North American Book of Mormon Geography: The River Sidon

By Theodore Brandley

Thanks to everyone who has participated in this discussion thus far. Your input is respected and appreciated. The purpose of this series of articles is to open a forum for the proponents of the two major North American theories on Book of Mormon geography and to explore a possible connection between them. Although there are some theories that are beyond the scope of these articles, most who have participated seem to agree that the narrative in the Promised Land occurred on the Continent of North America. I think all participants would agree that Moroni hid the plates from which The Book of Mormon was translated, and that he later revealed to Joseph Smith the hiding place of those plates to be in a hill near Palmyra, New York.

The dominant geographical feature in The Book of Mormon is the River Sidon. It is the only named river and is mentioned twenty-eight times in the text. It may be said that the River Sidon is the Nile of The Book of Mormon. If the river Sidon can be correctly identified then all other geographical locations should flow from it (pun intended). It is first mentioned in connection with the land of Zarahemla (Alma 2:15). The land of Zarahemla was established by the party of Mulek, son of King Zedekiah of Jerusalem, when the Lord led them across the sea. “And they journeyed in the wilderness, and were brought by the hand of the Lord across the great waters, into the land where Mosiah discovered them; and they had dwelt there from that time forth” (Helaman 6:10, 8:21; Omni 1:15-16). The Phoenicians are the only people at the time known to have the capability of crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The Greek Historian Herodotus, recorded that the Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian Gulf Coast of Egypt in 600 BC, and in two years circumnavigated Africa. ((Phoenician History: The Phoenician Ship Expedition, http://www.phoenicia.org.uk/educating-phoenician-history.htm (12 May 2016))) It is interesting that the Mulek Party journeyed through the wilderness prior to crossing the great waters. It is probable that they fled from Jerusalem across the Sinai to Egypt where they bought passage on a Phoenician ship. That it was probably Phoenicians who first sailed up the Book of Mormon river is substantiated by the name Sidon. It was probably a Phoenician captain from the home port of Sidon who first sailed up the river and so named it.

The head of the river Sidon was south of Zarahemla near Manti and the narrow strip of wilderness (Alma 6:7; Alma 17:1; Alma 22:27). It has been traditionally assumed that the head of the river Sidon was the “head waters” of the river and therefore its source in the highlands. This would mean that the river ran from south to north. However, a study of the context reveals that the “head of the river Sidon” is not its source. Dr. Hugh Nibley is the only one I am aware of to make note of this. Speaking extemporaneously about the head of the river Sidon mentioned in Alma 22:27 he said, “If that’s the head of the river, I suppose it’s the source of the river. Well, it may be the head of the river where it empties. Sidon goes the other way, I think.” ((Hugh Nibley, Teachings of The Book of Mormon–Semester 1: Transcripts of Lectures Presented to an Honors Book of Mormon Class at Brigham Young University, 1988—1990, Provo: FARMS, p.143))

Consider the text Dr. Nibley was referring to in Alma 22:27:

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 (emphasis added)

From the above we find:

  1. The narrow strip of wilderness ran east and west round about on the edge of the seashore
  2. Zarahemla was north of the seashore and north of Manti (see also Alma 6:7, 17:1)
  3. Manti was near the narrow strip of wilderness, that was by the sea
  4. The head of the river Sidon was by the narrow strip of wilderness, that was by the sea

 Conclusion: As rivers run to the sea, the river Sidon ran from Zarahemla south to Manti and through the east-west narrow strip of wilderness to the “head of the river Sidon” near the sea. There is a second witness from the text in Alma 50:11 confirming that the head of the river Sidon was by the sea:

And thus he cut off all the strongholds of the Lamanites in the east wilderness, yea, and also on the west, fortifying the line between the Nephites and the Lamanites, between the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi, from the west sea, running by the head of the river Sidon (emphasis added)

As rivers run to the sea, the river Sidon therefore flowed from Zarahemla south to the “head of the river Sidon” and into the sea. That the Sidon actually ran to the sea is confirmed when we read that after a major battle the dead bodies that were thrown into the river Sidon near Zarahemla were carried into the sea (Alma 2:15, 3:3). Incidentally, the Sidon, River entry in the LDS Index To The Triple Combination used to read, “most prominent river in Nephite territory, runs north to sea.” The new 2013 Index now reads, “most prominent river in Nephite territory.” In the LDS Index, the Sidon no longer runs north.

In a recent Interpreter article and presentation ((Stanford Carmack, The Implications of Past-Tense Syntax in the Book of Mormon, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 119-186)) Stanford Carmack makes a compelling case for the Book of Mormon being translated into Early Modern English of the 16th and 17th Centuries. A search of the phrase, “head of the river” in the library, Early English Books Online (EEBO), reveals that to a seaman in that time period it meant the mouth of the river, rather than its source. This agrees with the context of the Book of Mormon, which indicates that the “head of the river Sidon” was the mouth of the river.

Examples:

  1. In 1631 Captain Luke Foxe searched the west shores of Hudson Bay for a northwest passage to the Orient, following the attempt of Sir Thomas Button 18 years earlier. In August, Captain Fox entered the mouth of the Nelson River to find wood for repairs to his ship and food for his crew. He wrote:

“In the mouth of Port Nelson at first comming of the tyde…This day we consulted and consented to goe, into Port Nelson, for these reasons following.

1 Considering what hazzard wee had vndergone, for want of our Pinnace, she being made ready for setting vp, yet for the losse of time, we were content to hazard it, having •i• so faire weather, as I was loath, but to make good vse thereof.

