Geographic context indicates a Baja/So Cal setting for the Book of Mormon
There are quite a few reasons I personally prefer the Baja Peninsula and Southern California for the Book of Mormon’s setting.
Most of the events of the Book of Mormon transpired on a south-projecting peninsula
The land was surrounded by water on all sides except for a “small land bridge” to the north.
Throughout the Book of Mormon, longer travels and travels between lands (Nephi, Zarahemla, Bountiful, Desolation) happened from north to south and vice-versa. East-west travel is rarely mentioned.
The events transpired on “an isle of the sea” (2 Nephi 10:20–21), which indicates an island or peninsula in the language of Joseph Smith’s time.
East sea and west sea are frequently discussed throughout the Book of Mormon.
The relative isolation in the Book of Mormon is another clue. There were Lamanites to the far south, Mulekites some ways to the north in Zarahemla, Jaredite peoples lived further north. The lack of other civilizations and the fact that all known civilizations inhabited lands oriented from north to south indicates a south-pointing peninsula. If they had been in North America or mainland Mexico, for example, they would have other tribes in every cardinal direction and many of them would be to the east or west of them.
Some of the best description of the land comes from Alma 22:
Alma 22:32. And now, it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward.
The land was nearly surrounded by water, and could be crossed from the east sea to the west sea in a day and a half (Alma 22:32). This could mean a day and a half for an ultra-runner as both the Aztecs and Incans were capable of traversing more than 100 miles in one day. The Aztecs used a relay system to accomplish this feat. The Baja Peninsula is narrow enough and dry enough to accomplish such a crossing. It would be much more difficult in a wetter, swampier, or more jungle-like setting. At its narrowest, Baja is about 40 miles across and could be crossed in a day and a half by an ancient Incan or Aztec messenger at nearly any point.
Alma 22:33. And it came to pass that the Nephites had inhabited the land Bountiful, even from the east unto the west sea, and thus the Nephites in their wisdom, with their guards and their armies, had hemmed in the Lamanites on the south, that thereby they should have no more possession on the north, that they might not overrun the land northward.
Again, the scripture reiterates that the Nephites could access both east and west seas, being surrounded by water. Because the Lamanites could be “hemmed in” on the south, we know that there was quite a bottleneck and the Lamanites likely had nowhere else they could go to get around it. They were stuck on the southern tip of a southward-pointing peninsula.
Throughout the Book of Mormon, the population was only able to expand by northward migration and the two large population expansions mentioned in the Book of Mormon both seemed to focus on the land northward. These two expansions were (1) the Jaredite people leading up to their final war, and (2) the Nephite and Lamanite people leading up to their final war (see map below). Note that both final wars, each with huge warring populations, occurred in the same area, the Hill Cumorah/Ramah, which was in the land to the north. There was also a large population expansion in the land north leading up to the death of Christ and accompanying destruction.
All of the many migrations mentioned in the Book of Mormon were to the north (see map below). In one exception, some Nephites escaped final destruction by fleeing south but they were so far north at that point that they may have fled into mainland Mexico.
Potential for natural disasters
One clue is the natural disasters that struck the children of Lehi. Consider the destruction at Christ’s death. The Book of Mormon goes into great detail to describe a mega-quake, possibly accompanied by hurricane and/or volcanic activity. Baja is located on the ring of fire with several large fault lines running near and through the area. The proposed land northward is especially prone to destruction because its the junction of multiple faults running in different directions, including the San Andreas fault.
There is also discussion of terrible, destructive “east winds” in the Lamanite lands at the south tip of the peninsula. As I said in a previous post, hurricanes do strike the southern tip of Baja with tremendous force and the wind does blow to the east for the first, harder part of the hurricane until the eye passes and wind direction is reversed.
Another clue is the climate of Baja. Baja/So Cal is practically identical to the climate they would have experienced in Jerusalem and the Arabian Peninsula where they came from.
