Thomas Stuart Ferguson lay in his hammock, certain that he had found the promised land. It had been raining for 5 hours in his camp in tropical Mexico on this late January evening in 1948, and his three campmates had long since drifted off to sleep. But Ferguson was vibrating with excitement. Eager to tell someone what he had seen, he dashed through the downpour to retrieve paper from his supply bag. Ensconced in his hammock’s cocoon of mosquito netting, he clicked on his flashlight and began to write a letter home.
“We have discovered a very great city here in the heart of ‘Bountiful’ land,” Ferguson wrote. According to the Book of Mormon, Bountiful was one of the first areas settled by the Nephites, ancient people who supposedly sailed from Israel to the Americas around 600 B.C.E. Centuries later, according to the scripture, Jesus appeared to the Nephites in the same region after his resurrection. Mormons like Ferguson were certain that these events had happened in the ancient Americas, but debates raged over exactly how their sacred lands mapped onto real-world geography. The Book of Mormon gave only scattered clues, speaking of a narrow isthmus, a river called Sidon, and lands to the north and south occupied by the Nephites and their enemies, the Lamanites.
After years of studying maps, Mormon scripture, and Spanish chronicles, Ferguson had concluded that the Book of Mormon took place around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of Mexico. He had come to the jungles of Campeche, northeast of the isthmus, to find proof.