there is a spirit of place that can add another level of testimony to the events that occurred there. Why does the Church spend so much tithing funds and effort in restoring historical locations? Consider what they have done at Cumorah. What would the Brethren do with other Book of Mormon locations if they were positively identified?

      • The Hill Cumorah is an LDS historical site because it is where the Book of Mormon plates and other artifacts were buried when Joseph Smith was shown them by Moroni, and from which he retrieved them. It is not because there is any record of revelation that it was the same place as the repository of Nephite records that Mormon resorted to while he resigned from his role as military leader and did his extensive work of selecting, copying and summarizing the Nephite records. There must have been a lot of material in that archive because he was well into that work before he discovered the small plates of Nephi and attached them without editing to his own record. The archive is usually pictured as a cave where he could both safely store the valuable records and work on them undisturbed. That is not the kind of stone box that the Book of Mormon was hidden in.

        Moroni himself is not quoted as calling the hiding place “Cumorah” during his four, hours long visits in which he quoted scripture at length and gave Joseph other instructions. He never is recorded as referring to that hill as a repository of other records, or of that area as the site of the last great battle where he led 10,000 people.

        It is understandable that a casual reader identifies that tangible hill with one mentioned in the record found on the hill. But it seems that Mormon wanted Moroni to take the record away from the archive to keep it safe. It seems to me that all these facts indicate this drumlin in New York is specifically the one place in North America that is NOT the original Cumorah.

        The naming of the hill near Joseph’s home looks to me like an informal folk idea that was natural enough but not a result of revelation or careful textual analysis. Names are the most portable parts of geography. Bountiful in Utah is not the Bountiful of the temple where Christ appeared circa 34 AD, nor is it the Old World Bountiful where Nephi built his ship. If there can be three Bountifuls thousands of miles apart, why not two Cumorahs?

        • Raymond,

          You are obviously not aware of at least six documentary sources that confirm it was Moroni who told Joseph Smith, prior to the translation of the Gold Plates, that the hill in Palmyra was anciently known as Cumorah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          Perhaps you have sung this song without noticing that it was a quote from Moroni?

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

          • Thanks for the list of examples of the use of the name of Cumorah for the hill in New York where the records were delivered to Joseph Smith by Moroni. Obviously, the hill became the one geographic point of contact early members had to associate with the Book of Mormon. Although 3 accounts are placed years earlier (but are in later accounts), the earliest positive evidence is 1835 that Cumorah was used for the hill in NY and that early members of the Church thought that hill was the same as recorded in the Book of Mormon.

            They also thought of the Isthmus of Darien (or Panama) was the narrow neck mentioned in 3 versus in the Book of Mormon. That is at least as well attested in early statements.

            What is actually stated in the Book of Mormon makes it very unlikely that the hill in New York was the hill mentioned by Mormon where he deposited all of the records except those he provided to Moroni.

            Again, we can name places in the 19th century after places in the Book of Mormon, but it is a mistake to think that Bountiful Utah was where Bountiful in either the old world or new world was located. The City of Moroni in Sanpete County, isn’t the City of Moroni mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The City of Nephi in Juab County isn’t the City of Nephi in the Book of Mormon. I don’t understand why the idea that early members of the Church could just name important places after Book of Mormon place names.

            I guess what I am trying to say, the hill in New York may be the hill Mormon buried all the records he had except those he gave to Moroni or they may not be the same location. Both are easily acceptable interpretations of the data, include those you presented.

          • Mike,

            I would be interested to know what you think is stated in the text that makes it unlikely that the NY Cumorah is not where Mormon hid all his records?

      • Interesting comment.

        1. I think Mormon put in his few references to geographic specifics–mostly in the context of military operations–to help us understand the specific points he was trying to make and not because he was giving us hints as to where Book of Mormon lands were. I have seen this many times in accounts of battles or other events throughout history, even when we know exactly where an event took place, geographic information is supplied to help us understand details being told.

