The Road to Cumorah
“Honey are you home?” Pres. Johnson had just gotten home from the mission office. No answer. “Oh, here’s a note.” He was talking to himself now.
Carl, I’ve gone to do my visiting teaching. Will be back at 9. There are some leftovers in the fridge. Love Tina.
“Oh, what am I going to do now? I had planned on spending the evening with her. I’m all ready for the missionary conference in the morning so I don’t need to worry about that. Oh well, maybe I’ll read a book.”
His wife had earlier recommended a church novel that she had just finished. He looked at it and read the back cover, but then decided he wasn’t in the mood for it. Then he remembered he had the copy of Chris Castillo’s journal in his briefcase. He had gone over it several times already, but wanted to review the part about finding the Hill Cumorah again. He turned to the back and began reading the entry for September 13, 2009.
I think we may have located the “Hill Cumorah”. There is a small mountain in eastern Guatemala, right on the coast, named Cerro San Gil. It seems to fit all the criteria. It is at the mouth of the large Motagua River near the town of Puerto Barrios. We spent the rest of the day looking up sources, maps, etc. and researching this site.
Several months had passed and John and Chris had made substantial progress. They had returned to Costa Rica several times following up on their earlier visits, and made additional discoveries. They had explored the Plains of San Carlos, north of the capitol, which they had identified as the Land of Bountiful. They had evaluated the coastal plains north of Limon for the Land of Jershon. They had even done aerial surveys of the area they believed was the Land of Bountiful, looking for signs of the ring formations that would have resulted from the trench and mound fortifications built by Moroni that he used to defend the Nephite cities. Everything seemed to match the criteria of the Book of Mormon. They were sure they were on the right track.
Now it was time to shift their emphasis to the north--north of the Narrow Neck of Land to the land of the Jaredites. Time to begin searching for the ultimate goal of Book of Mormon geography—to locate the Hill Cumorah and Mormon’s record cave.
John decided that they needed to map the towns and travels of the Nephites as they moved into what they had called the Land of Desolation, or the land northward. Many of the Nephites, Mulekites and Lamanites had started migrating northward shortly before the birth of Christ. This migration continued after Christ’s crucifixion, and intensified later as the Nephite group was driven from the lands of Zarahemla and Bountiful by their enemies, the Lamanites. Ultimately the Nephites were even driven farther northward out of the Land of Desolation.
They spent a day mapping out the migrations of the Nephites in their travels northward. They attempted to identify the cities and lands they traversed that were mentioned in the record. Most of this was found in Mormon’s record in chapters one through six. There Mormon outlines the Nephite retreat northward during the last battles. Chris jotted down notes while John read from Mormon chapters one through six.
The war began near the City of Zarahemla and the Nephites were driven to the north countries until they reached the city of Angola, then to the land of David, thence to the land of Joshua (which was near the west sea), then to the land of Jashon (which was near the land of Antum, and near the hill Shim, where Ammaron had earlier hid all the Nephite records), and finally north to the land of Shem. Then the Nephites became victorious again and regained all their lands back to the Narrow pass and the City of Desolation.
In the final battles, the Lamanites drove the Nephites out of the City of Desolation and from the Narrow Pass, and chased them north to the city of Teancum. This was near the seashore (which sea? It doesn’t say) and not far from Desolation. The Nephites recovered and drove the Lamanites back to Desolation, and out of their lands. The Lamanites once again came upon them and drove them out of Desolation north to the city of Boaz. Boaz seems to be north of Teancum.
Mormon seeing that the Lamanites are going to drive them completely out of the land, so went to the Hill Shim and recovered all the records that Ammaron had hid there. The Nephites then fled from Boaz to the city of Jordan and other nearby cities. Lamanites burned many towns and villages as they advanced northward. The Nephites were then driven out of the city of Jordan northward.
At this point Mormon arranged a truce with the Lamanite king that allowed them a space of time to gather all their people together at the Land of Cumorah. They gathered as many of their people as they could and all went to Cumorah to prepare for the last battle. Apparently Mormon had carried the records with them as they retreated.
John summed it up.
“All right. Taking the Isthmus of Rivas as the Narrow Neck of Land, we can conclude that the Nephites made a stand at the City of Desolation that we have identified as San Dimas on the Sapoa River near Penas Blancas, Costa Rica. They chose this place, as it is a natural defensive position located at the narrows of the river valley. From there the Lamanites drove them north to Teancum which was probably located near the city of Rivas at one of the archaeological sites along the shore of Lake Nicaragua. Later they were driven farther north to the city of Boaz. This would have been before reaching the Land of Antum and the Hill Shim. Later they are driven past the Land of Antum, and then even past the Land of Jordan. Finally Mormon arranges a truce with the Lamanites that gives them time to regroup farther away at the Land of Cumorah. I think it’s safe to assume that Cumorah was farther on past the Land of Jordan.”
