The long-term impact of human land-use is among the most important factors influencing the development of vegetation in New England, a region which experienced extensive agricultural clearance in the 19th century and subsequent reforestation during this century. We employed stand-level pollen stratigraphies and tree-ring chronologies to examine the post-settlement dynamics of hemlock stands which have never been pastured or plowed, representing among the least disturbed parts of the central Massachusetts landscape. Although the sites are currently dominated by large Tsuga canadensis individuals and give the impression of great age and stability, our results indicate that they have dynamic developmental histories driven by exogenous disturbance factors, including logging, forest pathogens, catastrophic wind disturbance, and fire. Sites containing pre-settlement pollen assemblages indicate stand compositions at this time which were substantially different from each other and from modern assemblages. Pollen assemblages similar to those of modern stands were not established in any of our sites until the 20th century and the mechanisms by which these assemblages arose was considerably different in each stand, indicating great flexibility of forest response to a variety of disturbance types.