Current models of landscape response to Holocene climate change in midcontinent North America largely reconcile Earth orbital and atmospheric climate forcing with pollen-based forest histories on the east and eolian chronologies in Great Plains grasslands on the west. However, thousands of sand dunes spread across 12,000 km2 in eastern upper Michigan (EUM), more than 500 km east of the present forest-prairie ecotone, present a challenge to such models. We use 65 optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) ages on quartz sand deposited in silt caps (n = 8) and dunes (n = 57) to document eolian activity in EUM. Dune building was widespread ca. 10–8 ka, indicating a sharp, sustained decline in forest cover during that period. This decline was roughly coincident with hydrologic closure of the upper Great Lakes, but temporally inconsistent with most pollen-based models that imply canopy closure throughout the Holocene. Early Holocene forest openings are rarely recognized in pollen sums from EUM because faint signatures of non-arboreal pollen are largely obscured by abundant and highly mobile pine pollen. Early Holocene spikes in nonarboreal pollen are recorded in cores from small ponds, but suggest only a modest extent of forest openings. OSL dating of dune emplacement provides a direct, spatially explicit archive of greatly diminished forest cover during a very dry climate in eastern midcontinent North America ca. 10–8 ka.