In humid, broadleaf-dominated forests where gap dynamics and partial canopy mortality appears to dominate the disturbance regime at local scales, paleoecological evidence shows alteration at regional-scales associated with climatic change. Yet, little evidence of these broad-scale events exists in extant forests. To evaluate the potential for the occurrence of large-scale disturbance, we used 76 tree-ring collections spanning ∼840 000 km2 and 5327 tree recruitment dates spanning ∼1.4 million km2 across the humid eastern United States. Rotated principal component analysis indicated a common growth pattern of a simultaneous reduction in competition in 22 populations across 61 000 km2. Growth-release analysis of these populations reveals an intense and coherent canopy disturbance from 1775 to 1780, peaking in 1776. The resulting time series of canopy disturbance is so poorly described by a Gaussian distribution that it can be described as “heavy tailed,” with most of the years from 1775 to 1780 comprising the heavy-tail portion of the distribution. Historical documents provide no evidence that hurricanes or ice storms triggered the 1775–1780 event. Instead, we identify a significant relationship between prior drought and years with elevated rates of disturbance with an intense drought occurring from 1772 to 1775. We further find that years with high rates of canopy disturbance have a propensity to create larger canopy gaps indicating repeated opportunities for rapid change in species composition beyond the landscape scale. Evidence of elevated, regional-scale disturbance reveals how rare events can potentially alter system trajectory: a substantial portion of old-growth forests examined here originated or were substantially altered more than two centuries ago following events lasting just a few years. Our recruitment data, comprised of at least 21 species and several shade-intolerant species, document a pulse of tree recruitment at the subcontinental scale during the late-1600s suggesting that this event was severe enough to open large canopy gaps. These disturbances and their climatic drivers support the hypothesis that punctuated, episodic, climatic events impart a legacy in broadleaf-dominated forests centuries after their occurrence. Given projections of future drought, these results also reveal the potential for abrupt, meso- to large-scale forest change in broadleaf-dominated forests over future decades.