Early Mormon convert and church leader W. W. Phelps was right to place core Jaredite civilization in temperate North America; but he erroneously associated the Book of Mormon land of Desolation with the Great Plains. This raises a question: Could an early Mormon journal reference to a land “called the land of desolation” in Illinois, have something to do with Phelps’ published opinion?


W. W. Phelps, publisher of the EVENING AND MORNING STAR, had this to say about the Jaredite nation centered in mound builder North America:


            THE Book of Mormon contains a short history of a race of people, which lived on this continent many generations before the children of Israel came to it. This brief account was written by a prophet of the Lord, named Ether; and his account, embracing a period from the confounding of the language at the building of Babel, to about 600 years before the birth of the Savior is supported by the Bible; for the Lord declares, that he scattered them abroad from thence, upon the face of all the earth. This nation, which, in honor of one of the first families that came over, were called Jaredites, must have had the unmolested control and use of America, near 1500 years. No nation, since then, can boast of so long a national existence; and but few before: the Adamites, or, at least, some Cainites, had the world to themselves about 1600 years before the flood.—As to the Jaredites, no more is known than is contained in The Book of Ether. Perhaps "Dighton writing Rock," in Massachusetts, may hold an unknown tale in relation to these Pioneers of the land of liberty, which can yet be revealed. God is great, and when we look abroad in the earth, and take a glimpse through the long avenue of departed years, we can not only discover the traces in artificial curiosities, and common works, and small hills, mountain caves, and extensive prairies, where the Jaredites filed the measure of their time, but, as they were a very large race of men, whenever we hear that uncommon large bones have been dug up from the earth, we may conclude, That was the skeleton of a Jaredite. The mystery of man in this world, has not been unfolded to all, yet; and it may not be, in full, till the Savior comes; but enough has come to light, in these last days, to show that man was made to multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it, whether a few branches of christendom knew it or not…” (EVENING AND MORNING STAR, Vol. I, August, 1832. No. 3, pg. 22 - emphasis added)


The vast prairies of North America were alleged by Brother Phelps to be the Book of Mormon land of Desolation:


            THE far west, as the section of country from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains may justly be styled, is not only distant from the Atlantic States, but different. Its principal river, running rapidly from the 48th to the 39th degree of north latitude, is always rily, always wearing away its banks and always making new channels: It is rightly named Missouri; for in plain English, it looks like the waters of misery,—or troubled water:—even as the sea which the prophet said, Casts up mire and dirt. With the exception of the skirts of timber upon the streams of water, this region of country is one continued field, or prairie, (as the French have it, meaning meadows,) and there is something ancient as well as grand about it, too; for while the eye takes in a large scope of clear field, or extensive plains, decorated with here and there a patch of timber, like the orchards which beautify the farms in the east, the mind goes back to the day, when the Jaredites were in their glory upon this choice land above all others, and comes on till they, and even the Nephites, were destroyed for their wickedness: Here pause and look to the east, and read the words of the prophet: Wo to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower, which is on the head of the fat valleys of them that are overcome with wine! Behold, the Lord hath a mighty and strong one, which as a tempest of hail and a destroying storm, as a flood of mighty waters overflowing, shall cast down to the earth with the hand.—The crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim, shall be trodden under feet: and the glorious beauty, which is on the head of the fat valley, shall be a fading flower, and as the hasty fruit before the summer; which when he that looketh upon it seeth, while it is yet in his hand he eateth it up. In that day shall the Lord of hosts be for a crown of glory, and for a diadem of beauty, unto the residue of his people, and for a spirit of judgment to him that sitteth in judgment, and for strength to them that turn the battle to the gate.

            To return: this beautiful region of country is now mostly, excepting Arkansas and Missouri, the land of Joseph or the Indians, as they are called, and embraces three fine climates: First, like that of New-York; second, like Missouri, neither northern nor southern; and third, like the Carolinas. This place may be called the centre of America; it being about an equal distance from Maine, to Nootka sound; and from the gulf of St. Lawrence to the gulf of California; yea, and about the middle of the continent from cape Horn, south, to the head land at Baffin's Bay, north. The world will never value the land of Desolation, as it is called in the book of Mormon, for any thing more than hunting ground, for want of timber and mill-seats: The Lord to the contrary notwithstanding, declares it to be the land of Zion which is the land of Joseph, blessed by him, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that coucheth beneath, and for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and for the precious things put forth by the moon, and for the chief things of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the lasting hills, and for the precious things of the earth and fulness thereof, and for the good will of him that dwelt in the bush: let the blessing come upon the head of Joseph, and upon the top of the head of him that was separated from his brethren. His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together from the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.

