Travel across the "Narrow Neck of Land"

In recent years a number of Book of Mormon scholars have associated the “narrow neck of land” mentioned by Mormon with the Mexican Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Mormon states that it was approximately “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” (Alma 22:32). This was the speed “for a Nephite,” and presumably a group of people or even a non-Nephite might take longer. Moreover, since Mormon was speaking of a fortified line of defense along which communication would be desirable, the phrase “for a Nephite” may refer to the time it would take for a messenger or courier.

John L. Sorenson has documented examples of native Mexican runners traveling distances of up to 100 miles in a day.1 We need not assume, however, that the entire journey was by foot. More than half of this distance could have been traveled by water along the Coatzacoalcos River, speeding up the journey considerably. Mesoamerican historian Ross Hassig notes that in travels by sea from Veracruz to Coatzacoalcos, “canoes were employed to go up the Coatzacoalcos River to Antigua Malpaso, where land transport was employed for the remaining 12 leagues to Tehuantepec. This route was also employed in traveling between Mexico City and Tehuantepec, [because] water transportation was easier than overland travel.”2

In the mid-19th century, “the products of the Pacific side, destined for the Gulf Coast, [were] first brought down to this place [Antigua Malpaso] for embarkation; and occasional cargoes of goods from Vera Cruz ascend[ed] the river to this point, from whence they [were] carried to the Pacific plains on mules.”3 A similar route used during the same time period followed this route to Suchil at the head of the Coatzacoalcos River and from there down to city of Tehuantepec along the Pacific coast.4

In the Tehuantepec region, light balsa wood rafts are frequently hewn out of trees and used for transportation along the local water routes. “The dexterity with which the Indians manage these balsas (often heavily laden), in passing over terrible rapids and through narrow passages filled with rugged rocks, where even a canoe could not possibly live, is truly surprising.”5 Kamar Al-Shimas notes that various kinds of canoes are also used in this region: “When ascending the river the boat is kept within arm’s length of the bank, and fifteen miles with a heavily loaded canoe or thirty miles with a light traveling-canoe is accounted a good day’s work. In descending the stream, paddles are used, the canoe is kept to the center of the stream to take advantage of the current, and fifty miles is easily accomplished between daylight and set of the sun.”6

While it was a day and a half journey on the defensive line “from the east to the west sea” (Alma 22:32), it was apparently only a day’s journey “from the west sea unto the east” (Helaman 3:7). Although other interpretations are possible, these two passages would make sense if part of that journey was by water, since those traveling eastward would be going downstream and could presumably move much faster with the current than would those journeying upstream.

By Matthew Roper

Notes

1. See John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book, 1992, 393-94.

2. Ross Hassig, Trade, Tribute, and Transportation: The Sixteenth Century Political Economy of the Valley of Mexico, 1985, 175-76 (map included).

3. J. J. Williams, The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, 1852, 239-40.

4. See Miguel Covarrubias, Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, 1947, 168.

5. Williams, Isthmus of Tehuantepec, 247.

6. Kamar Al-Shimas, The Mexican Southland, 1922, 149; emphasis added.