May 17, 2011

Nephite Distances

How did the Nephites measure distance? This is especially important when trying to understand Book of Mormon geography. The most important clue Mormon gave us was the narrow neck of land. This passage led to the land northward. The narrow neck could be crossed in one day (and in a day and a half in another reference). What was the width of this landmark?

This has become a point of contention for many Book of Mormon students. They have not taken the description at face value, but have often expanded or shunken the distance to fit their particular model of geography. Thus in one case the narrow neck is suggested to be 140 miles wide, while in another it is thought to be 15. Which, if either, is correct? For that matter, how far could a Nephite walk in a day?
I believe that the best approach is to find out what the ancients thought of distance and travel time and not rely on modern concepts of distance.

One such reference is given in the account of Columbus' fourth voyage (2) to the Americas.   During his stay on the coast of western Panama he contacted some of the local natives who told him that it was a nine day journey across western Panama, to the Pacific--a distance of 65 miles.  This would average a little over 7 miles per day.  

Another example is that of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first Spaniard to actually cross the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean.  He set out from Antigua on the Caribbean Coast on Sept. 1, 1513 with 190 men and 1000 Indians.  The Indians had told him it would take 6 days to cross the 45 miles of mountains to the south sea (this would have averaged 7.5 miles a day). Balboa followed established Indian trails, but encountered many difficulties with hostile natives.  Finally on Sept. 28 he reached the shores of the Pacific--a total of 27 days, or less than 2 miles per day. This isn't a valid measure due to their difficulties en route, but the original estimate of 6 days travel time is valid.

Consider a third example. A description of travel across the mountains from San Isidro, Costa Rica to the capitol of San Jose (about a 40 mile journey). This is a more recent account, one before the Pan American Highway was built, which greatly facilitated travel along this route.
"One hundred years ago San Isidro was nothing more than a settlement populated by a hardy breed of pioneers. They survived on what they raised and collected locally--rice, tropical fruits and vegetables, pigs, dairy cattle, corn, coffee, sugar cane--and were basically self-sufficient. But for certain goods like clothing, tools and household utensils--manufactured items--they relied on trade with San José.
In those days there was no Inter-American highway. In fact, there was no road of any kind. (The highway came into being as a cart trail in the 1920s.) Valiant men loaded up their backs with 100- and 150-pound sacks of wild blackberries, dried corn and rice, and drove herds of pigs over the mountains to San José on foot. These men, shoeless and wearing little more than one thin shirt and a pair of pants, trudged through the mountains for a month [a month to go 40 miles!] to get their goods to market. There they traded for the much needed tools and utensils and the desired "finer" things available in the big city. After completing their trades they would make the month-long journey back to San Isidro loaded down again, this time with the clothes and refined goods that would lend a little civilization to their harsh existence."
"The route to San José took them over some of the highest mountains in Costa Rica. It was a treacherous and sometimes frightening way they walked. The most feared spot was one they named Cerro de la Muerte. Death Hill was not named, as one might imagine, for a spot where many men had fallen to their deaths. The area became infamous for the number of brave souls who lost their lives to the bitter cold as they negotiated this 11,500-foot-high section of the trail." (Michael L. Smith

A final example is given from the history of the exploratory Lewis and Clark expedition which traveled across the northern United States. This is a quote from their web site ( ).
"Since the smallest unit of time with which Indians were normally comfortable was the solar day (sunup-to-sunup), and since they possessed no long-range distance concepts other than time, when asked for the distances between places they usually answered in terms of travel time, expressed as days or 'sleeps.' 

How long it took to get from one known point ... to another ... depended on how the Indians made the trip. If they normally made the trip … to steal horses from the Shoshones, the distance between the two known points could have been '6 days.' On the other hand, if they traveled ... as part of a seasonal migration pattern, moving with entire villages--men, women, children, dogs, etc.--then the distance might have been '20 days' or more. Lewis and Clark translated the Indians' 'days' travel' into '25 miles'. Sometimes this worked. More often it did not and some wildly inaccurate distance estimates based on Indian information resulted."

From these examples, we can assume that an average day's travel ranged from about 2 miles to 25 miles per day. This according to historical sources. Apparently travel among the ancients was much different than what we experience in our day.  When we think in terms of marathon runners, and others who can travel 50 to 100 miles per day, and try and extrapolate this to Book of Mormon times and geography we are only deceiving ourselves.  It wasn't done by the average person in Mormon's day, or in the day of the Spaniard, and it isn't normally done in our day. Such exagerated distances are the exception, not the rule.