            When we consider that the land of Missouri is the land where the saints of the living God are to be gathered together and sanctified for the second coming of the Lord Jesus, we cannot help exclaiming with the prophet, O land be glad! and O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord: For Zion's sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth. And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name. Thou shalt also be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God. Thou [Jerusalem] shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land [Zion] any more be termed Desolate; but thou shalt be called Hephzi-bah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord deliteth in thee, and thy land shall be married, [joined together] so that the land of Zion, and the land of Jerusalem will be one, as they were before the days of Peleg: For in his days the earth was divided or separated to receive the oceans, on account of wickedness. Peleg died 305 years after Noah's flood: Abram's father was born 210 years after the flood, and Abram 288 after, which brings to mind Joshua's words unto all the people, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor, and they served other gods. The building of Babel was wickedness, and serving other gods was wickedness: so that dividing, or opening the earth to let in the waters, which were in the beginning gathered unto one place, is one of the Lord's great miracles, and shows to the world that them that look for signs among the wicked, have them to their own condemnation in all ages.But, reader, stop and pause at the greatness of God; and remember that even Moses, when on the top of Pisgah, lifted up his eyes and looked westward first, to view the promised land.” (EVENING AND MORNING STAR, Vol. I, September, 1832. No. 4, pg. 37 - emphasis added)

            “What the design of our heavenly Father was or is, as to these vast prairies of the far west, I know no farther than we have revelation. The book of Mormon terms them the land of desolation, and when I get into a prairie so large that I am out of sight of timber, just as a seaman is "out of sight of land in the ocean," I have to exclaim, what is man and his works, compared to the Almighty and his creations? Who hath viewed his everlasting fields? Who hath counted his buffaloes;—who hath seen all his deer, on a thousand prairies? Well may his sacred word declare:—The cattle upon a thousand hills are mind. All are God's…

W. W. Phelps.

To O. Cowdery, Esq.” (MESSENGER AND ADVOCATE, Vol. 2, July, 1836, No. 22, pg. 341 - emphasis added)


A land “called the land of desolation” extending through Illinois???

From Levi Hancock’s record of Zion’s Camp (1834):

“Nothing occurred of any account until we got in Illinois when Joseph said, in our tent, “I want you to remember what I say to you. The Lord is going to give us dry weather now until we get through. He has given rains that there might be water on the prairies. You will see the movings of the Lord in our favor all the way through.” It began to be very pleasant and soon we entered on the wide prairies camping and holding meetings on Sunday…

…On the way to Illinois River where we camped on the west side. In the morning many went to see the big mound about a mile below the crossing. I did not go on it but saw some bones that were brought back with a broken arrow. They were laid down by our camp. Joseph Smith addressing himself to Sylvester Smith and said, “This is what I told you and now I want to tell you that you may know what I meant. This land was called the land of desolation and Onedages was the King and a good man was he. There in that mound did he bury his dead and did not dig holes as the people do now, but they brought their dirt and covered them until you see they have raised it to be about one hundred feet high. The last man buried was Zelf or Telf. He was a white Lamanite who fought with the people of Onedagus for freedom….” These words he said as the camp was moving off the mounds as near as I could learn he had told them something about the mound and got them to go and see it for themselves. I then remembered what he had said a few days before while passing many mounds on our way …” (Autobiography of Levi Hancock (1803-1882), pg. 27 - emphasis added)


The remark reportedly made by Joseph Smith to Sylvester Smith during Zion’s Camp in Illinois, in which Joseph ostensibly identified the wide prairies as a land “called the land of desolation”, is an unverified second or third-hand statement attributed to Joseph Smith by Levi Hancock. We do not know firsthand what Joseph actually said on the subject to Sylvester Smith. In the Levi Hancock account, Joseph does not explicitly identify the wide North American prairies as the identical land of Desolation mentioned in the Book of Mormon. We do not know for certain whether Levi Hancock actually overheard Joseph Smith’s comments to Sylvester Smith, or whether Levi Hancock recorded the alleged statement third-hand. Perhaps the published opinion of W. W. Phelps on “the land of Desolation” had something to do with the alleged remarks made to Sylvester Smith. Perhaps not. It is possible that Levi Hancock only partially understood what had been discussed or stated.

