BACKGROUND: The spatiotemporal regulation of adhesion to the extracellular matrix is important in metazoan cell migration and mechanosensation. Although adhesion assembly depends on intracellular and extracellular tension, the biophysical regulation of force transmission between the actin cytoskeleton and extracellular matrix during this process remains largely unknown. RESULTS: To elucidate the nature of force transmission as myosin II tension is applied to focal adhesions, we correlated the dynamics of focal adhesion proteins and the actin cytoskeleton to local traction stresses. Under low extracellular tension, newly formed adhesions near the cell periphery underwent a transient retrograde displacement preceding elongation. We found that myosin II-generated tension drives this mobility, and we determine the interface of differential motion, or "slip," to be between integrin and the ECM. The magnitude and duration of both adhesion slip and associated F-actin dynamics is strongly modulated by ECM compliance. Traction forces are generated throughout the slip period, and adhesion immobilization occurs at a constant tension. CONCLUSIONS: We have identified a tension-dependent, extracellular "clutch" between integrins and the extracellular matrix; this clutch stabilizes adhesions under myosin II driven tension. The current work elucidates a mechanism by which force transmission is modulated during focal adhesion maturation.