        2. Cumorah in NY certainly plays a major role in the restoration. I think that is why the Church has invested in it.

        • Mike,

          Mormon was a military commander and I’m sure that some of his geographical references were written for a better understanding of their military tactics and strategy. However, many of his geographical references were not in a military context. Mormon inserted a complete overview of the lands of the Nephites and of the Lamanites in the midst of a missionary story in Alma 22.

          As for the Brethren and Cumorah, I wrote to Elder Dallin H Oaks in 2005 asking him about his apparent support for the Mesoamerica theory in his 1993 address to FARMS. He replied in a personal letter, “I was very concerned with the suggestion in your August 11 letter that I am a supporter of the view that the Hill Cumorah in Palmyra is not the Hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon.”

          • I almost mentioned Alma 22, which is the most prominent exception to military operations for the geographic details and which is what I had in mind when I wrote “other events.” While it is in the broader context of missionary work, it is the specific context of the King of the Lamanites sending out his proclamation.

            Alma 22 is hard to match anywhere. It seems to me it is the primary source of the “hourglass” geography, but only talks about part of the hourglass (the part south of the small neck). Thus, all geographies that insist on an hourglass, are probably prejudicing this chapter over all others.

            I find the discussion in Alma 22 confusing and I don’t think it fits the heartland model, nor mesoamerica, very well. It describes a boundary between Nephite and Lamanite lands as a line between the west sea and the east sea (it is the only reference that specifically mentions both a west sea and an east sea) along a thin strip of wilderness. And then proceeds to talk about Lamanites living roundabout along the sea (not sure if this means north of the border or south, but north seems to make more sense because it then goes on to talk about the small neck) and discusses the small neck and the land to the southward that is “nearly surrounded by water.”

            I am not sure if “surrounded” in the BoM means what we think it means. Over and over again, we read about military battles “nearly surrounded” an enemy because of an attack on two sides. The Lamanites surrounded the City of Nephi, but that didn’t prevent Ammon and his party from arriving at the City of Nephi, nor did it prevent the ability of Ammon to lead out King Limhi’s people–albeit not by the direct route. “Surrounded” seems to imply on two or fronts, and not necessarily anything close to 360 degrees around something.

            The impression I get is that Mormon wants to outline the extent of the Lamanite King’s domain.

            While Nephite history in the BoM is almost exclusively south of the neck of land, Mormon came from a family that lived to the north, going south as part of a military force.

          • Mike,

            I will be away from my computer for a few days but would like to respond to your comments on Alma 22 more fully later.

  15. Dr. Wright thank you for the paper.

    I appreciate you mentioning the Mississippian culture and Cahokia. I have long thought that Cahokia fits the Zelph story very well. Cahokia is within about 100 miles of where Zion’s Camp might have been–different dates in the diaries in my opinion adds uncertainty. Cahokia is currently in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis. It was the largest city in North America during the height of the Mississippian culture (about 700 to 1200 AD) and according to some scholars larger than London at the same time. Cahokia had trade relations and influence from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Cahokia’s influence and Onandago’s influence are similarly described. And the Mississippian culture, of which Cahokia was a leading example, had strong ties to Mesoamerica. I have long wondered about Lamanite ties to the Mississippian culture after destroying Nephite civilization. I can’t help wondering if there is a link.

  16. Thank you for an article that resonates with common sense and the voice of reason. It’s ironic that people like us who believe in the Book of Mormon should contend about it, seeing that the book teaches so strongly about the harmful effects of contention. Of course it is natural that the people who have a spiritual witness that the Book of Mormon is an actual record of an ancient people should seek out physical evidence, and correlate its events with geographical features. I think some amount of speculation is Ok if done with humility and tolerance for diverging viewpoints, and a realization that one may have to revise one’s views as more evidence is revealed.

