Question: It’s not every day that you stumble upon a long-lost cousin at work–where did this all start? Where and how did you meet?Wiles: I met Christine Dillard here at West Boca High. We both teach English in the same hallway. Our classrooms are really close to each other. This was a total chance-thing…
Question: How did the conversation come up?
Wiles: A few teachers were chatting in the hallway before a class change. Mrs. Dillard mentioned that her maiden name had been Jennings. My great-grandmother Daisy, who passed away when I was 14, was also a Jennings. But that’s a common last name, so I didn’t think anything of it….the fact that we were related was a passing thought, but one I don’t think I took seriously. We joked about being cousins, but as it turns out, we actually are.
Dillard: Southerners love a monogram! When I commented that another teacher had the same monogram as mine before I was married, Lauren asked, “Oh, what was your maiden name?” That is when we learned that Jennings was a commonality between us.
Question: So, you are both “Jennings”: where did the connection happen?
Wiles: My dad and everyone on his side are from the Carolinas–North AND South. The Jennings side of the family are of English and Scottish descent, and they have been in this particular part of the South since the early 1700s. They were very poor mountain-folk–they were farmers up until the industrial revolution. In the mid 1850s, Rock Hill South Carolina became an official city, and due to its new railroad, our “people” left the mountains for industrial jobs. It was a pretty small town once upon a time. I have always been told that they were dirt-poor. My great-grandma Daisy would tell me stories of how they had an Out-House and how she would churn butter.
Dillard: At first, I assumed it was a coincidence. My dad was in the military, so we never lived close to any family. Moving every 3 years was part of being an Army Brat.
Question: When did you know that there was a possible relation here?
Wiles: As soon as Mrs. Dillard mentioned “Rock Hill, South Carolina,” I knew there was something there; I don’t know a single person from Rock Hill, South Carolina here in Boca except for my many cousins in Rock Hill, South Carolina. You don’t just meet Rock Hill folk here in Boca. It’s highly unlikely. Dillard: I asked my grandfather’s brother who is still living if he knew of any relatives named Wiles. He said no, but Lauren kept digging.
Question: So, you just assumed you were related?
Wiles: Kind of, but I didn’t look into it until very recently. This was a total freak-accident using AncestryDNA. One of my immediate ancestors on my mom’s side was adopted from Korea. I was looking for answers there, and had little interest in exploring the Jennings part of my family until now. Dillard: There was no doubt somewhere up the line we were related. I just didn’t realize the line was so close.
Question: So how did you make the connection?
Wiles: My great-grandmother Daisy, who spent her entire life in Rock Hill, was one of my favorite people. She had such a kind heart. She made the best biscuits, cornbread, and vegetable soup. I loved her peach cobbler. I knew her dad’s name was Andrew Rufus Jennings. I asked Mrs. Dillard what her grandfather and great-grandfather’s name was. That’s when we found out we are directly related.Dillard: For most of my life, my grandfather, Arthur Jennings, Jr., lived in Mexico. He was an engineer and worked with polymer in Mexico City. We didn’t really get to know much of the extended family on his side. Wiles: Yes, and Arthur’s dad’s brother is my great-great grandfather. He stayed in SC.
Question: And how are Andrew R. Jennings and Arthur E. Jennings related?Wiles: They were brothers. Their father was Daniel R. Jennings and their mom was Mary-Jane McAteer. Because of them, Mrs. Dillard and I are here, a few generations later.Dillard: Brothers. I am stunned that the relation is so close!
Question:How did you figure this out?
Wiles: Data on Ancestry, Genealogy charts, marriage certificates, obituaries, deeds, news articles. The internet is a magical place if you know what to look for. Dillard: Obituaries have so much detail. For us, since the line was straight up, the connection wasn’t difficult to confirm. Wiles: For Christine, the Jennings name remained the same.
Question: Mrs. Dillard, how did you know Ms. Wiles was correct?
Dillard: With the obituaries and names, it was easy to lay out the evidence. Wiles: Once I found out that Andrew Jennings had a brother named Arthur, and that both of them had parents named Daniel and Mary-Jane, we knew. We had to draw it out, but it’s a very clear line. I have a very obsessive personality, and when I research, I hardly come up for air. I wasn’t going to stop until I had the answer.
