Paleoclimate proxies based on the measurement of xylem cell anatomy have rarely been developed across the temperature range of a species or applied to wood predating the most recent millennium. Here we describe wood anatomy-based proxies for spring temperatures in central North America from modern bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa Michx.). The strong coherence of temperature signals across the species range supports the use of these proxies across thousands of years of climatic change. We also used 79 subfossil oak log cross sections from northern Missouri, 14C-dated to 9.9–13.63 ka (ka is 1000 cal yr BP), to assess the frequency of oak deposition into alluvial sediments and a subset of these oaks for a wood anatomy-based reconstruction of spring paleotemperatures. Temperatures during the Younger Dryas cold period (YD) were up to 3.5°C lower than modern temperatures for that region, equivalent to or lower than those experienced at the northern edge of the modern species range. Compared to extant oaks growing at much higher [CO2], subfossil oaks had greater vessel frequencies. Besides very low theoretical (or estimated) xylem conductivity near the beginning of the oak record near 13.6 ka, vessel frequencies greater than modern trees compensated for reduced vessel dimensions so that theoretical xylem conductivity was consistently above that of modern trees at the cold northern sites. Significant correlations were found between the frequency of 14C-dated oaks and either δ18O from the NGRIP (North Greenland Ice Core Project) ice core or from the Cariaco grayscale marine-sediment record from the southern Caribbean sea. Oak deposition into alluvial sediments during the YD was significantly lower than expected given the average sample depth of oaks from 9.9 to 13.6 ka. Reduced oak deposition during the YD suggests that an abrupt shift in climate reduced oak populations across the region and/or changed the rates of channel movement across drainages.