Abstract Aim Climate, topography and soils drive many patterns of plant distribution and abundance across landscapes, but current plant communities may also reflect a legacy of past disturbance such as agricultural land use. To assess the relative influences of environmental conditions and disturbance history on vegetation, it is important to understand how these forces interact. This study relates the geographical distribution of land uses to variation in topography and soils; evaluates the consequences of land-use decisions for current forests; and examines the effects of agricultural land use on the chemical properties of forest soils. Location Tompkins County occupies 1250 km2 in central New York's Finger Lakes region. Like much of eastern North America, this area underwent forest clearance for agriculture during the 1800s and widespread field abandonment and forest recovery during the 1900s. The current landscape consists of a patchwork of forests that were never cleared, forests that developed on old fields and active agricultural lands. Methods We investigated relationships among topography, soils and land-use decisions by gathering information about land-use history, slope, aspect, elevation, soil lime content, soil drainage and accessibility in a geographic information system (GIS). To assess the effects of agriculture on forest soil chemistry, we measured pH, organic matter content and extractable nutrient concentrations in field-collected soil samples from 47 post-agricultural and uncleared forests. Results Steeper slopes, less accessible lands and lower-lime soils tended to remain forested, and farmers were more likely to abandon fields that were steeper, farther from roads, lower in lime and more poorly drained. Slope had by far the greatest impact on patterns of clearance and abandonment, and accessibility had a surprisingly strong influence on the distribution of land uses. The effects of other factors varied more, depending for example on location within the county. Current forest types differed accordingly in topography and soil attributes, particularly slope, but they also showed much overlap. Post-agricultural and uncleared forest soils had similar chemical properties. Forests on lands abandoned from agriculture 80–100 years before had slightly higher pH and nutrient concentrations than adjacent, uncleared forests, but these changes were small compared to environmental variation across the county. Main conclusions Despite differential use of lands according to their topography and soils, the substantial influence of accessibility and the relatively small scale of land-use decisions allowed for broad similarity among forest types. Thus, the topography and soil differences created by land-use decisions probably contribute little to landscape-level patterns of diversity. Subtle changes in forest soil chemistry left from past agriculture may nevertheless affect plant distribution and abundance at finer scales.