We’ll let you in on a secret.
When we do family history research for Who Do You Think You Are? we find all kinds of stories in each celebrity’s family tree. Our ancestors lived through amazing historical events, made decisions both good and bad, and went through hardships—some they overcame, and some conquered them. But sometimes we find that to tell one person’s story, we have to change perspective and tell it from another person’s point of view.
Kelsey Grammer is well acquainted with a change of perspective. After nine seasons on the hit television show Cheers, Kelsey’s story changed directions when his character, Frasier Crane, became the focal point of one of the most successful TV spinoffs of all time.
Kelsey Grammer’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? features the members of the Dimmick family. We were able to document the families of Joseph Dimmick and his son, also named Joseph, in records from Ohio and Illinois. Then we learned from census records that the family left Illinois shortly after 1850 and moved to Oregon. In fact, if you pay attention to the birthplaces of Joseph Jr.’s family—Illinois, Oregon, and California—a single 1880 census record painted a picture of a family who crossed the American plains more than a decade before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
But, as often happens, we found that Kelsey Grammer’s 2nd and 3rd great-grandparents didn’t leave behind as many records of that journey as we would have liked. So we looked to change our perspective. As family historians, we use this technique all the time, especially when it comes to finding contemporary sources. For example, not all of our ancestors were avid journal keepers or letter writers. But if you can find a written first-hand account by someone else who experienced the same thing your ancestors did, you can gain further insight into your ancestor’s life story.
So we set out to see if there was someone else who left us a record. On a website focused on residents in Schuyler County, Illinois, we found a list of people who traveled the Oregon Trail in the same company as the Dimmicks. One of them happened to be Joseph Dimmick Sr.’s nephew, Joseph Gragg.
When Joseph Gragg died, he left a large collection of papers now located at the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon Library. Among those papers was his personal account of the experience of the Gragg and Dimmick families along the Oregon Trail. In his account, Joseph included descriptions of river crossings and the search for food. He also provided a detailed timeline of events affecting the entire party as they crossed the country.
Best of all, Joseph recorded stories about the people who traveled with him. Among these was the description of the tragic death of Joseph Dimmick Sr.’s son Thomas:
He [Thomas Dimmick] and two others had been out on a buffalo hunt … and the weather being very hot, he drank quite freely of poor water … . In the latter part of the night he was taken sick with the cholera and died about six or seven o’clock. … hasty preparations were made with his bedding and clothing and his body buried alone on the plains . . . .In the afternoon the train moved sadly on leaving the grave of this loved one – a grave never again to be looked upon by anyone who had ever seen him.
Thomas Dimmick was Joseph Gragg’s first cousin and was just a few years older than Joseph Jr.. The death of his cousin would have been a huge loss. It would have been hard to leave him behind on the trail. Joseph Gragg’s account serves as a reminder that our ancestors lived not just with their immediate families but among extended families, neighbors, friends, and associates. They were part of a larger community. And that larger group gives us more chances to find a first-hand account of our own ancestors’ lives. All we need to do is change our perspective.
Learn more about Kelsey's journey or watch the full episode on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Wednesdays 9|8c on TLC.