  17. Dr. Wright: Thank you for your article. As many know I’ve long been on record for the position that any kind of real-world speculation about Book of Mormon geography, limited or otherwise, is inconsistent with general church direction on the subject. Having said that, the Brethren don’t really seem to care much and there are some here and there who do or have cared.

    Some observations:

    In Joseph Smith’s day, “Nephitish” would have meant “a Nephite’s” or “of the Nephites” or “affiliated with the Nephites. ” The arcane reference is similar to the fact that the prefix “anti-” has a different meaning today when compared to early Church or Book of Mormon usage. “Ish” isn’t used to describe something that looks like what might have been a Nephite long ago. See Alma 17:26: Lamanitish servants; Alma 19:16: Abish is a Lamanitish woman. Or “Jewish” (15 Feb 1842, p. 691 Times & Seasons]. I think the editors of the History of the Church simply modernized the word Nephitish.

    Cumorah: Again, a controversial topic. When you trace the footnotes to Cumorah in the Book of Mormon and the Topical Guide, you are left with the distinct impression that the New York hill is where it always was at. But, the Encyclopedia reference leaves the door open.

    “General Authority chess:” I am unaware of any General Authority who has ever published any statement supportive of any limited model. In private settings, Elder Oaks has left the door open and Elder HBLee has suggested it isn’t important, but it really isn’t a chess match. I am unaware of any reference in early Church history where there was some sort of debate amongst the Saints about a limited model such that we could “pit[] the words of one Saint against the other.”

    “The point is that there is a lot we still do not know:” I realize that the tautology “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” was coined by a Protestant minister arguing for the the existence of God, but in science, the absence of evidence is suggestive that the proposition sought to be proved with the absence of evidence isn’t really true. In that regard, things aren’t really “clear,” and in fact, there isn’t any demonstrable support either in science or LDS religion for a a limited model. There is, as you point out, support is LDS literature for a hemispheric model, but the Encyclopedia makes “clear” that it doesn’t really matter.

    • Just for the record: I have no idea who might originally have coined the phrase “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but, in my reading, it’s invariably ascribed to Professor Edwin Yamauchi, now an emeritus professor of history at Miami University of Ohio.

      Professor Yamauchi earned a Ph.D. in ancient Near Eastern studies at Brandeis University but, to the best of my knowledge, has never served nor been ordained as a minister.

      And his comment was made not about the existence of God but, very specifically, about the limits of archaeological evidence in historical research.

      • W.F. Grimes, The Excavation of Roman and Mediaeval London, reviewed by A.R. Burn, The Classical Review 19.2 (Jun. 1969) 321: “….even while remembering the important fact that absence of evidence is not identical with evidence of absence,….” I guess I don’t really know the origin of the phrase, although it is an explication of the logical fallacy of an appeal to ignorance.

  18. I don’t sense much animosity among Mesoamericanists to Heartlanders.

    But I’ve encountered, very personally, the hostility that some Heartlanders plainly feel toward Mesoamericanists. I’ve received literally scores of emails,for example, in which devotees of the Heartland model have called me an apostate, accused me of despising the Prophet Joseph Smith, and so forth.

    I think it’s far less important to believe in a particular model of WHERE events recorded in the Book of Mormon took place than to believe that they DID take place. So, although I think their position is untenable, I bear no ill will toward Heartlanders. But I object passionately when some seek to divide the Church over so unimportant a matter as the precise GPS coordinates of the Jaredite city of Lib.

    • Dan,

      I don’t question the civility of the “Interpreter,” but in questions regarding Book of Mormon Geography, contrary to your mission statement of seeking “scholarly investigation and analysis” of LDS scripture, your board refuses to publish anything contrary to the Mesoamerica Limited Geography Theory.

      • Interpreter has no rule prohibiting acceptance of articles written from a non-Mesoamericanist perspective.

        It’s possible that some such articles have been submitted, but, if so, I’m unaware of them.

