Ship Building and the Shortage of Timber

Starting about 55BC, the Book of Mormon describes large migrations of people moving from the land southward to the land northward and tells us that “timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward”.

There are several specific things which we know from the text about these migrations and the scarcity of timber including:

  • The reason timber was scarce is stated in the text and does not appear to be a reference to the climate or other natural factors.  Instead, it is “because of the many inhabitants who had before inherited the land”, an apparent reference to the Jaredites.
  • The land was “desolate AND without timber” (emphasis added) but “no part of the land was desolate save it were for timber” and goes on to describe their usage of the word “desolate” in this context, saying “because of the greatness of the destruction of the people who had before inhabited the land it was called desolate”.  Mormon explicitly tells us that the usage of the term “desolate” in this case was not a reference to climate or the ecology of the trees.
  • The migrations to these lands happened in waves.  Some waves were by land, some were by sea.  In Helaman chapter 3 we read about an “exceedingly great many” people who left Zarahemla because of contentions and dissensions and traveled to the land northward.  These dissenters in particular traveled an “exceedingly great distance”.  The term “exceedingly great distance” is not used to denote the location of the land northward, it is used to describe the distance traveled -in- the land northward.  These dissenters “came to large bodies of water and many rivers” after traveling those exceedingly great distances (as opposed to the other migrations) in the land northward.  This group of dissenters “spread out into all parts of the land that weren’t rendered desolate and without timber”.
  • Cultural contact was maintained between Zarahemla and the migrants who lived in the areas without timber.  This included shipping timber from the land southward to the land northward.

When you consider these statements together, Mormon has described a land northward where large groups of people settled in areas where timber was scarce but which was otherwise habitable and he has described that other migrations of people, who were hostile to Zarahemla, settled farther away in the land northward and took over all the land that did have timber.  Shipping activities supplied the closer groups with timber while they waited for the natural trees to grow back.

The model depicts the areas of the Colorado river delta, northern Baja California, and possibly parts of Southern California as being the lands where timber was scarce.  If this is the area where the friendlier migrants settled, then the dissenters from Zarahemla who followed them probably migrated into the greater North American Southwest and possibly beyond.  It was these subsequent groups who traveled “exceedingly great distances” in the land Northward and who discovered “many rivers and large bodies of water” and who settled “all the lands that were not rendered desolate and without timber”.

This scenario would seem to indicate that the shipping of timber into the land northward, which is described in Helaman chapter 3, was the shipping of materials from the middle and/or south of the peninsula to the northern reaches of the peninsula, perhaps including the areas of modern day Ensenada, Tijuana, the Colorado River delta, and perhaps beyond, but the geography of the lands receiving the shipments of timber was limited because the dissenters had taken over the lands which were farther away and which had timber.

Are there historical reasons to believe that human settlement could cause a shortage of timber in these areas in the way Mormon describes?

Shortly after the United States started utilizing the Colorado River and its delta, they experienced a severe shortage of timber.  Settlements were being made along the river but the wood was quickly used up by steam engines.  To illustrate this, the image at the following URL shows a steam boat which had made its way from the Colorado River delta to the settlement of Callville near what is now Las Vegas, Nevada:

http://hdl.huntington.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p16003coll5/id/25077/rec/6

You will see a lot of bundled wood in the picture, which is no coincidence.  Wood was a prime commodity along the Colorado River in those days and was shipped to those same lands to alleviate the problem.

In addition to this, modern scientists hypothesize that human settlement caused a severe shortage of timber in the Southwest.  The following are two of many photographs presented in USGS paper you can find at http://landcover.usgs.gov/luhna/chap9.php:

 

The article offers good insights into landscape changes that have taken place in the Southwest in prehistoric and historic times including a description of the two photographs above which mentions that several modern authors believe that a shortage of timber used to exist as a result of prehistoric fuel harvesting:

Fig. 9-5. Views from Acoma Pueblo to Enchanted Mesa, 100 km west of Albuquerque, in 1899 and 1977. Note expansion of junipers (Juniperus monosperma) between 1899 and 1977. In many parts of the west, juniper expansion has been blamed on fire suppression and livestock grazing, justifying an aggressive program of chaining and burning pinyon-juniper woodlands in the 1960’s and 1970’s to improve forage and water yield. Several authors have suggested that pinyon-juniper expansion may instead represent recovery from prehistoric fuel harvesting, at least in those areas that were heavily populated within the last 1,000 years (Samuels and Betancourt 1982; Kohler 1988). One such place could be Acoma Pueblo. (Photos: 1899, W.H. Jackson; 1977, H.E. Malde.)

