A set of simple ecological models accounts well for the cumulative initiation of peatlands throughout North America in relation to glacial retreat. The most parsimonious form incorporates, first, a delay term to account for the lag during which newly deglaciated land became suitable for peatland initiation and, second, an intrinsic rate of initiation related to the probability of migration and establishment of plant propagules from elsewhere. The goodness of fit of the models, based on 1680 basal-peat dates throughout the continent, allows projection of past trends into the future. Factors contributing to the lag of about 4000 years between deglaciation and peatland initiation are suggested and data on colonization of deglaciated land by beavers (known to initiate peatlands) are presented. The rate of peatland initiation peaked between 7000 and 8000 years ago, but remains appreciable today. A marked depression of peatland initiation (8360-8040 BP) interrupted the peak rate. The time of the interruption matches the 8200 BP cold-dry event recorded in Greenland ice cores, and suggests that this event caused a substantial, continent-wide depression of an important ecosystem function, i.e., carbon sequestration from the atmosphere by peat deposition. Spontaneous initiation of new peatlands is projected to continue for millennia to come.