The Levi Hancock journal entry is not an authoritative source for placing covenant lands of the Book of Mormon.  Among the best sources are LDS scripture and verifiable statements made by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Relying on anything less can lead to a mass of confusion!

The Illinois prairies situate in lands the Lord calls “the south countries”. (E.g. LDS Doctrine and Covenants 75:8) These heartland prairies do not match the Book of Mormon plains of the Jaredites! The Jaredite plains of “Heshlon” and “Agosh” in the “north country” were in the vicinity of large bodies of water. (Alma 22:30-32, Ether 1:1; 13:28-29; 14:11-16, 26; 15:8)

What are the scriptural facts about the Book of Mormon land of Desolation?

(1)    The scriptural land of Cumorah (in the Finger Lakes region, LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20) is actually eastward from the land of Desolation. (Ether 7:5-6; 9:3; 14:11-13, 26) The textual setting fits perfectly western NY. Note that the shores of Lake Iroquois-Ontario and ancient lakes in the region, account for one or more “seashore”. Note that king Omer, departing the Jaredite seat of power near Desolation (Ether 7:5-6), didn’t travel up (south) or down (north) (characteristic of other Book of Mormon lands) but “over by the place where the Nephites were destroyed [Cumorah], and from thence eastward”; and that Nimrah likewise “came over and dwelt with Omer.” (Ether 9:3, 9) Note Coriantumr’s general “eastward” movement (Ether 14:11, 26), finally arriving at the hill Ramah in the land Cumorah, south of Lake Iroquois/Ontario - Ripliancum. (Ether 15:8-11, Mormon 6:5-6)  

(2)    The plains of the Jaredites match the local NY plains which extend west and east along the southern coast of Lake Ontario - the receded waters of Ripliancum. (Ether 13:28-29; 14:15-16; 15:8-11)

(3)    The Book of Mormon’s land of Desolation is a limited, inland seaboard, once occupied by the extinct Jaredite nation. (Alma 22:29-33; 50:34; 63:5, Mormon 3:5-8; 4:1-3, Ether 10:19-21) The Great Plains of the United States, on the other hand, situates in what the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Mormon refer to as the “south countries” – south of the inland sea, Lake Erie, i.e. southward from Amherst Ohio. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 75:8, Mormon 6:15)

There is no verifiable statement by Joseph Smith referring to the Illinois plains as the plains of the Jaredites. Joseph Smith did, however, refer to the Illinois prairies that Zion’s Camp traveled through, as “the plains of the Nephites”. (Letter to Emma Smith, 4 June 1834, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Compiled and Edited by Dean C. Jessee, pp. 344-346)

Clearly “the plains of the Nephites” in mound builder “south countries” (e.g. Illinois) are not the same as the Nephite plains mentioned in the Book of Mormon! The Book of Mormon Nephite plains were near the waters of “the east sea”. (Alma 50:13-15; the term “seashore” or “sea side” also relates to inland bodies of water - see Mark 2:13) Take for instance the Nephite plains situated a short distance between the southern city of Mulek and the northern city of Bountiful. These fortified timber towns were near “shores”. (Alma 51:26; 52:20-22) The “plains of Nephihah” were also near an eastern body of water called a “sea”. (Alma 51:26; 62:18-19)

(4)   The Nephite land of Bountiful borders the land of Desolation, such that Bountiful is south of Desolation. (Alma 22:29-32; 46:17; 50:34; 63:5, 3 Nephi 3:23)

(5)  The northern land of Desolation is at lower elevation relative to the Nephite land of Bountiful, and relative to more elevated southern lands. (Alma 22:31, Mormon 2:29; 3:7-8, 14, 16; 4:19)

(6)   It was only a 1.5 day journey for a Nephite on the Desolation – Bountiful line from the east to the west sea. (Alma 22:32)

(7)   A “small neck of land”, situated in the land of Desolation, near the land Bountiful, passed through and divided an inland sea. (Alma 22:32; 50:34, Mormon 2:29; 3:5) Contrast this “narrow pass” with the “the narrow neck” that was divided by the “west sea”. (Alma 63:5, Ether 10:20)

(8)   The lack of trees in the land northward was the result of human deforestation. (Helaman 3:5-6) The reason the Great Plains grow few trees has more to do with a longer annual dry period (notwithstanding average yearly rainfall) and the fact that the prairies have been prone to widespread grassfires.