“So we have a generic map of sorts of the land northward, but no specifics. We can tie it into the Isthmus of Rivas, and from the city of Boaz on, would probably be north of the isthmus. But where do we go from there?”
Chris suggested that they shift locations. “I think we should start at the other end—start with the Hill Cumorah itself. There are a lot of details about the hill aren’t there? I remember reading them.”
“Yes, you’re right! That’s a good idea,” replied John. “Let me get the list of criteria I worked up for the Hill Cumorah.”
He retrieved his list from the file and began reading them.
- Cumorah was "many days" travel from the Jaredite city of Moron (Ether 9:3).
- It was in a land of many waters, fountains, rivers, etc. (Morm. 6:4).
- It was near an eastern ocean or sea. The seashore was eastward (an unknown distance) from Cumorah (Ether 9:3). This ocean was called Ripliancum (which meant large or to exceed all) by the Jaredites (Ether 15:8).
- The hill Ramah of the Jaredites is the same as the hill Cumorah of the Nephites (Ether 15:11).
- It was located in the Nephite land northward; north of the land they called Desolation, and north of narrow neck of land (Mormon Ch. 4 and Ch. 5:3-7).
- It was located in an area that was large enough to contain at least 230,000 Nephites, plus the much larger invading Lamanite armies, and the area could support the Nephites for four years while they prepared for the final battle (Mormon 6).
- The hill was tall enough, and situated in such a way, that Mormon could hide on top and look down and see all his slain people below (Morm. 6:11).
- The hill was large enough, and of such a nature as to conceal 24 Nephite survivors from the Lamanites following the final battle (Mormon 6:11).
- The hill was composed of material (such as limestone) where a cave could be found in which to hide the Nephite records (Morm. 6:6).
- The hill afforded the Nephites a military advantage over the Lamanites (Morm 6:4). This advantage could have been strategic with natural barriers, such as rivers, lakes, etc.; higher ground; or existing fortifications left from the Jaredite wars. There may have been logistical advantages such as good supply of food and water to withstand a siege. There may have been large numbers of left over Jaredite arrow points, ax heads, etc. which could be re-used.
- The hill was geographically situated so that some surviving Nephites could escape southward (Morm. 6:15; 8:2), but apparently not northward. Northward should have been the logical choice as the land southward was filled with their enemies.
- There should be archeological evidence of a battle such as weaponry (flint points, ax heads, etc.), fortifications, or other artifacts from the dead. There should also be evidence of a large, but short term, Nephite habitation.
“That’s a lot of information,” commented Chris. “I think we should just start with the Atlantic shoreline and work northward from the level of the Narrow Neck and see if we can identify a mountain that would fit these criteria. It probably wouldn’t be any farther north than Mexico would it?”
“I don’t think so,” responded John. “Do we have any clues on how far they might have traveled to Cumorah?”
Chris: “Well you mentioned that it was ‘many days’ travel from the Jaredite city of Moron. Do we know where that was located?”
John looked up the reference to Moron.
Now the land of Moron, where the king dwelt, was near the land which is called Desolation by the Nephites (Ether 7:6).
“Now we just need to know what they meant by ‘near,’” commented John. “If the entire region from the Narrow Pass northward to the north edge of Nicaragua were considered the Land of Desolation, then Moron, or the capitol of the Jaredites, could have been somewhere around the Gulf of Fonseca which joins El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Are there any archaeological sites in that area Chris?”
“I think there are a few, but that region of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua has only been superficially explored. There could be a major ancient city in that area that has never been discovered, especially if there were no pyramids or monumental architecture present. But I’ll have to look at the literature to be sure. I understand that northern Nicaragua was covered with a blanket of volcanic ash that has effectively covered most ruins if there were any.”
They spent the next several days researching the literature for any sites in the area that might date to the Jaredite time period. There were a few, but most were of later dates, and there didn’t seem to be any immediately around the Gulf of Fonseca. But Chris had been right. The experts all lamented that there had been very little work carried out in that region.
They decided to assume that the city of Moron had been located near the Gulf of Fonseca, and use that as a point of reference in attempting to locate Cumorah. They found that there were two basic routes from there to the east sea. One was a northerly, more direct route, that bisected Honduras along two major valleys and crossed the mountains over a low pass. That had apparently been an ancient trade route from the Pacific to the Caribbean for eons. The other was a westerly route along the coastal plain of El Salvador which then turned north and crossed the mountains over some low passes to reach the Motagua River Valley in Guatemala. This valley was a gentle corridor eastward to the sea and was also one of the ancient trade routes. Both routes led to the Gulf of Honduras, meeting at the point where the northern Honduran coast makes a ninety-degree angle with the coasts of Guatemala and Belize.
