Proxies for Travel Speeds

One of the primary considerations of internal or external models of Book of Mormon lands is whether the geographic locations proposed by the model are spaced apart from each other by distances that match a reasonable reading of the text. In other words, the Book of Mormon often mentions geographic locations in relation to each other, like when Mormon tells us that “it was only the distance of 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”.

The unit of measurement that the text uses to indicate distances in this and many other cases relates to the traveling speed of people. This unit of measurement would be easy to convert into miles (or kilometers, etc.) if all humans traveled the same speed as each other all the time. Of course, different people travel at different speeds in different circumstances. This ambiguity means we cannot convert these references into precise distance measurements, but they can be used to establish reasonable expectations. For instance, we don’t know how many miles equal the “day and a half’s journey for a Nephite” mentioned above, but it makes sense to establish some minimum and maximum distances that are reasonable and consistent with the text.

Approaches Used to Estimate Travel Speeds

It is not uncommon for authors of various models of Book of Mormon lands to approach this subject using their own experience with the nature of their model’s subject lands in order to make well-educated estimates of minimum and maximum travel speeds. Although this is a valid scientific approach, it is subject to a certain amount of guesswork on the part of the author.

We suggest that instead of using guesswork and generalities to come up with minimum and maximum travel speeds under various circumstances that we can achieve better accuracy by identifying historical accounts of actual journeys that are similar to journeys recorded in the Book of Mormon and which refer to groups which are composed similarly to the people making the Book of Mormon journeys. We can compare the travel speeds of those historical journeys with the similar Book of Mormon journeys to see if the traveling speeds of the historical journeys support the model we are proposing.

Comparing Historical Journeys to Book of Mormon Journeys

Early settlers and explorers of the Baja California peninsula often kept detailed accounts of their own travels and explorations as well as journeys made by the native inhabitants of the peninsula. We suggest that by using these recorded journeys as proxies for journeys recorded in the Book of Mormon that we can estimate the possible and probable speeds and distances traveled during those journeys with better accuracy than can be achieved using data that is more generic or which is based primarily on an author’s own experiences on the ground.

In order for comparisons like we are proposing to be valid and accurate there must be demonstrable similarities between the respective journeys. In addition, variability between the journeys should be identified since this variability affects the precision of the estimated minimum and maximum travel speeds and distances that we derive from the comparisons.

A Travel-Speed Proxy for Alma’s 21-day Journey to Zarahemla

One particular journey recorded in the Book of Mormon tells us that Alma’s party traveled from the city of Nephi into the wilderness and after eight days settled in the land of Helam. Later this same group traveled for one day and reached the valley of Alma and then traveled an additional twelve days and reached the land of Zarahemla. Since we know precisely how many days were spent traveling between locations, we can estimate the physical distances between the City of Nephi, the Land of Helam, the Valley of Alma, and the City of Zarahemla based on estimates of the possible and likely travel speeds that we estimate for Alma’s party.

This is very fortunate for our model in particular because early accounts kept by Spanish missionaries record a journey that is remarkably comparable to the journey of Alma’s party.

In our model we propose that the City of Nephi and the Valley of Mormon were located in the cape region of the Baja California peninsula. It is from these locations that Alma’s people fled from the army of king Noah.

During the early 18th century, Jesuit missionaries founded the mission of Santa Rosa south of this location in the cape region. A Spanish missionary named Sigsmundo Taraval was in charge of the Santa Rosa mission in 1734 when there was an uprising of many of the nearby natives. Those natives sacked two other missions and killed the missionary fathers. Having been warned that the natives were headed to his mission next, Taraval and the people of his mission fled 69 miles to La Paz on a course that actually intersects the course that our model proposes for the journey of Alma’s party.

We propose that the composition, motivation, and journey of Taraval’s group is sufficiently similar to the composition, motivation, and journey of Alma’s group that the travel speed of Taraval’s group can be used as a proxy for the likely travel speed of Alma’s group under similar circumstances. In order to demonstrate this, we offer the following table as a list of similarities and differences between the two groups:

