Aquatic plants commonly have extensive geographical distributions, implying few restrictions to dispersal. Here we investigate the postglacial history of an aquatic plant with contrasting sexual systems (monoecy and dioecy), which are predicted to affect dispersal ability. We examined the distribution of cpDNA haplotypes using polymerase chain reaction–restriction fragment length polymorphism (PCR-RFLP) among 76 populations (32 monoecious, 38 dioecious, two mixed and four undetermined populations) of Sagittaria latifolia sampled throughout eastern North America. We also use these data to investigate the polarity of the evolutionary transition between monoecy and dioecy. Using PCR–RFLP, we identified eight cpDNA haplotypes. All haplotypes were found in unglaciated areas of the species’ range, clustered primarily in the southeastern United States, providing evidence that glacial refugia probably occurred in this area. Genetic diversity (hT) was more than six times greater among monoecious compared to dioecious populations. All seven of the haplotypes for which the sexual system could be determined were represented among monoecious populations. In contrast, only four haplotypes were detected in dioecious populations and 94% of individuals from dioecious populations possessed a single haplotype. Monoecious populations possessing this widespread haplotype were restricted to the southern portion of the range, indicating that dioecy probably originated in this region and then spread northwards. The distribution of cpDNA haplotypes in dioecious populations represents a subset of the variation found in monoecious populations, a pattern expected if dioecy has evolved from monoecy in S. latifolia.