Results from a systematic investigation of mercury (Hg) concentrations across 14 forest sites in the United States show highest concentrations in litter layers, strongly enriched in Hg compared to aboveground tissues and indicative of substantial postdepositional sorption of Hg. Soil Hg concentrations were lower than in litter, with highest concentrations in surface soils. Aboveground tissues showed no detectable spatial patterns, likely due to 17 different tree species present across sites. Litter and soil Hg concentrations positively correlated with carbon (C), latitude, precipitation, and clay (in soil), which together explained up to 94% of concentration variability. We observed strong latitudinal increases in Hg in soils and litter, in contrast to inverse latitudinal gradients of atmospheric deposition measures. Soil and litter Hg concentrations were closely linked to C contents, consistent with well-known associations between organic matter and Hg, and we propose that C also shapes distribution of Hg in forests at continental scales. The consistent link between C and Hg distribution may reflect a long-term legacy whereby old, C-rich soil and litter layers sequester atmospheric Hg depositions over long time periods. Based on a multiregression model, we present a distribution map of Hg concentrations in surface soils of the United States.