(9)   Unlike Mexico, which is open on the north (west of the broad Tehuantepec isthmus) the authentic Book of Mormon land northward is hemmed on the north by “large bodies of water and many rivers”. (Helaman 3:3-4) The Book of Mormon therefore speaks of “furthermost parts of the land northward” and “northern most part of the land”. (3 Nephi 4:23; 7:12)

(10)   There is more than one Hebrew word that can be translated “desolation”. There was more than one place in Book of Mormon lands given the name “Desolation” (Alma 16:11), or described as “desolate”. (Helaman 3:5-6)

The following Hebrew roots appear in words that are translated “desolation” in the Book of Mormon:

The Hebrew word “shod” (שֹׁד) appears in Isaiah 51:19 (Yesha'Yahu 51:19). This is the Hebrew verse behind 2 Nephi 8:19.

The feminine Hebrew word “shoah” (שׁוֹאה) appears in Isaiah 10:3 (Yesha'Yahu 10:3). This is the Hebrew verse behind 2 Nephi 20:3. This would be a fitting Hebrew term to use to describe the American land “Desolation”.

The following Hebrew roots appear in words that are translated “desolate” in the Book of Mormon:

The Hebrew root “shamem” (שָׁמֵם) appears in Isaiah 49:8,19; 54:1,3 (Yesha'Yahu 49:8, 19; 54:1, 3). These are the Hebrew verses behind 1 Nephi 21:8, 19; 3 Nephi 22:1, 3 respectively.

The Hebrew root “galmud” (גַּלְמוּד) appears in Isaiah 49:21 (Yesha'Yahu 49:21). This is the Hebrew verse behind 1 Nephi 21:21.

The Hebrew root “naqah” (נָקָה) appears in Isaiah 3:26 (Yesha'Yahu 3:26). This is the Hebrew verse behind 2 Nephi 13:26.

The Hebrew root “shamah” (שַׁמָּה) appears in Isaiah 5:9; 13:9 (Yesha'Yahu 5:9; 13:9). These are the Hebrew verses behind 2 Nephi 15:9; 23:9 respectively.

The Hebrew root “shaah” (שָׁאָה) appears in Isaiah 6:11 (Yesha'Yahu 6:11). This is the Hebrew verse behind 2 Nephi 16:11.

The Hebrew root “batah” (בַּתָּה) appears in Isaiah 7:19 (Yesha'Yahu 7:19). This is the Hebrew verse behind 2 Nephi 17:19.

The Hebrew root “almanah” (אַלְמָנָה) appears in Isaiah 13:22 (Yesha'Yahu 13:22). This is the Hebrew verse behind 2 Nephi 23:22.

Seeing the various Hebrew words translated “desolate” compared to words translated “desolation” in the Book of Mormon; this helps clarify the fact that just because the distant land northward described in Helaman 3:3-6 “was called desolate”, does not mean that it was the same land the Nephites “called Desolation” (Alma 22:30-31). The two northern lands, devoid of former inhabitants, one now on Canadian soil, and the other now on United States soil, were probably to some extent across from each other, “by the place where the sea divides the land” (Ether 10:20).

So how big is the Book of Mormon’s land of Desolation - really?

The land of Desolation occupied only part of the Book of Mormon “north country”, or the land inhabited by the Jaredite nation. (Omni 1:22, Alma 22:30, Ether 1:1; 7:6) Even so, the war ravaged country of the Jaredites was so localized that the scent of their dead permeated “all the face of the land”. (Ether 14:21-23) According to the textually accurate Near Cumorah setting of Phyllis Olive, the plains of the Jaredites situate just south of the large waters of Ripliancum (Ancient Lake Iroquois/Ontario), and west of a “land of many waters” (Finger Lakes region, Mormon 6:4) where scriptural Cumorah resides. (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 128:20) The land called Desolation by the Nephites is therefore a relatively small land.

Desolation is in the vicinity of a small neck of land (the Batavia Moraine). This isthmus passed through an inland sea (Lake Tonawanda) which in part, was an ancient arm of the Book of Mormon “west sea” (Lake Erie). Waters of “the sea” could be seen “on the west and on the east” of “the narrow pass”. (Alma 50:34) The land of Desolation may therefore have extended from the Genesee River in the east (the Nephite “Jordan”, Mormon 5:3) to the Niagara River in the west “by the place where the sea divides the land” (Ether 10:20).

    Olive's Near Cumorah Setting: Desolation - Bountiful Line

Regarding Olive's map, please see Why Lake Erie, and not Lake Tonawanda, is the Western Terminus of the Land Bountiful  


Vincent Coon וִינְסֶנט כּוּן ּ Copyright 2014

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