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. These systematic surveys (45,171 trees) of historical forests reveal that small trees dominated (52–92% of total trees) dry forests. Historical forests also included diverse tree sizes and species, which together provided resilience to several types of disturbances. Current risk to dry forests from insect outbreaks is 5.6 times the risk of higher-severity wildfires, with small trees increasing forest resilience to insect outbreaks. Removal of most small trees to reduce wildfire risk may compromise the bet-hedging resilience, provided by small trees and diverse tree sizes and species, against a broad array of unpredictable future disturbances.