1 Large, infrequent disturbances can exert a dominant influence on the structure and dynamics of forested landscapes and in Westland, New Zealand there is evidence of at least three massive earthquakes within the last 650 years. We reconstructed the history of forest disturbance in two study areas, totalling 1412 ha, to quantify the role of such disturbance in structuring the conifer/hardwood forests. 2 We divided the study area into different land-surface types, aged trees on each land surface and identified cohorts of trees established in response to past disturbance. The type of disturbance (tree fall or erosion/sedimentation event) that initiated cohort establishment was determined from the type of land surface and other physical evidence. We also dated abrupt growth releases or suppressions in tree rings to aid disturbance history reconstruction. 3 Erosion and sedimentation events dominated the disturbance regime, affecting 86% of the study area in the last 650 years. Catchment-wide episodes of forest cohort-initiating disturbances were centred around 1820-30, 1710-20, 1610-20 and 1460 AD. Of the 51 cohorts identified in the study area, 47 were initiated during one of these episodes, when disturbance by erosion or sedimentation affected from 10-50% of the study area. Consequently, over 80% of the forested area currently comprises simple, first generation cohorts of trees established after catastrophic disturbance. Only 14% of the study area is more complex, all-aged forest. 4 Three disturbance episodes coincide with the three most recent Alpine fault earthquakes (c. 1717, 1630 and 1460 AD), while one coincides with earthquakes recorded to the south of the study catchment in 1826 AD. Age structures from throughout Westland show that extensive, similar-aged, post-earthquake cohorts of trees are a feature of the region, suggesting that infrequent, massive earthquakes are the dominant coarse-scale disturbance agent, triggering episodes of major erosion and sedimentation and leaving a strong imprint on the forest structure.