Recent models and analyses of paleoecological records suggest that tree populations are capable of rapid migration when climate warms. Fossil pollen is commonly interpreted as suggesting that the range of many temperate tree species expanded at rates of 100–1000 m/yr during the early Holocene. We used chloroplast DNA surveys to show that the geography of postglacial range expansion in two eastern North American tree species differs from that expected from pollen-based reconstructions and from patterns emerging from European molecular studies. Molecular evidence suggests that American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and red maple (Acer rubrum) persisted during the late glaciation as low-density populations, perhaps within 500 km of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Because populations were closer to modern range limits than previously thought, postglacial migration rates may have been slower than those inferred from fossil pollen. Our estimated rates of <100 m/yr are consistent with model predictions based on life history and dispersal data, and suggest that past migration rates were substantially slower than the rates that will be needed to track 21st-century warming.