Availability and Transportation of Wood

It is particularly interesting that the Book of Mormon describes the place where Hagoth built his ships with a significant amount of precision. It says:

he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship, on the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land Desolation, and launched it forth into the west sea, by the narrow neck which led into the land northward. -Alma 63:5

If our model is correct then the location where Hagoth built the “exceedingly large” ships must be near the area where the northern edge of the Viscaino peninsula meets the rest of the Baja peninsula. This is a very interesting location because of the availability of “exceedingly large” trees in those areas. Now, anybody who knows much about the climate and ecology of that area is probably laughing at the idea that we would claim that there are any trees in that area, least of all ones that could be described as “exceedingly large”. That is both right and wrong. It’s true that almost no trees grow near that area, in fact, it’s mostly just dry desert and large swaths of sand dunes. There are certainly no large trees -growing- there, but there are very large trees -there-. So the riddle is, how are there a lot of large trees where there are no large trees growing?

The answer to this riddle lies in an understanding of the California Current. The California Current is an ocean current that runs all they way down the coast of California and terminates in the area where we propose that Hagoth built his ships. This means that the area north of the Viscaino peninsula and west of the Baja peninsula is where the California Current carries debris from northern California. Significant among this debris are the most massive trees on earth, the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Some of these trees reach the height of a 26-story building.

This proposition that Hagoth could have built his ships out of giant redwood trees may not be as crazy as it sounds at first. Even today large trees can be found along the Viscaino peninsula and Isle Cedros at the tip of the peninsula:

In the early history of the Spanish missions in the peninsula an expedition was sent to explore Isle Cedros. They traveled the length of the Viscaino peninsula and arrived at the tip only to find out that there didn’t appear to be any trees for building a raft. They soon found the large driftwood that we are speaking of and build a crude watercraft out of it for crossing to the island:

Finding themselves without balzas or wood with which to make them, they decided to return to the Mission, with more than a little sorrow in having failed in their assigned task. But remembering that they had skipped a stretch of beach in order to follow a shortcut, they decided to turn back and make one last effort….Upon arriving, they found on that beach so much wood that it seemed that all of the wood of those beaches had collected itself there. Having such a surplus of wood…[they selected] the best proportioned pieces, and moving it by sea to Cabo San Xavier,…formed a secure vessel for the passage.-Ref

The authors of the study point out some interesting things about this account. They say:

Venegas here provides a rare and wonderful piece of information, which demonstrates that large pieces of wood were moved, not by being carried over land,but by being moved in the water to a desired location for further manufacture. This is an issue that has usually been overlooked by scholars in the Californias; the places where wood is abundant along the coast are not evenly distributed, and yet wood is essential for manufacturing boats, paddles, houses, and even for use as firewood. Moving the raw material by water, taking advantage of its buoyancy, means that even a relatively small group of people, in this case a group made up at least partly of “boys,” could transport significant amounts of wood even without a pre-existing watercraft. -Ref

This tells us not only that wood was available in this area, but also that there is a reasonable means of transporting that wood. The transportation of wood is also mentioned in the Book of Mormon:

“And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping. -Heleman 3:10

Does this mean that we are proposing that the trees that were transported were all driftwood?

No. It seems reasonable to assume that timber that was transported northward was grown in Baja. When we talk about the use of redwood trees we are referring to the real possibility that “exceedingly large” trees were available to build “exceedingly large” ships.

So, if there are few trees growing in those areas of Baja now, where did the timber that was shipped northward come from?

While we can’t answer this with any certainty, there are several possibilities. One possibility is that Nephite “timber” simply came from familiar Baja foliage including several varieties of trees as well as shells of cacti which are still used for construction in the peninsula. Another possibility is that the environment in the peninsula was significantly more wet, as proposed on our climate page, and that trees were around in greater variety and numbers than they are today. Possible evidence for this can be found in the results of modern research. For instance, INAH has been looking for and finding a variety of watercraft and source materials to build watercraft right in the spot where we propose that Hagoth built his ships:

In the southern limits of the state of Baja California [meaning the southern limits of the northern state in the peninsula, not the southern limits of the southern state of Baja California Sur], in the dunes of one of the coasts of the lagoon complex of Ojo de Liebre and Guerrero Negro, archaeologists rescued the bow of a 210-year-old canoe. It is speculated that either this canoe was fabricated by Bajacalifornian Indians or it was dragged by north currents and reused by the groups that inhabited the peninsula. This vestige, found in the Manuela Lagoon, is part of a series of canoe discoveries registered by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), throughout the Bajacalifornian coast of the Pacific ocean, all along the Rosarito Beach all the way towards El Vizcaino; here they have also found wood trunks that derive of great and now extinct trees in the peninsula. -(ref)