The River Sidon:
The Book of Mormon only mentions one watercourse by name: the river Sidon. In addition to the river Sidon, the only other uses of the term “river” are references to rivers in a land far to the north of Zarahemla, a land of “many waters, rivers, and fountains” (the Colorado river delta in our model). In addition, if you travel “exceedingly great distances” within that land northward (North America in our model) you could come to “many rivers and large bodies of water”.
References to water in the northern lands appear to stand in stark contrast to the traditional Nephite and Lamanite lands where the text only mentions a single river named “Sidon”. Another reference to water in the southern lands is the “waters of Sebus” where competing Lamanite groups drove all their flocks for water despite significant risk to both the people and their animals. Also, a “fountain of pure water” existed in a valley and forest called “Mormon” which was in proximity to the City of Nephi.
Things we know about the river Sidon:
The river Sidon stands out prominently among these three references to water in the southern Nephite/Lamanite lands. In addition to references to the river itself, the “head of Sidon”(Alma 56:25) and the “waters of Sidon”(Alma 4:4, 43:40) are mentioned. In Alma 43:40, the term “waters of Sidon” seems to be used interchangeably with the term “river Sidon” which makes it unlikely that Mormon means anything different than the river Sidon when he uses the term waters of Sidon.
In contrast to the term “waters of Sidon”, the term “head of Sidon” seems to be a reference to a particular part of the watercourse. It seems likely that this is the upstream area where the river begins. Rivers get such beginnings from their respective drainage basins or from aquifer-fed springs, etc.. The head of the river Sidon bordered on a wilderness and was used as a point of reference when describing political borders between the Nephite and Lamanite lands (Alma 22:29, 50:11).
The river Sidon flowed past the city of Zarahemla (Alma 2:15), the valley of Gideon (Alma 6:7) and the land of Manti (Alma 43:22). The valley of Gideon was east of the river Sidon (Alma 6:7). An army crossed Sidon to get from the valley of Gideon to the city of Zarahemla (Alma 2:27). A hill named Amnihu was east of Sidon (Alma 2:15-17). A hill named Riplah and a valley to the south of Riplah were east of Sidon (Alma 43:31, 49:16). There was a valley near the bank of Sidon in a wilderness west of Sidon (Alma 43:27). The land of Melek was also located somewhere west of Sidon “in the borders by the wilderness” (Alma 8:3). You could get to the land of Manti from the land of Antionum by traveling past the head of Sidon (Alma 43:22). All or part of the “south wilderness” was east of the river Sidon (Alma 16:6-7). You could get to and cross the head of the river Sidon after travelling “round about in the wilderness” from Jershon (Alma 43:22).
The river Sidon was large enough to be an obstacle for troop movements but small enough that it was not a complete barrier to those movements (Alma 2:27, Alma 43). When bodies were disposed of in the river they would (immediately or perhaps later in a flood event) “go forth” and end up being buried in the depths of the sea (Alma 44:22). In one of the two cases where bodies were thrown into Sidon the text only specifies that “their bones have gone forth” and are buried in the depths of the sea. A battle that took place largely around the river Sidon resulted in a significant loss of agricultural crops (Alma 2-3).
The Rio San Ignacio:
The model we present identifies the Rio San Ignacio as the river Sidon from the Book of Mormon. The Rio San Ignacio is an aquifer-fed permanent river which currently supports the city of San Ignacio as well as large agricultural areas. The modern river is dammed just below the springs that feed it, creating a beautiful lake surrounded by roughly 50,000 date palm trees. A series of canals carries water from the river to areas where it is utilized. The modern Rio San Ignacio flows east-to-west for a short distance then trends strongly southwest but only reaches the Pacific ocean during floods that occur every several years. These flood events often washed away significant improvements that early Spanish missionaries built along the river in historic times.
The references to the river Sidon can all be explained using the modern Rio San Ignacio, but there are multiple interpretations that can account for all of the references. Since the modern river starts with a spring and terminates by sinking into the desert sands, the many references that refer to cardinal directions from the river may refer to places along the banks of the river or, alternatively, some may refer to places that are east or west of the entire watercourse. One primary example of this relates to the hills Riplah and Amnihu. The Rio San Ignacio starts by flowing from the east to the west and there are hills east of the springs that feed the river which might fit the descriptions of Riplah and Amnihu despite the fact that they are east of the whole watercourse and do not exist on an eastern bank of the river. An alternate interpretation (which is what we currently present in the model) is that along the southwest-flowing portion of the Rio San Ignacio there are hills on the southeastern bank of the river which fit the descriptions of Riplah and Amnihu.
In addition to this ambiguity, it is very possible that the modern Rio San Ignacio is significantly different in modern times than it was during Nephite times. There is significant evidence indicating that the Baja peninsula received a lot more rainfall and had much better soil conditions during Nephite times. In addition, very little is known about the prehistory of the aquifer system that currently feeds the Rio San Ignacio. Other aquifers in the southern portion of the peninsula have been known to dry up completely after an earthquake only to reappear decades later after another earthquake. It is possible that the river Sidon was the Rio San Ignacio but looked very different from what we see today.
The “head of Sidon” may refer to the modern springs, it may refer to other springs that no longer flow (possibly from the Sierra de la Giganta to the south), or it may refer to the drainage basin that feeds the Rio San Ignacio. This ambiguity makes it difficult to be certain of the precise location many of the geographical references in the text. As we continue to explore these possibilities, it appears that multiple models can be created that account for all of the textual references. Perhaps further research will give us an understanding that is more precise in the future.
A recent paper gives some insight regarding the ability of the Rio San Ignacio to support a significant population (http://www.sciencedirect.com/
“The ojo de agua of San Ignacio flows out of a small tributary to the arroyo, approximately three kilometers upstream and around the bend of the mesa from the town…Below the confluence, the long, sweet water lake begins, and stretches for a few kilometers downstream…Several springs flow from the bedrock beneath the reservoir and keep it filled year-round…the arroyo chooses different paths, flooding some huertas, leaving others only barren sand, and at times, filling completely, mesa to mesa…The huertas within the wide valley eye are grouped into several smaller communities, but included in the same irrigation systems (SIH09-SIH15; SIH18-SIH22). Water from these springs flows through five canals…(in 1824) The mission soil was fertile and would offer productive harvests. Irrigation water came from a small arroyo with dams and holding ponds in quantities more than sufficient to irrigate all of the areas in cultivation…the mission could support 2,000 souls”
We would note that by saying it could support 2000 souls as stated above, Father Troncoso was describing the population that could live in the mission itself. It was the practice of the Fathers to make their neophytes live in a closed community at the mission whenever possible and not let them exploit the subsistence patterns they were used to in the peninsula. One of many instances when this system failed is also quoted in the San Ignacio section of the paper mentioned above along with a list of crops that were successful at that location which matches up well with many Book of Mormon references:
“In 1778, Fray Jose Santolaria wrote that for many years he had to send his neophytes to the coast and to the mountains to gather food because of the locust plagues. At the mission, they cultivated wheat, corn, barley, beans, figs, dates, pomegranates, grapes, and vegetables.”
This demonstrates that the Rio San Ignacio is capable of significant agriculture and that there are food resources to be found in the mountains and nearby seas as well.