Book of Mormon Roads and Highways in Baja California

One of the first things that people notice when they start investigating the archaeology of the central Baja California peninsula is the extensive network of trails that lead from city to city and from place to place.

The Book of Mormon tells us that a network of “roads” and “highways” existed during Nephite times:

And there were many highways cast up, and many roads made, which led from city to city, and from land to land, and from place to place. -3 Nephi 6:8

We even have one reference to a specific highway near the city of Zarahemla:

the garden of Nephi, which was by the highway which led to the chief market, which was in the city of Zarahemla -Helaman 7:10

Then, during the destructions that occurred at the death of Christ, the roads were damaged:

And the highways were broken up, and the level roads were spoiled, and many smooth places became rough. -3 Nephi 8:13

The Book of Mormon does not tell us specifically that the roads and highways were rebuilt after those destructions, but it does tell us that Zarahemla and many other cities were rebuilt. It seems reasonable to assume that the roads were probably rebuilt as well.

Baja California is a place where many roads have been built for many different purposes at many different times. The road network is amazing and includes everything from ancient trails to modern highways. A lot of the ancient road network centers around the oasis of San Ignacio. This is the area we identify as Zarahemla and the river Sidon.

On the following Google Earth image, I traced several roads and paths to give a sampling of the complexity of the network of old-looking roads surrounding our location for Zarahemla:


Are these the “highways” and “roads” mentioned in the Book of Mormon?

In order to identify roads that may date to Book of Mormon times, we need to be able to distinguish them from roads constructed later in time, including roads built by prehistoric native cultures in the years after the Book of Mormon, roads built under the direction of the Jesuits who missionized the peninsula, roads built in historic times by other sources (rancho’s, mining operations, governments, off-road races, etc.), and old-looking paths cleared for telegraph and other utility lines.

^This is no simple task^

We will present the following in this article:

1. Evidence that a large network of well-traveled, ancient roads existed at the time of historic contact.

2. Evidence that these ancient roads have been used, maintained, rebuilt, redrawn, and added to by prehistoric and historic construction activities.

3. Some methods that can be used to identify roads that might date to Book of Mormon times.

There are several good primary sources describing the existence of a prehistoric road network in the Baja peninsula. The explorers and missionaries that wrote these accounts were familiar with other native cultures in the Americas so it stands to reason that normal native paths and trails would not merit the very special attention that they give to the subject in their letters and journals.

One of the earliest descriptions of a peninsular road comes from Vizcaino’s 1602-1603 exploration of the peninsula’s Pacific coast. After sailing near Cedros Island, he tell us:

we returned to the mainland coast, and following it we encountered several good embayments, and the lands inward gave evidences of being fertile, and that the entire area is heavily populated with Indians because all the trails that go inland are heavily traveled and broad (ref)

It is interesting to hear Vizcaino infer that “the entire area is heavily populated” based on the appearance of the roads. The reason that it is interesting is because the area he is describing is a remote desert wilderness that does not otherwise appear to have been heavily populated at the time of his visit. Since it is likely that he was incorrect about the area being “heavily populated” in the early 1600’s when he visited, why would Vizcaino encounter so many, broad, well-traveled roads?

Vizcaino’s description does not prove that an ancient, heavily populated culture built the trails, but it is consistent with that scenario so we will consider it in relation to other early accounts of a road network in Baja.

Over 100 years later, a Jesuit Father named Maria Piccolo was the first person to travel to and make historic contact with the natives in and around the area we identify as Zarahemla and the river Sidon. His description of the area is a tremendously informative primary account and is truly one of the best first-hand accounts that exists describing the native culture in the central peninsula.

Piccolo made several specific references to the road network in his account. He starts his commentary with a few notes about the trails he was to follow on his way from Mulege and San Ignacio:

these northerners have not ceased inviting me to visit their lands along the river…They pointed out that the trail is good and their settlements not far away….What had delayed me was the lack of animals to travel over such long, unexplored, and difficult trails. (Jesuit Relations – Baja California 1716 – 1792; p79)

While he clearly wasn’t looking forward to the journey, he noted that the natives pointed out that the trail is good, although he calls them “difficult” as he seeks sympathy in his letter for not making the journey earlier. Along the journey, he gives us the impression that the trail was not in pristine condition:

Midway we reached the settlement of Santa Lucia. All of its people came down to repair the trail and meet us…They removed the branches, stones and thorns blocking our path so that we could advance more easily

Clearly a trail that was esteemed by the Indians existed, but it had fallen into disrepair. Upon arriving at the Rio San Ignacio, Piccolo describes the general area as a center of commerce and ritual activity. There are many wonderful references to the native culture in this part of his account, but for the sake of this article, we will focus on his references to roads.

