We used pulsed-field gel electrophoresis, restriction fragment mapping, and fluorescence microscopy of individual DNA molecules to analyze the structure of chloroplast DNA (cpDNA) from shoots of ten to 14 day old maize seedlings. We find that most of the cpDNA is in linear and complex branched forms, with only 3-4% as circles. We find the ends of linear genomic monomers and head-to-tail (h-t) concatemers within inverted repeat sequences (IRs) near probable origins of replication, not at random sites as expected from broken circles. Our results predict two major and three minor populations of linear molecules, each with different ends and putative origins of replication. Our mapping data predict equimolar populations of h-t linear concatemeric molecules differing only in the relative orientation (inversion) of the single copy regions. We show how recombination during replication can produce h-t linear concatemers containing an inversion of single copy sequences that has for 20 years been attributed to recombinational flipping between IRs in a circular chromosome. We propose that replication is initiated predominantly on linear, not circular, DNA, producing multi-genomic branched chromosomes and that most replication involves strand invasion of internal regions by the ends of linear molecules, rather than the generally accepted D-loop-to-theta mechanism. We speculate that if the minor amount of cpDNA in circular form is useful to the plant, its contribution to chloroplast function does not depend on the circularity of these cpDNA molecules.