Many forests of eastern North American are undergoing a species composition shift in which maples (Acer spp.) are increasingly important while oak (Quercus spp.) regeneration and recruitment has become increasingly scarce. This dynamic in species composition occurs across a large and geographically complex region. The elimination of fire has been postulated as the driver of this dynamic; however, some assumptions underlying this postulate have not been completely examined, and alternative hypotheses remain underexplored. Through literature review, and a series of new analyses, we examined underlying assumptions of the “oak and fire” hypothesis and explored a series of alternative hypotheses based on well-known ecosystem drivers: climate change, land-use change, the loss of foundation and keystone species, and dynamics in herbivore populations. We found that the oak–maple dynamic began during a shift in climate regime-from a time of frequent, severe, multi-year droughts to a period of increased moisture availability. Anthropogenic disturbance on the landscape changed markedly during this same time, from an era of Native American utilization, to a time characterized by low population densities, to Euro-American settlement and subsequent land transmogrification. During the initiation of the oak-maple dynamic, a foundation species, the American chestnut, was lost as a canopy tree across a broad range. Several important browsers and acorn predators had substantial population dynamics during this period, e.g. white-tailed deer populations grew substantially concurrent with increasing oak recruitment failure. In conclusion, our analyses suggest that oak forests are reacting to marked changes in a suite of interlocking factors. We propose a “multiple interacting ecosystem drivers hypothesis”, which provides a more encompassing framework for understanding oak forest dynamics.