His descriptions are interspersed with some rather opinionated commentary about the religion practiced by the natives:

we were stopping at the very spot where these wretched Indians were wont to meet for their diabolic and deceitful races, wizardry, and all their evil actions…in the hills crossed by the trails (called Hidalgur in their language) of their infernal priests, people from everywhere came

He mentions “the trails of their infernal priests”, which they called “Hidalgur”. It can be very tempting to misinterpret Piccolo’s comments to mean that people from everywhere came by way of these trails, which would mean that the trails led from all the various settlements to the Rio San Ignacio area, but a careful reading of his comments shows instead that in this instance he is talking about a very specific type of road called “Hidalgur”.

An Hidalgur was a road that is not built as a pathway connecting lands or settlements to each other. It was built for the ceremonies of their “wizards” (as Piccolo calls them) and each of these roads terminated at it’s own respective well-constructed ceremonial building.

This point becomes clear a little later in his account:

As to the superstitions of their shamans…I noticed…some recently cleaned trails, broad and long. At the end of them, there is a hut or round house, well constructed. As I had seen several along the route we took, I asked what the structures were and what ceremonies they performed along those trails and in those houses. They answered that they held their feasts of the deer skins there. These feasts, called “cabet” in their language, consist of calling together various settlements at a definite time every year when they bring all the skins of the deer killed during the current year. They spread out the skins like carpets on these broad and long trails. And as they are stretched out, the principal chieftains keep entering the house. They take their seats and start smoking. The shaman takes his place at the door and extols the virtues of the successful deer hunters. In the meantime the Indians race like crazy over the skins. Along these trails the women keep up their dancing and chanting. As the preacher is exhausted by now from his speaking, the racers cease, and the chieftains come out to distribute the skins among the women as clothing for the year.

By this we can identify one type of road that existed in prehistoric times that probably does not correlate to the description of roads and highways in the Book of Mormon.

This is important to understand because it means that even if we can identify one or more roads as being prehistoric, we must also distinguish between it being a road used for ritual or a road used for travel like the Book of Mormon describes. We can do this by taking note of whether the road in question seems to connect two disparate settlements or whether it seems to unexpectedly terminate in an uphill area. If it unexpectedly terminates in an uphill area, we should suspect that it is a shaman’s road. On the other hand, if a road connects two habitation sites or disparate lands, it is very unlikely that it is a shaman’s road.

These shaman roads are not the only prehistoric roads that we need to be aware of. Clavijero mentions a different ritual that was practiced by the prehistoric inhabitants of the peninsula and which involved roads. This ritual has a lot of similarities to the Book of Mormon’s account of the appearance of Christ among the Nephites:

the Cochimís periodically celebrated a visit from a deity, referred as “the Man come from Heaven”, with a day of feasting and dancing. In preparation for the visit, shamans required penitents “to open some new road in the mountains so that the spiritual visitor [impersonated by a Cochimí youth] could descend with more ease and to erect on it at certain distances some heaps of stones on which he might rest” (Clavigero 1971 [1789]; p110-115)

Modern scholars have identified roads that might have been built for this ritual (See: p246 and p11)

This means that, although the ritual surrounding this “diety” or “Man come from Heaven” seems to be significant for our model, we must also recognize the fact that, like the “Hidalgur” roads, this ritual also involved the construction of roads that are not the roads or highways mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

Book of Mormon roads went “from city to city, and from land to land, and from place to place”. If an ancient road seems to only run from an uphill location to a downhill location, we must suspect it of being a road connected to prehistoric ritual activity.

Fortunately, Piccolo tells us about more than just ritualistic roads:

It is incredible how many trails cross this region and the area of the Rio de San Vicente Ferrer. While I was in San José de Comondú, the captains of Santa Agueda and Santa Lucia brought in August the fiscal José and Joaquin, captain of San Marcos, and three others with their canes, to this river by one trail and returned by another. The Soldiers Altamirano and Villalobos went at the end of September by way of another trail, which they said was the best, and they returned by still another; that is via Caguirama, where we are tapping the stream to secure water for the town of San Marcos.

