Predicting future ecosystem dynamics depends critically on an improved understanding of how disturbances and climate change have driven long-term ecological changes in the past. Here we assembled a dataset of >100,000 tree species lists from the 19th century across a broad region (>130,000km2) in temperate eastern Canada, as well as recent forest inventories, to test the effects of changes in anthropogenic disturbance, temperature and moisture on forest dynamics. We evaluate changes in forest composition using four indices quantifying the affinities of co-occurring tree species with temperature, drought, light and disturbance. Land-use driven shifts favouring more disturbance-adapted tree species are far stronger than any effects ascribable to climate change, although the responses of species to disturbance are correlated with their expected responses to climate change. As such, anthropogenic and natural disturbances are expected to have large direct effects on forests and also indirect effects via altered responses to future climate change.