Question: Has this changed your perspective of one another?
Wiles: If anything, it has strengthened an already established bond. Now, I just call her “cuz” and we laugh. Our ancestors were the epitome of Southern folk. A lot of them weren’t educated, but yet, here we are teaching reading and writing at the same school. It’s funny to us.Dillard: Ms. Wiles and I were connected before this. We are on the same hallway and teach the same subject. She is also the dance teacher while I am the cheer coach. We had a great relationship before we figured this out. Now we have the extra connection of being family.
Question: What have you learned about your ancestors:
Wiles: Shakespeare once said, “Past is Prologue.” What he meant was that everything that has happened before you set out the path for your own life. Christine and I are here because of the decisions made by our ancestors. The Jennings were simple people. I have a lot of fond memories as a child visiting Rock-Hill. It’s all God and Football there. When I think of Rock Hill, I think of a time in my childhood without cell phones, no social media–you know, running and playing in the woods and enjoying the simple things–Southern culture is all about slowing down and relishing in the small moments of life. My great-grandma was very different from me, but I will always remember her for sharing her love of Southern food, hospitality, and the simple things like telling ghost-stories, eating grits, sitting in a rocking-chair for hours doing absolutely nothing but enjoying life with a glass of sweet tea. Dillard: I learned who they were. Without the connection to family outside of first cousins growing up, it is amazing to learn some family history beyond the first and second generations.
Questions: What would have happened if you grew up in Rock Hill like the rest of the Jennings?
Wiles: I think I would have been super bored. I love visiting my ancestors, but culturally, we are very different. I guess life would have been simple–you know, church, football, getting married young. That’s just not me. If I were from a small town, I would have run away–just like my grandma did. She moved to Florida to escape the South. I don’t blame her. I come from a long line of hard-working hillbillies (haha), but I’m from Miami at the end of the day. Dillard: Rock Hill is now a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina. I think that the area has changed so much in recent years that it would have been a great small-town life. This wasn’t in the cards for me, though. My dad served in Vietnam and then spent the rest of his career in military service. I grew up traveling the world as an Army dependent, aka, Army Brat. Growing up outside of the reach of family, those in the same situation on the military base took on that role. That experience made me who I am, so I can’t imagine growing up in one singular location.
Question: How do you think this story could impact other people?Wiles: My mom was adopted from Korea, so I don’t hold the same emphasis on blood relationships that some others might. Many of my cousins and I do not share the same DNA, and that is perfectly okay–that doesn’t make them any less of a cousin to me. What genealogy and ancestry research can do, though, is help people fill in missing pieces of your family to build a greater understanding of who you are and how you got here. Above all else, I think we realize how connected–not separated–we all are. What I have learned from my research is that ancestry is not linear, it’s more of a web. Our ancestry branches out like a tree, and somewhere along the line, we are all connected as one human race. It sounds cheesy, but as you can see, it is true. Dillard: We are all connected somehow, sometimes we are closer than we realize. Blood relationships are great and interesting. It is a grounding that happens when history about family is learned. The connection to ancestors gives your own life a story.
Question: What advice can you give someone new to genealogy research who is interested in exploring their own ancestral history?
Wiles: The data is out there, it just might take a while to organize. I recommend drawing out the tree, otherwise things get confusing, especially when there are last name changes in the tree (likely due to marriage). If you know how to move through the data, you can unlock a certain “branch.” Sometimes you might go down the wrong branch, but with some digging and research–for example a quick marriage record search–you will find new names that lead you to the correct branch. For instance, Mrs. Dillard and I had to go back 5 or 6 generations which took a few phone calls, but here we are. It’s often distant cousins or relatives that can fill in story gaps. Marriage records, obituaries, social media, etc. are key tools in the process. You just need patience and the willingness to communicate with other people. Obviously, some people don’t want to talk about it, so you have to respect that. I say, try it. It is fun. Dillard: I have some family members that are interested in genealogy, but none that had done my father’s side of the family tree. I am finding that it is so fascinating to learn the history of my family and all of the branches. This will be something that I will continue to research.