That quote by Piccolo is a very important contribution to our knowledge of the prehistoric road system. As you will see presented below, the Jesuits themselves were avid road builders and they were also apt to exagerate their own trials and accomplishments in their letters and correspondence. As a result, the impressive road network around San Ignacio is often mistakenly attributed almost entirely to them.

If it hadn’t been for Piccolo’s early description of the road network, we might have been left in the dark about the fact that this extensive and often redundant system of roads predated Jesuit road-building activities.

Remember, Piccolo was the first person in historic times to reach the area we identify as the River Sidon and Zarahemla and he describes an “incredible” number of trails in that and other regions and he provides specific examples in support of this point. It is clear that the native network of trails was quite extensive and was not limited to roads built for ritualistic purposes.

Now that we’ve established the fact that an extensive road network existed in prehistoric times, we can start to compare our expectations from the Book of Mormon with what we know about the peninsular roads. We can start by asking ourselves What Book of Mormon roads and highways looked like.

For more than a century, LDS scholars have been misidentifying the lands of the Book of Mormon. This is true regardless of whether or not our model is correct. The very fact that different scholars associate different areas and architecture to the same scriptural passages means that some or all of those scholars are misidentifying sites. We should recognize that it is natural for us to want to believe that impressive prehistoric construction was related to Book of Mormon cultures, but we should also recognize that this mindset has led to the LDS scholarly community’s less-than-stellar history of making incorrect claims regarding the geography of the Book of Mormon.

In relation to our model, we do not claim that every foot trail in Baja is an old Nephite highway. It’s OK if we find out that the Nephites didn’t build all of the broad, straight trails in the central peninsula. It’s true that identifiable ancient roads centering around Zarahemla in our model lends significant support to our research, but these roads came into existence through a complex history. If we attempt to ignore or simplify that history by making unfounded claims about specific roads or trails, it will unnecessarily undermine our model and research.

It is vitally important to recognize that the extensive ancient trail system centered around the area we identify as Zarahemla was not simply abandoned and left for us to find in our day. These roads continued to be used by the inhabitants of the peninsula for many centuries after the Nephite culture came to an end at Cumorah. This road network has been repaired and expanded by the Indians, the Jesuits, by later settlers, by mining and other commercial activities, and by modern off-road racing. These early roads and trails continue to be modified and expanded to this day.

One of the most important of these modification activities that we need to recognize are the activities of the Jesuits because they did make extensive modifications and expansions to the road network and those changes are now hundreds of years old and can easily be mistaken for prehistoric roads.

Although some Jesuit accounts make it clear that the trail network existed before their arrival, other Jesuit authors make it clear that they oversaw a tremendous amount of road-building during mission times. This is supported by many personal letters and official documents and histories produced by the Jesuit missionaries. The Jesuit roads are famous for being obsessively level and straight. Although modern scholars recognize that these historic roads were often built over ancient trails, little or no work has been completed to distinguish prehistoric from historic road construction. The result is that the Jesuits probably tend to get more credit than they deserve for the impressive road network. Notice the lack of recognition of the pre-existing road network in Venegas’ account of Jesuit road-building activities and how it contrasts to Piccolo’s account:

