About 4,000 kilometres south of Whitehorse, over the Rockies and not far from Dallas, Texas, there’s another Yukon.
It’s the hometown of country music superstar Garth Brooks, and the Czech Capital of Oklahoma (named for the wave of immigrants who arrived following World War I). It’s a bedroom community of Oklahoma City and the place where, in 1949, a cow named Grady attracted national media attention after getting stuck in a silo for four days.
But why is it named after the Yukon? The answer to that question seems to be a bit of a mystery.
The prevailing theory is that town founder A. N. Spencer named it in honour of the Klondike Gold Rush. Presumably, this 69-square kilometre stretch of land in the south-central United States would also be a land of riches, like its northern namesake.
But Yukon, OK was founded in 1891. The Klondike Gold Rush began when Skookum Jim and George Carmack discovered a bonanza in 1896—five years later. Prospectors had been trickling into the Yukon in search of gold since the early 1880s, of course, and the reputation of the area as a gold lodestone could have presumably reached down to Spencer and the soon-to-be-townspeople of Yukon, Oklahoma. Though the how of it all is still unclear. As is the why.
Spencer himself seems to have no connection to the North. He was a Texas cattleman turned railroader who saw an opportunity during the great Land Rush of 1889. Indigenous peoples who had been removed from their ancestral territories further east had been living on the “unassigned lands” of Oklahoma for some 50 years when the United States took it away and gave it all to white Americans for settlement.
Along with a massive rush of homesteaders came plans to join Oklahoma to the rest of the country by rail. Knowing such a connection could make or break a town’s financial prospects, a neighbouring community christened itself Frisco to garner the affections of the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway line. But Spencer saw another opportunity eight kilometres south. He persuaded the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad to relocate through lots he purchased from homesteaders—creating Yukon and turning Frisco into a ghost town.
Did Spencer know that his town’s origin of stolen land and the relocation of Indigenous peoples echoed how the Yukon was created in Canada? Probably not. But, again, it’s kind of hard to tell.
The Government of the Yukon, the one up here in the North, had no information about its southern fan. Media spokesperson Cameron Weber says the territorial archivists couldn’t find any info on their end, nor does there appear to have ever been any kind of economic or diplomatic or even promotional connection between the two locations. Not even a charter tour, or “Visit that other Yukon” contest. A missed opportunity, really.
Catherine Sweeney, a reporter for State Impact Oklahoma, referred Up Here to Oklahoma University professor Keith Gaddie, who referred us to NonDoc editor Tres Savage, whose father, Bill, is a local historian. Tres asked his father about the matter and the best the elder Savage could track down was a passage from 1977’s The Oklahoma Travel Handbook, wherein author Kent Ruth writes that two brothers named Spencer founded the town in 1891 and named it after the Yukon River. “But it’s not clear whether either of them had been to seek gold there,” Savage writes in an email.
Yukon’s city hall never got back to Up Here about its town’s founding, nor did the local newspapers. A call to the Yukon Historical Museum also went unanswered. Larry O’Dell, media contact for the Oklahoma Historical Society, did return our calls, but unfortunately wasn’t able to offer much help.
“I asked around. It is located in Canadian County. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it,” he says.
Canadian County, in another odd turn, also doesn’t seem to have any connection to Canada. The county is named for the Canadian River, which runs some 1,400 kilometres from Colorado through New Mexico, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle.
One story says the river’s name comes from Canadian trappers who camped on its confluence while fur trading. But American linguist William Bright believed the name was probably derived from Rio Canadiano, which was how Spanish explorers spelled the Caddo peoples’ traditional name for the river, káyántinu—a Spanish corruption of an Indigenous word, then Anglicized.
Again, an uncanny parallel to the naming of the northern Yukon. The territory gets its title from the Yukon River, which is an Anglicization of the Gwich’in term for “big river.”
So there you have it. Two Yukons, both alike in dignity. One with 24,000 people spread across 69 kilometres. The other with 34,000 people across half a million. How southern Yukon got its name is still unclear. But at least we know only one is referred to as “the.”