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Examining the Heartland Hypothesis as Geography

The Heartland hypothesis really doesn’t care much about geography. In fact, it is literally the last kind of analysis it cares about. Bruce H. Porter and Rod L. Meldrum lay out their methodology in an important book that provides an excellent overview of the Heartland hypothesis: “The proposed methodology presented in this book utilizes four highly corroborative resources that assist in coming to an understanding of the lands described in the Book of Mormon text. These resources are 1) the prophetic evidence found in scriptures; 2) the prophetic statements of the inspired translator, Joseph Smith; 3) the physical evidences; and 4) the geographical passages.” ((Bruce H. Porter and Rod L. Meldrum, Prophecies & Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America, (New York: Digital Legend, 2009), 1.)) I realize that by examining the Heartland hypothesis on the basis of geography I am inverting their order of evidence. However, regardless of the analytical approach, if the resulting geography fits with the Book of Mormon, and a good case has been made. If it does not, then the hypothesis must be revised.

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

Everyone agrees that the text of the Book of Mormon describes geography. Everyone also agrees that the text doesn’t identify any modern sites in the New World, so there is no frame of reference. Most people who read the book still want to know where the events took place.
There are [two] ways to solve the problem:
1. Compose an abstract map from the text and search for a real-world match. This is how Mesoamericanists and other theorists approach the problem.
2. Consult latter-day revelation, realize that two key modern-day identifiers exist, and use those as placeholders when evaluating the text. This is how I recommend people approach the problem. ((Jonathan Neville, “Geography overview for Mesoamericanists,” August 15, 2015, Jonathan lists a third option, “Pretend it doesn’t matter.” That is not intended as a serious analytical method, so I have deleted it to concentrate on what he suggests should be done.))

Neville sets out the idea that a geography can be worked out based on two locations identified in revelation. The rest of the geography can then be constructed from those two known points. Even knowing one firm location (Jerusalem) had made the examination of Lehi’s trail from Jerusalem to Bountiful much more secure than most New World geographies. ((Warren P. Aston and Michaela Knoth Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi’s Journey across Arabia to Bountiful. Lynn M. Hilton and Hope A. Hilton, Discovering Lehi: New Evidence of Lehi and Nephi in Arabia. George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness: 81 New, Documented Evidences That the Book of Mormon Is a True History.)) Two known points should provide a similar advantage to discovering the New World location where the Book of Mormon took place.

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

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

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

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

The Heartland Hypothesis and the Land of Nephi

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

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

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

The king of the Lamanites sends a proclamation to all his people to allow Aaron and his brothers to preach the gospel in Lamanite lands (see verse 26 for this context). To give his readers an idea of what this meant, Mormon describes the extent of Lamanite lands. Removing what I suggest is an errant comma, ((The original dictated manuscript had no punctuation at all. John Gilbert, a non-LDS compositor, added them as he saw fit. Some of his punctuation choices have been officially changed. This one remains, but the text is clearer without it.)) the Lamanite lands extend from “the sea on the east and on the west.” That Mormon clearly intends that his readers understand that there were Lamanites near both seas is clear from Alma 22:28-29:

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

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

This creates a problem for the Heartland hypothesis.

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

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

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

The Heartland Hypothesis and the Land of Manti

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

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

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

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

There has been quite a debate over what “the head of the river Sidon” might mean. ((See J. Theodore Brandley, “Five Misunderstandings of the Book of Mormon Text that Veils Discovery of its Geography,” Interpreter Blog, (accessed Aug. 2015).)) The Heartland hypothesis suggests that it means the confluence of two bodies of water, possibly following the twenty-third definition in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary: “23 Body; conflux.” ((“Head,” in Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language. 1828, Kindle edition.)) I will not look at the merits of the selected definition, but simply accept it for purposes of this examination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heartland Hypothesis and the Narrow Neck of Land

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

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

And they did preserve the land southward for a wilderness, to get game. And the whole face of the land northward was covered with inhabitants. (Ether 10:20–21)

The city of Bountiful was close to this narrow neck and functioned as a protection against passage from the land southward into the land northward: “And he [Moroni] also sent orders unto him that he should fortify the land Bountiful, and secure the narrow pass which led into the land northward, lest the Lamanites should obtain that point and should have power to harass them on every side” (Alma 52:9).

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

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

And the Lamanites did give unto us the land northward, yea, even to the narrow passage which led into the land southward. And we did give unto the Lamanites all the land southward. (Mormon 2:28–29)

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

Conclusion Concerning Geography and the Heartland Hypothesis

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

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