Soil organic matter (SOM) often increases when agricultural fields are converted to perennial vegetation, yet decadal scale rates and the mechanisms that underlie SOM accumulation are not clear. We measured SOM accumulation and changes in soil properties on a replicated chronosequence of former agricultural fields in the midwestern United States that spanned 40 years after perennial-grassland establishment. Over this time period, soil organic carbon (SOC) in the top 10 cm of soil accumulated at a constant rate of 62.0 g x m(-2) x yr(-1), regardless of whether the vegetation type was dominated by C3 or C4 grasses. At this rate, SOC contents will be equivalent to unplowed native prairie sites within 55-75 years after cultivation ceased. Both labile (short turnover time) and recalcitrant (long turnover time) carbon pools increased linearly for 40 years, with recalcitrant pools increasing more rapidly than expected. This result was consistent across several different methods of measuring labile SOC. A model that investigates the mechanisms of SOM formation suggests that rapid formation of stable carbon resulted from biochemically resistant microbial products and plant material. Former agricultural soils of the Great Plains may function as carbon sinks for less than a century, although much of the carbon stored is stable.