Seeds are region-specific, selected to thrive in the local conditions (length of growing season, max and min temperatures, and water). The large variety of seeds transported by Lehi’s party would not likely have thrived in an unfamiliar climate. Perhaps some of them would, but most of them would not have made it. Therefore, it is likely that the climate of the Book of Mormon in the New World was warm and dry like the area south of Jerusalem where the seeds were acquired.
And it came to pass that we did begin to till the earth, and we began to plant seeds; yea, we did put all our seeds into the earth, which we had brought from the land of Jerusalem. And it came to pass that they did grow exceedingly; wherefore, we were blessed in abundance. (1 Nephi 18:24)
Kent Crookston wrote an excellent book about the topic called Book of Mormon Ecology.
Water was limited.
Although surrounded by seas, the Book of Mormon New World appears to have little fresh water. River Sidon, the most prominent terrain feature in the Book of Mormon, and the only river mentioned in the New World, could be crossed by armies in the heat of battle (Alma 2:27, 16:6–7, 43:34–41), so it must have been fairly shallow in parts. Also, all of the Lamanites brought their flocks to the water of Sebus, a single location to drink water (Alma 17:26). This is surprising given that they are risking death to do so (Alma 17:26–29). To my knowledge, no other fresh water sources are mentioned.
Wars were not affected by cold weather
Snow is never indicated in the New World (though it is mentioned 20 times in the Old Testament). Wars in the Book of Mormon go on and on without a break for weather. Lamanites and Gadianton Robbers are depicted as wearing very little clothing (Alma 43:37, 44:18; 3 Nephi 4:7). In colder climes, warfare is heavily influenced by the seasons, and armies often get caught in early snow storms with disastrous consequences. There is no mention of this.
For more about warfare and climate, see this Fairmormon blog post: Weather in Relation to Book of Mormon Geography
All habitable lands were surrounded by “wilderness.”
Wilderness, is a term used 304 times in the King James Bible to refer to uncultivated pasture land or desert (Kingjamesbibledictionary.com). It is likewise used dozens of times in the first part of the Book of Mormon to refer to uncultivated pasture land and desert south of Jerusalem and on the Arabian Peninsula. In the new world, wilderness, is mentioned well over 100 times, with no indication that the wildernesses differ from those encountered in the Old World.
Once deforested, trees did not grow back.
When the Nephites entered the land to the north, they found it to be deforested, and great care was taken to allow the trees to return (Helaman 3:5–10).
And they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber… (Helaman 3:9)
This would be more likely to occur in a drier climate, like Afghanistan, where I have seen the effects of over-harvesting of trees resulting in zero available timber. In a wet climate, of course, trees would quickly spring up again.
More information about Book of Mormon climate
Kent Crookston, a retired professor of agriculture at BYU, makes a compelling case for Baja California as the New World Book of Mormon lands using mostly a climate argument.
Crookston also wrote an excellent book on the topic called Book of Mormon Ecology.
The greatest weakness of the model is also its strength
People complain that there is a lack of evidence of advanced civilizations on the Baja Peninsula. My interpretation is that the Nephite civilization was completely wiped out and their records were destroyed. They were displaced by a largely non-agrarian people (the Lamanites). Many of their dwellings were built of cement but we don’t know what kind of cement was used. There’s no reason to assume the dwellings would persist for thousands of years as though made of Roman cement. There has also been very little archaeology done on the Baja Peninsula because mainland Mexico is so much more exciting.
For me, the fact that there’s no trace of the Nephite civilization on Baja is not as big of a problem as the fact that we have tons of records and information about the mainland Mexico region but there is no trace of Nephite civilization there.
Here I’ve overlayed rough estimates of where the Book of Mormon lands may have been located over Google Earth imagery.
Resources: Check out achoiceland.com and Kent Crookston’s book, Book of Mormon Ecology for more information about a Baja setting for the Book of Mormon.
About the author
Aaron Charlton studied ancient military history and pre-history at BYU as an undergraduate. He also served as an air defense officer and an infantry officer in the U.S. Army with deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. This model is based on his military and history background and attempts to match the geography up to what is described in the Book of Mormon as closely as possible.