2 The wind was contrary to go Southwards, and like to be bad weather.

3 The Pinnace could not be set up in the Ship as I desired.

4 I hoped to have some intelligence by the Salvages, and to search the head of the River of which I did know nothing from Sir Tho. Button.

5 I was in great hope to get a Maine yard, amongst so many trees, as also some refreshing, fresh water and fire wood, and to rummidge the Ship, and to see her on ground, and to make her cleane or to repaire what else she wanted, as Ballast, or else what.” ((Title: North-vvest Fox, or, Fox from the North-west passage. By Captaine Luke Foxe of Kingstone vpon Hull, capt. and pylot for the voyage, in his Majesties Pinnace the Charles. Printed by his Majesties command.

Author: Foxe, Luke, 1586-1635.

Publication Info: London : Printed by B. Alsop and Tho. Favvcet, dwelling in Grubstreet [for M. Sparke], 1635.

Collection: Early English Books Online)) (sic, emphasis added)

As the source of the Nelson River was 400 miles upstream in Lake Winnipeg, and not navigable with deep draft ocean going vessels, his reference to “the head of the river” could only mean its mouth where it emptied into the Hudson Bay.

  1. Admiral Sir Richard Hawkins on his voyage along the Atlantic Coast of South America in 1593 makes this interesting entry into his log:

 

“The 18. of December, wee set sayle the wind at North-east, and directed our course for the Straites of Magalianes. The twenty two of this moneth, at the going too of the Sunne, we descryed a Por∣tingall ship, and gaue her chase, and comming within hayling of her, shee rendred her selfe, without any resistance, shee was of an hundred Tuns bound for Angola to load Negroes, to be carried and sold in the River of Plate; It is a trade of great profit, & much vsed, for that the Negroes are carried from the head of the river of Plate, to Patosi, to labour in the Mynes. It is a bad Negro, who is not worth there fiue or six hundreth peeces, every peece of tenne Ryals, which they receiue in Ryals of Plate, for there is no other Marchan∣dize in those partes. Some haue told me, that of late they haue found out the trade, and benefit of Cochanillia, but the River suffe∣reth not vessels of burthen; for if they drawe aboue eight or seaven foote water, they cannot goe further; then the mouth of the Ri∣ver, and the first habitation is aboue a hundred and twenty leagues vp, whereunto many Barkes trade yearely, and carry all kinde of Marchandize serving for Patosi and Paraquay; the money which is thence returned, is distributed in all the Coast of Brasill.” ((Title: The observations of Sir Richard Havvkins Knight, in his voiage into the South Sea. Anno Domini 1593.

Author: Hawkins, Richard, Sir, 1562?-1622.

Publication Info: London : Printed by I[ohn] D[awson] for Iohn Iaggard, and are to be sold at his shop at the Hand and Starre in Fleete-streete, neere the Temple Gate, 1622.

Collection: Early English Books Online)) (sic, emphasis added)

From the head of the River Plate (Rio de la Plata) the slaves were transported up the river to Patosi in Bolivia to work in the silver mines. As Admiral Hawkins pointed out, the river was too shallow for ocean going vessels, and he equates the mouth of the river with the head of the river.

  1. In the 1700 English translation of the Greek Historian, Diodorus the Sicilian, we read:

“The Eighth of this King’s Race, call’d after the Name of his Father Ʋchoreus, built Memphis, the most Famous City of Egypt. For he chose the most convenient Place for it in all the Country, where Nile divides it self into several Branches, and makes that part of the Country call’d Delta, so nam’d from the shape of the Greek Letter Delta, which it resembles. The City being thus conveniently si∣tuated at the Head of the River, commands all the Shipping that sail up it.” ((THE Historical Library OF Diodorus the Sicilian. BOOK I. > THE SECOND PART OF THE FIRST BOOK OF Diodorus the Sicilian. > CHAP. IV.

Publication Info: London : Printed by Edw. Jones for Awnsham and John Churchill … and Edw. Castle …, 1700.

Collection: Early English Books Online)) (sic, emphasis added)

Memphis was located at the mouth of the Nile where it fans out to form the Nile River Delta.

Conclusion:

Researching the EEBO reveals that in those days, for people on land “the head of the river” usually meant the source of the river as it does today. However, in all references from a seaman’s perspective, it meant the mouth of the river. This is consistent with the text of The Book of Mormon. To a sea captain, the proper Early English term for the mouth of the Sidon would be “the head of the river Sidon.”

The dominant geographical feature in The Book Of Mormon is the river Sidon. Likewise, the dominant geographical feature in North America, east of the Rocky Mountains, is the Mississippi River system. The Mississippi River System drains most of the North American Continent between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. The Ohio/Allegheny branch of the Mississippi River system runs to within one hundred miles of Palmyra, New York. Rivers were the continental highways of the ancients. Rivers were their principle trade routes. Their settlements and cities were established on the banks of the rivers. Rivers also provided food and a water supply for the communities. Steep river-banks were often used for natural protection from enemy attacks. The Nephites were particularly a shipping and boating civilization. This heritage started with Nephi and their journey across the ocean, and Helaman tells us that more than five hundred years later they were still a ship-building and a shipping people (Helaman 3:10-14). The Mississippi links the hill where Moroni revealed the Gold Plates with Mesoamerica. The Mississippi River may be the link that ties together truths in the Mesoamerica and the Northeastern America theories. I therefore propose the hypothesis that the Mississippi is the river Sidon.

As with any hypothesis it must be thoroughly tested and I invite all of you to assist me with this. You can begin by critiquing what I have written above. I will then follow up by suggesting matches of other major Book of Mormon areas and features in the text to the North American geography to see if they will all fit. I believe that the result will link the main competing theories of Book of Mormon geography.

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