They examined the maps of Guatemala and Honduras to see if there were any mountains or hills along the seacoast that would match Cumorah’s description. They were amazed to find one near this juncture of trade routes. It is an isolated extension of the Los Micos Mountains. This is a chain of mountains that runs along the north side of the Motagua River Valley. The mountain is called Cerro San Gil, named after an early Spanish explorer. It is separated from the main mountain chain by some low hills. It rises 4000 feet above the adjacent bay and is surrounded on two sides by water, and on a third by the Motagua River. The reports indicated that it is covered with springs and streams.
Excitedly, they compared it with John’s criteria for Cumorah.
Chris: “It’s about 300 to 400 miles from the Gulf of Fonseca, depending upon which route you take. That would be about 20 to 27 days travel at 15 miles per day. That fits the criteria for ‘many days travel’ from the city of Moron.”
“It’s also surrounded on two sides by water, and looking at the map I see many streams flowing down it. This meets the criteria.”
John: “Right! And it’s near the Caribbean--another criteria met. It’s also located north of the Land of Desolation. And from the map I can see that the Cerro San Gil and the surrounding area is large enough to contain the Nephite population as well as the invading Lamanite armies.”
“How many people would that have been?” wondered Chris.
“I would estimate that there were between one and three million people at the last battle,” replied John. “We are told that there were 230,000 Nephites, and probably many more Lamanites—at least enough to make their victory decisive.”
Chris: “From the size and topography of the mountain, it is obvious that Mormon and the Nephite survivors could have remained hidden from the Lamanites for some time. And Mormon, from above, could have looked down and observed the destruction below.”
“Another criteria met,” added John. “As far as some Nephites escaping southward, that is the only way one could travel from Cerro San Gil is south. To the north you are blocked by Lake Izabal. And as far as the archaeological evidence goes, we’ll have to evaluate that on site or from the archaeological reports of the area.”
They spent the next week gathering and studying all the information they could find on the Cerro San Gil and the surrounding region. They found that the area had recently been set apart as a protected area by the Guatemalan government and was being managed by an environmental group known as FUNDAECO. There were a number of local and Indigenous groups living in small communities on and around the mountain.
The area was indeed well watered with at least 27 springs and 19 streams flowing down its slopes. These streams and springs provided water to forty small communities located around the base of the mountain. In particular, there were many springs around the eastern end at a place called Las Escobas, and on the northern side around the Rio Bonito. There were at least six caves reported on the east side near the village of Cocona, and another cave near the village of Los Angeles on the Rio Vicente.
There had been relatively little archaeological research conducted in the entire state (department) of Izabal, which included the mountain. Unfortunately it was in the shadow of the more famous archaeological sites to the north. However three recent surveys had revealed that there were thousands of small pyramids or what they called “monticulos” along the small stream courses which flowed down the mountain. These were the type of mounds that might form the plaza of a village. They also might have been burial mounds. The interesting point of this study was that the habitations were only short term and they dated to the Late Classic time period, roughly 400 AD. In addition they had discovered another interesting anomaly. The stone artifacts, such as arrow points, ax heads, stone knives, etc., outnumbered the ceramic ones resulting from pottery, bowls, water jars, etc. Normally this would have been the reverse.
From this information John and Chris inferred that the groups residing here had engaged in warfare, that they had only lived there a short time, and finally that the events had occurred at the same time as the Nephite extinction.
But John was puzzled. “If this is the right place, why is there no mention of bones? There should be bones all over the place, shouldn’t there?”
“Not really,” replied Chris. “In the tropics bones lying on the surface decay rather quickly. They have done studies on the rate of bone decay and found that exposed bones can completely disappear in as few as fifteen years. In a dry climate they can last for hundreds of years, but not in the humid, wet tropics. Sometimes buried bones will last a long time. But even with burial they will disappear after a thousand years. For example in Costa Rica, where we have been investigating recently, the reports say that very few graves have any bones left in them. If there were anything left from the Nephite corpses it would be the teeth. Human teeth are almost like rock and will last a long time.”
That satisfied John, and he was now convinced that this could be the original Hill Cumorah. In their research they had also learned that one of the ancient obsidian sources was along the Motagua Valley several days travel to the west. This was a valuable resource for the ancients and provided them with stone weapons, kitchen knives, etc. In addition archaeologists had recently discovered the ancient Olmec jade mines which were also along the Motagua Valley to the west. This was indeed a well-used trade route. John pointed out that Mormon probably knew this area beforehand. He was raised in the north countries and seems to have known about the Land of Cumorah when he chose it as the Nephite’s last stand.
That evening John seemed a little dejected. Chris asked him what was wrong.