But it was not so easy to overcome the difficulty which the fathers encountered in opening trails to traverse the country. Nevertheless, the first enterprise at all the foundations was to open a road to Loreto, and after that to clear many other trails, making it possible to go to all the rancherias of each mission. But when there are so many of these, and when they are scattered so widely over the country, it will readily be understood what enormous labor the fathers had to expend in accomplishing a task so difficult and arduous…First of all, they had a main highway camino real built through the center of the mission district extending through its entire area and running lengthwise from south to north. All the rancherias belonging to the mission worked together in building this road, for it was of common advantage to them all. Then each rancheria assumed the responsibility for building a special road leading from its settlement and joining the camino real which was, so to speak, the main trunk-line in which all the separate roads from the rancherias terminated…they had to spend many days in moving about, circling hills and climbing peaks, in order from the summits to spy out the stopping places which were least inaccessible. Moreover, many tools were needed for distribution among the Indians-pickaxes, crowbars, hoes, sledge hammers, shovels, ordinary hammers, levers, ropes, and other tools of this sort. There was least work to be done in the stony areas on the hills and slopes. Yet even here the labors were very great. For the road had to be made wide enough for the passage of animals and pack-trains. The work crews spent many days in removing the loose stones from which they formed low walls or borders along both sides. Nor did they stop until they struck bedrock; thus in some places they dug to the depth of a vara and in others went even deeper, so that some of the roads were shaped like ditches or the canyons of streams. Then came the harder work—the smoothing, insofar as that was possible, with sledge hammers, pickaxes, and crowbars of the outcroppings and jutting points of solid rock which barred the passage of travelers. When their tools did not avail they had recourse to fire in order to split the rocks and break them up; then they used levers and ropes in order to remove them and set them rolling into the barrancas and over the precipices. But the work was most painful and the difficulty greatest when they had to pass over the hills and mountains. This happened very often, since there would be no other place where they could build the road. Here they had to follow routes on steep slopes which fell away into barrancas. In such places they had to contend with the solidity of the mountains and the hardness of the rocks while they labored to break off outcroppings and sharp points and to clear away the stones great and small which lay in the way. In many narrow passes between the hills, where the powers of man were insufficient to break a trail, they were obliged to set thick stakes along the sides and to fill the intervening space with branches and the trunks of trees, putting earth on top, forming bridges, as it were, which would make it possible to pass from one side to the other in these ravines…Also there must be considered the multitude of roads built at each mission, from each rancheria to the head mission-not to mention others built in various localities for the purpose of crossing the country from coast to coast. (In the year 1717 these were already twelve in number…). In all it will be found that the Father Visitor Joseph de Echeverríall did not exaggerate when in his letter of February 10, 1730, written to the Marques de Villapuente,12 he said, “on the building of roads—roads that were really passable—more work had been done in California in those thirty-four years than had been done in New Spain in the two centuries since its conquest was begun. (ref)

Fortunately, other early written accounts by Jesuit missionaries sometimes tell us that they did not build all of the roads. The following was written right as the mission of San Borja was founded. Not only does father Linck describe the “narrower” neck of land at this locality, he also tells us that prior to the establishment of the mission, there was a straight, level road leading from there to the bay:

From San Borja to Los Angeles (meaning the bay of Los Angeles, not the modern city in California) is slightly less than half a day’s travel. As has already been stated, the gulf is really much closer than that, inasmuch as the route to the bay is very circuitous. The road leading there is straight, level, and without any mountains whatever. In view of what I have just said, it is obvious that the peninsula at this latitude is very much narrower than shown on maps. (Linck, 1762)

While there is no doubt that the Jesuits did a very large amount of road-building, a lot of it would be described better as “road repair, leveling, and straightening”.

This is both helpful and hurtful when it comes to identifying the older roads. It is hurtful because subsequent construction over existing roads makes it very difficult to identify the ancient road network. It is helpful because these Jesuit roads were purposefully built as straight as they could be. This means that newer road segments bypassed older road segments, somewhat freezing these bypassed road segments in time because subsequent road building and traffic has followed the newer road segments:


Another avenue of investigation that may turn out to be significant would be to look for tracks from the chariots mentioned in the Book of Mormon. While this line of investigation may be a long-shot, considering the dynamic natural forces that are constantly affecting the peninsula, Homer Ashmann made the interesting observation that there were no roads for wheeled vehicles on the west side of the peninsula during Jesuit times.

If we can find road segments that were bypassed by Jesuit roads on the western side of the peninsula and which also show signs of wheeled vehicular traffic, it would be a strong correlation to the Book of Mormon accounts of chariots because the Jesuits did not use wheeled vehicles in that area and subsequent wheeled vehicles are not likely to have used the bypassed road segments.

To summarize, there are several things to consider when trying to determine if a trail might be from Book of Mormon times:

1. Roads that start at lower elevations and terminate at nearby higher elevations should be eyed with scrutiny because, although they may show great antiquity, they might have been constructed after Book of Mormon times for ceremonial purposes.

2. If a straight Jesuit road shows parallel road segments that are not as straight, it is likely that the parallel segment predates Jesuit times and may be a segment from the ancient trail system.

Considering the various factors that we have discussed in this article, how many of the roads around San Ignacio are still potential candidates as Book of Mormon roads and highways? I can’t answer that question precisely, but there are a very large number of sites that show potential. The road network is a very promising avenue of research, but requires serious study before we can make specific claims about correlations to Nephite roads and highways.

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