In a meritocracy like the United States, fine breeding and birthright may seem like antiquated notions, but for a few storied American surnames (your Vanderbilts, your Buckleys, your Stone Cold Austins), the depth of your family tree’s roots can be a source of great pride and distinction. I am the great (many times over) paternal grandson of our family’s founder, Simpleton Ratbait (pronounced “Wrought-bay-tee”), one of the brave Pilgrims who risked everything to make the dangerous journey to the New World.
Not much is known about our family’s patriarch. Sometimes in genealogy, the surname itself can be a clue. Mason, Baker, and Smith, for example, are all family names derived from an occupation, but the inscrutable origin of Ratbait is lost in the fog of English and American history.
We can assume Simpleton was a stout and hearty man to have survived the miserable conditions aboard the Mayflower, beset as it was by sickness and rodents. In his journals, William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Colony, described an infestation so extreme that in a fit of desperation, he instituted a medieval method to preoccupy the ship’s vermin, so that the passengers might sleep unmolested. Every night before bed, the Pilgrims would strip naked the most soft-headed man on board, smear his exposed flesh with molasses, and lock him in the storage hold… almost as if he were some kind of human rat lure.
“With but a knife duller than his wits would the idiot set himself against toothe and claw in the lightless hold,” Bradford wrote, “while we poor people attempted to slumber above; arrested from sleep by his wails of agony and the inhuman hissing that answered it, we would stomp on the floor with our booted feet and curse him, shouting ‘Hush your mewling, you pitiful fool!’; but thusly reproved, he would wail more bitterly about the scurrying hordes gnawing at his extremities while the troubled sea rocked us fore and aft, as ignorant to our suffering as when God’s providence first commanded the waters into existence.”
Bradford never identified this tragic figure by name, though in his journal’s margins he did sketch a caricature of a cross-eyed man wearing a dunce cap and holding two dead rats. We like to imagine our ancestor was the humble cook who prepared that desperate man a bowl of hot porridge after he stumbled half-eaten out of the hold every morning, a fitting antecedent for our family’s long history of philanthropy on behalf of God’s most wretched creatures.
Alas, it’s impossible to know…
Though surely a learned man, Simpleton left behind no writings of his own, and he was mentioned by name only in the journals and papers of a handful of other Pilgrims. John Alden noted in his ledger that an S. Ratbait owed him “half a pigeon or equivalent fowl.” Samuel Fuller—a bit of a pious bitch for someone who let his indentured servant perish at sea, if you ask me—described Simpleton as, “A person of potent odor.”
Do I take too much pride in being a Ratbait? I sometimes worry it implies that I believe there is a hierarchy in America, and my august lineage confers upon me some elevated status not available to Americans of shallower stock. This could not be further from the truth. I’m not proud of what my family has done. I’m proud of what we didn’t do!
On the fateful day the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower, Simpleton tragically drowned while wading to shore when he bent to adjust his shoe in some choppy waters crashing against his ankles. For this reason, the Mayflower Society, a hereditary organization for individuals who want to hobnob with other documented descendants of the original Mayflower families, does not consider him a Plymouth Rock founder. Simpleton’s only son, Dunston Ratbait, wouldn’t arrive in America until decades later, and his descendants would spend a few generations hunting for snipe in the Western territories with little success, before finally putting down roots in Florida.
Today, we Ratbaits—lately of the Daytona Beach Ratbaits, heirs to the Ratbait Speedway, Vaping, & Fireworks fortunes—are thankful for our many blessings. But we recognize the freedoms and prosperity that flowed forth from Plymouth Rock were distributed unevenly and came at a monstrous cost.
And that is why Thanksgiving means just a little bit more to me, Bartholomew Dunston Ratbait IV.
Our family’s founder was no doubt virtuous, wise, respected, and, if he’s anything like his descendants, handsome. (LOL!) But we’re also… sort of grateful he drowned in a foot of water on the shores of Cape Cod? Had he made it to land, he would’ve settled in the ruins of a Wampanoag village wiped out by a plague brought to America by European colonizers and slavers, and Ratbait would’ve very likely participated in, or at least abided, the genocides and ethnic cleansings of the Indigenous peoples that followed.
It mystifies me that so many refuse to see what is so plainly obvious! It reminds me of Simpleton’s only recorded quote, actually. Attributed to him by Edward Winslow, Simpleton said: “If you’re trapped in the dark screaming like a pink-bottomed newborn because monsters are about to gobble your bits and bobs, you can squeeze shut your eyes and pretend they’re not there—or you can face the beady-eyed demons and fight. I usually try a bit of both, myself.”
There is no context for the quote, but we like to think it was taken from a sermon. Winslow, in the audience, listening to our forefather’s oration, nodding in agreement and scribbling it down for us to read eons later.