Alma’s Party Taraval’s Party
Alma’s group consisted of many families which likely including men, women, and children of all ages. Taraval’s group consisted of himself, Spanish soldiers, and a great many natives including men, women, children, old men, pregnant women, and babies. Taraval talks about “frail” and “feeble” people in his group.
Alma’s Group took their tents, their grain, and their flocks with them as they fled. The text is silent about whether any of Alma’s people were riding on horseback. Such transportation was available in Nephite times, but no mention of it is made one way or the other in regards to this journey. Taraval’s group took horses with them (although almost everybody besides Taraval and the Spanish soldiers were on foot). They also took pack mules, church ornaments, corn, a little meat, and “some of the women were heavily laden with their belongings”.
Alma’s party was motivated by the fact that they had received intelligence that an army was pursuing them. Taraval’s group was motivated by the fact that they had received intelligence that natives had attacked and killed people at two other missions and were pursuing them next.
The text seems to indicate that Alma’s group fled into territory that was not populated and probably not well explored. Although Taraval’s group was very wary of being attacked on the road, there is no indication that they left the well-established trail until the last part of their journey when they were approaching La Paz.
Regarding Alma’s initial journey ahead of Noah’s army the Book of Mormon states “the Lord did strengthen them, that the people of king Noah could not overtake them to destroy them” Taraval often gives God credit for their preservation during the journey, but makes no specific claim (least of all one with the authority of scripture) that God caused them to travel faster than their pursuers.

Comparing these facts we find that the speed of Taraval’s group was at least as disadvantaged as Alma’s group when it came to the composition of the group (men, women, children, pregnancies, frailties, etc.) and when it came to the possessions that they carried with them. If we ignore the fact that Alma’s group received extra strength from the Lord then the only significant difference in travel speed between Taraval’s group and Alma’s group is the fact that Taraval’s group traveled on a well-established trail for the majority of their journey.

Getting to travel on a trail compared to having to travel cross-country would appear to be a very significant advantage for Taraval’s group, but Taraval also recorded an account of another journey carried out by natives just days before his group’s journey. That journey was also from Santa Rosa to La Paz, then they traveled back again and they covered double the distance of Taraval’s group in double the time or less. What is significant about this other recorded journey is that Taraval tells us clearly that the travelers intentionally avoided traveling on the road in order to avoid hostilities.

When we put all these facts together we find that the travel speed of Taraval’s group can be used as a very reasonable proxy to help us set expectations for how fast a group composed like Alma’s group would be likely to travel as they fled the cape region of the peninsula. Taraval tells us that this travel speed was 20 leagues (20 leagues = 69 miles, but the journey was probably closer to 57 miles) in about 22 hours.

On the surface this seems like an outlandishly fast travel speed. How could they travel so fast? The answer is simple:

Our modern perception of how fast people ought to be able to travel across the rugged, thorn-infested Baja peninsula is skewed by our own cultural traits which are derived from a variety of sources including genetics, diet, exercise, traditional methods of transportation, and traditional levels of comfort. These cultural differences easily translate into assumptions about what we consider to be reasonable travel speeds.

The natives of Baja California were well adapted to their environment

In Taraval’s account of his group’s flight he tells us that “what had not happened to the natives was experienced by our animals and even ourselves”. He goes on to describe how the mules with heavy burdens, the Spanish soldiers, and he himself became exhausted and had to stop to rest. The fact that it “had not happened to the natives” is particularly insightful and helps us recognize that we cannot judge the endurance of native inhabitants by our own expectations. The natives were different. They were fast and were adapted to long journeys with little water and nourishment.

A third journey recorded by Taraval describes natives from the San Joseph (San Jose del Cabo) mission who arrived at Santa Rosa bringing Taraval news of the murder of Nicolas Tamaral at San Joseph. What is significant about the journey of these informants is that Tamaral was murdered on October 3rd and the informants arrived in Santa Rosa on the evening of October 4th. A straight line from San Joseph to Santa Rosa is 42 miles. Traveling on foot would cause the informants to travel much farther than 42 miles and the journey would have been over a very rough route passing through the high sierras of the cape region. The travel speed of this journey substantiates the idea that Taraval’s natives could travel the fast speed recorded during their journey to La Paz.

For Taraval’s full account of all of these journeys we refer you to: “The Indian Uprising in Lower California 1734-1737 As Described by Father Sigismundo Taraval”; Marguerite Eyer Wilbur; The Quivira Society; Los Angeles; 1931; p47-58.

