Abstract To construct forest landscape of pre-European settlement periods, we developed a GIS interpolation approach to convert witness tree records of the U.S. General Land Office (GLO) survey from point to polygon data, which better described continuously distributed vegetation. The witness tree records (1839–1866) were processed for a 3-million ha landscape in northern Wisconsin, U.S.A. at different scales. We provided implications of processing results at each scale. Compared with traditional GLO mapping that has fixed mapping scales and generalized classifications, our approach allows presettlement forest landscapes to be analysed at the individual species level and reconstructed under various classifications. We calculated vegetation indices including relative density, dominance, and importance value for each species, and quantitatively described the possible outcomes when GLO records are analysed at three different scales (resolution). The 1 × 1-section resolution preserved spatial information but derived the most conservative estimates of species distributions measured in percentage area, which increased at coarser resolutions. Such increases under the 2 × 2-section resolution were in the order of three to four times for the least common species, two to three times for the medium to most common species, and one to two times for the most common or highly contagious species. We mapped the distributions of hemlock and sugar maple from the pre-European settlement period based on their witness tree locations and reconstructed presettlement forest landscapes based on species importance values derived for all species. The results provide a unique basis to further study land cover changes occurring after European settlement.