Dry forests are particularly subject to wildfires, insect outbreaks, and droughts that likely will increase with climate change. Efforts to increase resilience of dry forests often focus on removing most small trees to reduce wildfire risk. However, small trees often survive other disturbances and could provide broader forest resilience, but small trees are thought to have been historically rare. We used direct records by land surveyors in the late-1800s along 22,206 km of survey lines in 1.7 million ha of dry forests in the western USA to test this idea.