        And even if some turn out to have been submitted and rejected, that wouldn’t, in and of itself, prove that they were rejected because they disagreed with the Mesoamerican theory: We’ve rejected a number of articles predicated on a Mesoamerican view, as well as articles having no connection with geography at all.

        • Dan,

          “Interpreter” has not published any articles contrary to the Mesoamerica Theory, but perhaps I am the only one who has submitted one. It was a short article on the subject of the direction of flow of the River Sidon, as taken from a more careful reading of the text. It was rejected, I was told, because the board disagreed with my findings.

          • Mike,

            I have not posted it elsewhere, but if Dan will allow me to do so on this website I’m sure there are others who would also like to read it.

  19. Mark,

    The evidence you have presented for cultural exchanges and influences from Mesoamerica to North America is, as you have indicated, only the tip of the iceberg as to the evidence available. So much so that it brings into question the entire idea of confining the geography of the text of The Book of Mormon to Mesoamerica. Contrary to popular opinion, brought on by false reasoning, the text of The Book of Mormon is not territorially confining.

    There is a major problem with your “Hinterland Hypothesis” generated from Alma 63, where the people went north beyond the scope of the text. In Helaman 3 there are migrations northward that appear to be even further north that some of those in Alma 63 as they then travelled north to “an exceedingly great distance.” These people had to learn to build houses with cement because of the desolation left by the Jaredites who formerly inhabited the land. This land was called Desolation and was certainly within the scope of The Book of Mormon.

    “And [Bountiful] bordered upon the land which they called Desolation, it being so far northward that it came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed, of whose bones we have spoken, which was discovered by the people of Zarahemla, it being the place of their [the Jaredites] first landing.” (Alma 22:30)

    Both Book of Mormon civilizations ended at Cumorah. All of the documentary evidence indicates that was it was Moroni who stated that Cumorah was the ancient name of the hill in New York. Your suggestion that Mormon 6:6 indicates that the plates of Mormon could not have been buried in ancient Cumorah is also false reasoning. The fact that Mormon gave these plates to Moroni does not preclude Moroni from burying them in the same hill about 35 years later.

    I appreciate your efforts to bring the Mesoamerica and Hinterland theories together. I believe that they are together within the text of The Book of Mormon.

  20. To Will:
    I’m not sure where the apparent animosity stems from since both camps share the same faith and have essentially the same goal, but scholarly pride seems to be at work……
    3 Nephi 11:28 …”And there shall be no disputations among you… 29 For verily, verily I say unto you he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. 30 Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctirne, that such thing should be done away.”
    So there is the source of our trouble. Additionally, “scholarly pride” only adds to the trouble.
    To Mark Alan Wright: You have done a great service to both camps by your civil discourse. Thank You.

  21. Its nice to see some starting to consider north America for at least part of the Book of Mormon, yet their is still a clear distaste for the heartland model from both fair and interpreter writers. Even in this paper, harmonizing seems to only mean saying that maybe a small part of the story took place in North America. Time and time again i have seen articles from fair and the interpreter taking time attempting to discredit different parts of the heartland model, yet I have not seen the same type of analysis concerning discrepancies with the Mesoamerican model. I am no expert concerning these things, but i can say that i have read quite a few articles and books dealing with Meso American geography and evidence. I have only recently between exposed to the heartland model but only after a short book and few articles i am more convinced of the latter model. I’m not sure where the apparent animosity stems from since both camps share the same faith and have essentially the same goal, but scholarly pride seems to be at work……

  22. Intelligent, thoughtful, and common-sense article with a great insight — thank you.

    What I have noticed over decades of reading the Book of Mormon is how through most of Nephite history — until the very end, when Mormon is chronicling the last few battles — anything north of Bountiful is pretty much just a vague, featureless “up there” — a bit like how many (if not most) Americans think of Canada. 🙂 Lots of migration clearly went on, but the people vanished from the Nephite record as a result. You’ve given a defensible explanation as to where some ended up.

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