11. What Advantage Did Mormon Seek by Selecting Cumorah as the Site for the Final Battle?
Copyright © 2015 by Jerry L. Ainsworth
Mormon doubtless considered many factors in his selection of the place for the final battle between the Nephites and Lamanites:
And I, Mormon, wrote an epistle unto the king of the Lamanites, and desired of him that he would grant unto us that we might gather together our people unto the land of Cumorah, by a hill which was called Cumorah, and there we could give them battle. (Mormon 6:2)
And it came to pass that we did march forth to the land of Cumorah, and we did pitch our tents around about the hill Cumorah; and it was in a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains; and here we had hope to gain advantage over the Lamanites. (Mormon 6:4; emphasis added)
An understanding of a few historical realities is necessary if Book of Mormon readers are to understand fully the factors shaping the selection of Cumorah as the battleground.
1. The Nephites lived in the land southward
The Nephites had lived in the land southward for close to 950 years. If we are correct about that land being Mesoamerica southward of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, then we must realize that other groups were living in that same area when Lehi landed and that these groups had been there for well over four hundred years (see Note 1 at the conclusion of this response).
2. Other peoples lived in the land northward
The Book of Ether states that at least six families came to this continent with Jared (see Ether 1:41). The 1547 History of the Things of New Spain by Bernardino de Sahagun states that there were seven families. However, the Book of Ether is a brief account of only two of those families: “And now I, Moroni, proceed to give the record of Jared and his brother” (Ether 6:1). Moroni’s history did not include the record of the other four or five families.
Based on the comments of Mormon and Moroni, the land northward also included the “north countries” (see Mormon 2:3 and Ether 1:1). Presumably, there were existing cultures in those countries also—and all of these need not be remnants of the people of Jared.
Mormon and Moroni also noted that within the land northward, there were “south countries” (Mormon 6:15), all of which were either south or southeast of the land of Cumorah. All of these cultures need not be associated with the three groups the Book of Mormon talks about (the people of Jared, people of Lehi, and people of Mulek), as there were certainly other groups that had traveled to Mesoamerica during Book of Mormon days.
3. Teotihuacan controlled Mesoamerica during Book of Mormon times
Well-established groups of people were living in the land northward before, during, and after the Nephite nation developed in Mesoamerica. Evidently, Mormon and his family lived in one of these cities: “And it came to pass that I, being eleven years old, was carried by my father into the land southward, even to the land of Zarahemla” (Mormon 1:6).
Archaeologists concur that the most powerful city in the land northward during Book of Mormon times was the city of Teotihuacan, whose ruins lie thirty-five miles northeast of Mexico City. Residents of this city had political control over all of Mesoamerica, which therefore included the Nephites and Lamanites. This control was political, not military, and came from the power they generated through trading and commerce. (See Esther Pasztory, Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997], Note 2.)
A Battlefield Distant from Other Cultures
Mormon was faced with numerous political and strategic factors in addition to those posed by the Nephites and Lamanites. He was not free to capriciously make a decision to schedule a final battle anywhere he wanted. That choice was certainly influenced, if not dictated, by political and cultural realities of the day.
He could no more say to the Lamanites, “Let’s go to a populated land northward, a foreign country, and have a battle,” than the president of the United States could say to the president of Mexico, “Let’s take both of our armies to Ottawa, Canada, and have a final battle.” The Canadians would certainly not agree to that.
I believe that existing cultures and countries were extant in AD 385 in the land northward and that Mormon had to consider them when deciding on a place for the final battle between the Nephites and Lamanites. Scheduling such a battle adjacent to existing cities and countries would be one of those considerations.
If he had moved his army of 240,000 Nephites (Mormon 6:11, 12, 14) to the wrong location, he would have ended up fighting more than the Lamanites. He wanted to fight the battle at a location that would give him an advantage, not a disadvantage.
Factors That Could Produce an Advantage for the Nephites
Given the time, location, and circumstances that Mormon had to deal with, what would give him the advantage he mentions in Mormon 6:4?
1. Human considerations
Mormon had a quarter of a million people to consider when deciding on the location of the battle. Principal among his considerations was the providing of food and water for this large group—what was left of the Nephite nation.
He also had to decide what to do with those Nephites not fit for battle—the old, infirm, babies, handicapped, sick, retarded, etc. Certainly, he did not want them at the battle. The ninth chapter of Moroni gives some clues as to what he did with such people.
2. Political considerations
The location of the battle had to be set in a place that was acceptable to existing cultures, countries, and polities.
Mormon doubtless required approval of (or at least acquiescence to) the proposed location from the political capital of that time and location, Teotihuacan (see Note 2).
3. Strategic considerations
Mormon would have sought strategic advantages in the battle, perhaps including the following:
A location that would take the Lamanites away from their base of operation and stretch their supply lines.
A location that would take its physical toll on the Lamanite army in their efforts to reach the place of battle.