“Oh, it’s just that we’re almost finished. I think we’re really on to it, and in a little while it will be over. Our great adventure will be finished.”
“Well I think it’s great!” commented Chris. “What’s wrong with accomplishing our goal? That’s what we’ve been working for, and now we’re almost there. That’s to rejoice about!”
“I guess I’m a little strange. Maybe I got it from my dad. He used to tell me ‘the search is the treasure’”.
“What does that mean?” Chris wanted to know.
“My dad was a part-time gold prospector. We used to go out searching in the desert all the time, but he would hardily ever find anything. One time we were returning home and he was happily whistling as he usually did. I was a little discouraged and asked him how he could be so happy when we hadn’t found anything. He replied ‘the search is the treasure’. He explained that he enjoyed looking for the gold as much as he probably would if he found it. He said he knew lots of people who had big dreams that were eventually realized, after which their life lost it’s meaning. He didn’t want that to happen to him. And, speaking personally, I don’t want that to happen to me either,” concluded John.
The next day John was back to his old self. Chris wasn’t surprised when John told him to pack up. He had purchased tickets for Guatemala, and they were flying out that afternoon.
They spent the next week exploring the area around Cerro San Gil, and climbing the mountain, when they could get approval. They found that they needed to get a pass from the group that was controlling access to the mountain, and their requests weren’t always granted. It was a lovely area with Lake Izabal and the Rio Dulce beautifying the northern side, and the majestic mountain dominating the center, usually crowned with towering clouds covering it’s summit. The grasslands at the base of the mountain added a touch of pastoral beauty to complete the picture. The springs and streams were even more beautiful than they had imagined from their reading. However the local inhabitants were some of the most impoverished in the country. Many of them were pure Indians of the Quiche Maya who had inhabited the region for centuries.
They identified the sections of the mountain that were composed of limestone. John felt that these areas would be the most likely to host the caves that Mormon could have used to hide his records. After they had done all they could on the ground, they returned home.
John’s plan was to purchase a sophisticated metal detector that could be attached to the undercarriage of a helicopter. This could be used to pinpoint anything metallic within several hundred meters. Then they would do an aerial survey of the mountain noting any anomalies that might indicate metallic objects below. They would then follow up those anomalies on the ground with a deep penetrating hand held metal detector. John was familiar with these detectors from his days as a geologist, and he quickly located the best ones available and purchased them.
But now came the hard part. Getting official permission could be difficult. First, he contacted one of his previous professors at the Colorado School of Mines and talked him into sponsoring him in a geological survey of the Cerro San Gil. With that in writing, showing the sponsorship of a university, he corresponded with the Guatemalan bureaucracy. It took a little time, but with a little currency greasing the wheels, he finally got official approval for the fly over. They set a date, arranged for a local pilot, and notified the proper local authorities.
Just to be safe, they arrived in Guatemala several days early. They met the helicopter pilot at the small airport in Puerto Barrios the day before the planned flight and spent several hours attaching the metal detector. John had calculated that they would need to fly a grid pattern with the grids spaced 400 meters apart. They would first survey the limestone areas that they had outline, and if that wasn’t fruitful, then survey the rest of the mountain. The mountain itself was twenty kilometers long by ten wide. This would require about 25 flyovers. They had scheduled the whole day and hoped to finish in six hours if nothing went wrong. They started out with east to west flights on the south side of the mountain, orienting themselves easily with a GPS. The pilot tried to stay approximately two hundred meters above the surface. Fortunately there was no wind or updrafts that day which made it relatively easy to control the helicopter. By the time the clouds started to build over the peak, they were starting down the North Slope at a lower elevation and out of the cloud cover. They had wisely brought along an automatic graphing device that recorded the magnetic readings on each pass and matched them with periodic GPS readings.
In several areas there were cast iron pipelines carrying water from higher springs to the villages down below. These pipelines gave especially high readings every time they were crossed, so they knew the detector was working properly.
There were quite a few curious locals on the ground who were undoubtedly wondering what this noisy monster was doing disturbing their peaceful environment. But the survey went without a hitch and they were through by 4 pm. John had the pilot circle back over two especially strong anomalies and got precise GPS readings of the locations. They landed back at Puerto Barrios by 5, paid off the pilot, and arranged for him to come another day if they should need him. They packed up the detector, and took their equipment and readings back to the hotel.
After dinner they analyzed what they had found. There were a number of smaller anomalies, but only two really strong ones, other than the iron pipelines. They were on opposite sides of the mountain, so would require two separate trips on the ground. They decided to look at the strongest one first. It was on the west side of the mountain. The next day they boxed up their equipment and arranged for the hotel to store it for them. Then they moved their headquarters over to Rio Dulce on the west side of the mountain, where they rented a fancy room right on the shore of the lake.