In addition to the journeys recorded by Taraval, in a letter to his family, Father Jacob Baegert records his observations about the traveling speed of the natives. He says:

“I cannot remember if in one of my other letters I told about how fast the Indians are able to run, but it should be interesting to you. At least in this field they are master, which can be seen from the following examples. One day toward the end of the Christmonth [December], I sent a small fourteen-year-old boy early in the morning-at this time of year the sun rises around 7 o’clock – to the next mission, which is six hours away. The road is rough all over, full of stones and interrupted by hills. He was not farther away than one and a half hours from the other mission to which he was supposed to go, when he met that missionary on a gallant mule, who was just on his way to see me that same day. So the boy returned with the missionary, Father Armesto, and arrived together with him at noon. So he did in five hours that which usually takes ten hours. But this is not astonishing, as the Indians anyhow spend all their life walking, running, strolling around.” -(The Letters of Jacob Baegert; 1749-1761; Jesuit Missionary in Baja California; 1982; Dawson’s Book Shop; Baja California Travels Series #45; p151;)

How Fast Did Alma’s Group Really Travel?

The point to be made in all of this is that it is likely that Lamanites and Nephites were very fast travelers. The model we present on this website proposes that Alma’s group traveled from the modern day city of El Triunfo to the modern day city of San Ignacio in just 21 days. Even if the route they traveled was as direct as the modern peninsular highway it would mean that they traveled at a rate of about 20 miles per day. This may seem outlandishly fast, but then again, our proxies demonstrate that 20 miles per day is a speed that is well within the abilities of the inhabitants of the peninsula.

If that argument is not strong enough, please consider one more thing. Alma’s party was strengthened by the hand of the Lord “that the people of king Noah could not overtake them to destroy them”. In other words, the Book of Mormon clearly asserts that divine help allowed Alma’s group to travel faster than the pursuing army. Their minimum speed of travel cannot be constrained to modern scholars’ estimates of maximum likely travel speeds, but we know for a fact that their minimum speed was faster than a fast-traveling army.

Establishing a Travel Speed Model

The flight of Taraval’s group from Santa Rosa to La Paz is a proxy that clearly demonstrates that travel speeds can be unexpectedly variable. Among the variables demonstrated by their journey we find that:

  • Fear can cause presumably slow groups to travel very fast: Taraval’s group managed to keep up an average speed greater than 3mph for an extended period of time.
  • Fear can cause presumably weak groups to travel for extended periods without much, if any, rest: Taraval’s group started their journey in the evening around 7:00-8:00pm. They were already tired before the journey, but without sleeping or even resting they immediately undertook a journey of 22 hours straight.
  • A person’s cultural and personal background strongly influences their endurance and speed of travel: Even though Taraval and his soldiers rode on horseback, the difference in their ability to travel compared to the abilities of their native companions was so pronounced that the Spaniards tired from the journey significantly faster than their native companions.

Of course, even a group which is motivated by fear will only travel at their highest rate until the fear has subsided or until they are physically unable to continue their journey. Because of this we cannot assume that groups like Alma’s would keep up their most frantic pace for the full 21 days of their various journeys. Each flight from their enemies would likely start with a long travel time and a fast travel speed, but would likely change to a pace that they considered more reasonable the longer into the journey they progressed.

As a result we cannot assume that groups like Alma’s or Taraval’s would keep up the 3+mph rate of travel or the “travel with no rest at all” mindset over a period of many days or weeks. We can, however, assume that long daily journeys at fast speeds would be the norm as long as the group was in fear of their lives. Once that fear was past, their rate of travel would likely drop to whatever their particular culture and circumstances would consider “normal”.

So, the next question is “what is a normal pace for a Nephite?”

As mentioned above, Baegert used an example to show that native travel speed was roughly double what a Spaniard would expect. He told us that the native traveler “did in five hours that which usually takes ten hours. But this is not astonishing, as the Indians anyhow spend all their life walking, running, strolling around”.

Of course, all of this only informs us about traditional native travel speeds during the early Spanish contact period. We don’t know if natives from that period represent natives from Nephite times. We do know that Nephite culture was different from Lamanite culture and that Lamanite culture is much more likely to be representative of what the Spanish found at contact.

The final result is that we can use these historical journeys as proxies that extend our maximum estimated travel speeds under certain conditions to values that at least meet the travel speeds given in the historical proxies. We can also consider these proxies when attempting to determine the “most probable” travel speeds in our model. Although we cannot firmly rely on these proxies to generate probabilities with high levels of certainty, the probabilities derived from historical proxies should be considered more reliable than probabilities derived from expectations which are simply considered “normal” by generalized modern or even generalized prehistoric standards.