A location that would facilitate the production of weapons of war—or the purchase of weapons of war.
A place from which survivors could escape. Some Nephites, as well as the people of Ammon, had moved to the land northward over three hundred years earlier (see Helaman 2–3 and Ether 1:1). Some of these Nephites, under Mormon’s command, certainly had distant relatives in the land northward—including both Mormon and Moroni (see Mormon 8:5). If nothing else, Mormon knew that Moroni would need to survive and, with the plates, avoid the Lamanites by retreating farther northward. Being close to a route, as well as to distant relatives, would help in that regard. Minimally, Mormon’s wife’s family (Moroni’s mother) probably lived in the land northward.
Incompatibility of the Tuxtla Mountains
In my opinion, the Tuxtla area on the Gulf of Mexico, the area of Cerro Vigia (which some say is the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon), would be one of the last places a general would want to fight a battle.
It is very close to the land occupied by the Lamanites (that is, the land southward after it was given to the Lamanites by treaty as described in Mormon 2:28–29), making it a short distance for the Lamanites to travel.
It is only thirty miles from Tres Zapotes, a regional capital at the time of the battle of Cumorah (385 AD).
Although food and water were certainly available in the Tuxtla area, to some degree that area was a marshland during the time of the battle of Cumorah. Other places farther north of Cerro Vigia had similar conditions of fresh, clean water and an ample supply of fish for food, but these areas would be much more difficult for the Lamanites to access and would also be more remote and not located close to other countries.
For those and many other reasons, I have always placed the land of Cumorah closer to the Tampico area of Mexico—an area that appears to be a better candidate for Cumorah than the Tuxtla area where Cerro Vigia is located. I believe Cerro Bernal in the state of Tamaulipas to be the hill Cumorah where the final battle was fought.
For many years, I have attended annual Maya conferences sponsored by the University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania. I have always been perplexed that, to the best of my knowledge, I have been the only Latter-day Saint at the conferences.
At the March 2007 Maya conference at the University of Texas, Dr. Richard Hansen of Idaho State University reported as follows:
These earlier sites (BC 1000 and forward) were very complex and sophisticated and extended from LaVenta to the Pacific side of Mexico and then up into the highlands of Guatemala, as well as into the Mirador basin. Nakbe and other sites date to BC 1000. From BC 800 to BC 600, their buildings were crude. Then, around BC 600, something happened, and their buildings became much more sophisticated. They were developed and shaped more uniformly. After BC 600, there is evidence of influence from the highlands of Guatemala, which came down the Usumacinta River.
I have known for years that the Nephite nation existed side by side with other cultures in Mesoamerica, but I did not know what percentage of those populations the Nephites represented. It may be possible in the coming years to determine, or at least project, an answer to that riddle.
During the last two years, while attending the annual Maya conferences at the University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania, I listened to reports given by archaeologists of cities along the Usumacinta River (river Sidon) that were abandoned in and around AD 350. This is the date Mormon gives for the Nephites abandoning their cities and moving to the land northward.
Archaeologists report that some of these cities along the river were abandoned—but not all. In a few years, the archaeologists should be able to make an educated guess as to how many of the ancient cities along the Usumacinta (the Peten area of Guatemala and southern Mexico) were abandoned in AD 350 and how many were not.
This information could give us a peek into what percentage of the cities in that area were Nephite and what percentage were not. Currently, it appears that more of the cities were non-Nephite than were those occupied by the Nephites, as most were not abandoned in AD 350.
At the March 2007 Maya conference at the University of Texas, Dr. Charles Golden of Brandeis University reported that “We are finding a large number of Preclassic sites along the Usumacinta River that were abandoned around AD 350. There is a silent period before the places were reoccupied, or in some cases, they were not reoccupied.” I put those comments in quotes, but I was not recording them electronically. I was taking notes as fast as my writing would allow. I’m fairly certain the quotes are accurate, but they may not be exact.
At the March 2007 Maya conference at the University of Texas, Dr. Megan O’Neill of the University of Southern California said the following:
Rulers of the cities of the Usumacinta Basin also traveled to Teotihuacan to receive their bona fides, which legitimized their rulership. Those bona fides included a sign or symbol that was worn in the ruler’s headdress, giving him or her legitimacy.
Given the political influence that Teotihuacan had over the existing cultures of that time, Nephite, Lamanite, and others, and because I believe Mormon was raised in Teotihuacan, it makes much more sense for the Nephites to accept Mormon, a fifteen-year-old boy, as their leader.
Given the political power of Teotihuacan, the Nephites were rather obliged to do so. The facts that Mormon was also a “pure descendant of Nephi” and was large and politically well connected simply sealed the decision to accept Mormon as their leader. In Mormon 2:1, Mormon is a little vague as to whether he was the leader of the Nephite nation, the Nephite army, or both.