HomeMichael Rockefeller Story: Was Nelson Rockefeller's Son Eaten Or Imprisoned?

Michael Rockefeller Story: Was Nelson Rockefeller’s Son Eaten Or Imprisoned?

Michael Rockefeller, the fifth child of former U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, left behind mysterious theories after his disappearance in 1961. Michael, who was declared legally dead in 1964, disappeared during an expedition in the Asmat region of southwestern Netherlands New Guinea (now a part of Indonesia’s Papua).

There are several theories surrounding Michael Rockefeller’s death. Some say, he was attacked by sharks or crocodiles while some believe that he drowned during his expedition. Many tribals from the region admitted that he was killed/eaten after he swam to the shore. So what exactly happened to Michael as his remains were never discovered? Let’s explore together.

Who Was Michael Rockefeller?

Michael Rockefeller, the youngest child of Nelson Rockefeller, held excellent academic accolades just like his bureaucratic family. The son of a former U.S. vice president graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in history and economics. But his heart lay elsewhere. He once said in an interview: “It’s the desire to do something adventurous,” he explained, “at a time when frontiers, in the real sense of the word, are disappearing.”

In 1961, Michael served as a private in the U.S. Army for six months and then left for an expedition with Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to study the Dani tribe of western Netherlands, New Guinea (now part of Indonesia’s Papua). After he finished working on the documentary, Dead Birds”, Michael and his friend decided to embark on another journey to study the Asmat tribe of southern Netherlands, New Guinea. It was then that the unimaginable happened.

Michael’s Expedition To Asmat…

While Michael’s father is remembered as a son and grandson of billionaires, Michael Rockefeller is recalled as a person who transformed from a clean-cut student to a bearded photographer and art collector. During his time in Netherlands New Guinea, he wrote in a letter:

“I am having a thoroughly exhausting but most exciting time here … The Asmat is like a huge puzzle with variations in ceremony and art style forming the pieces. My trips are enabling me to comprehend (if only in a superficial, rudimentary manner) the nature of this puzzle …”

Asmat, to those who know, is a perfect combination of flora and fauna. From, shrimps, crabs and clams, to jungles filled with wild pigs, and the furry and ostrichlike cassowary, the region is thoroughly blessed by nature. There, rivers are like navigable highways, ruled by crocodiles as long as 15 feet. The region boasts of other species like hornbills and red-and-green parents.

Apart from this, Asmat is also home to secrets, spirits, and customs, held by tribes who have been walled by mountains, oceans, mud and jungle for longer than anyone could imagine. In the early 1960s, Michael Rockefeller vanished somewhere off the coast of southern Netherlands, New Guinea, which is now known as Papua New Guinea.

The Last Words Of Michael…

The privileged son of the former US president, Michael was on an expedition to Asmat to study their culture and collect their art. However, this adventure turned into an absolute nightmare on November 17, 1961.

Michael and his friend, Rene Wassing (Dutch anthropologist) were sailing in a simple dugout, about 3 nautical miles from the shore of Papua New Guinea when their boat got overturned in the Betsj river. Even though two local guides swam towards them for help, it was too late.

During this incident, Michael’s last words to Wasssing were: “I think I can make it.” After this, Michael started swimming towards the shore. Shockingly, Wassing was rescued the next day, but Michael was never found. His disappearance buzzed news channels across the globe, accompanied by bizarre theories concerning his death. 

In 1964, Michael was declared legally dead. The most convincing theory, to date, stands that Rockefeller either drown or was attacked by a crocodile. Well, some new outlets suggested that he was consumed by a shark, but again, that is something difficult to digest, considering his distance from the shore.

What’s The Truth Behind Michael’s Death?

Even after more than six decades, many haven’t achieved closure on Michael’s death. After it was reported that he drowned while making it to the shore, or was, perhaps eaten by crocodiles, many reporters came up with their theories about America’s wealthy son. Some suggested that he was killed by cannibals, a fact, which was supported by a few elderly tribesmen back then.

However, in 1969, journalist Milt Machlin travelled to the secluded island to investigate Michael’s death and dismissed reports about Michael being held as a captive by the tribes. However, he concluded that Michael was killed. It also came out that Michael may have made it to the shore, but became a victim of the “white tribe”. This incident has also been described in “Dance of the Warriors”, the second volume of the Blair Brothers’ “Ring Of Fire”.

On the other hand, Paul Toohey, the author of “Rocky Goes West” claims that Michael’s mother hired a private investigator to find some closure on her son’s death. In 1979, this man travelled to the island and swapped a boat engine in exchange for the skulls of three white men that a tribe claimed to have killed. He claimed that the investigator returned to New York with these skulls, but the Rockefeller family never commented on it.

Another documentary showcases some members of the Asmat village, describing how they found Michael on the riverside and ate him. The mystery surrounding Michael’s death still remains unresolved, but if we refer to the most reliable data, there is no reason to believe that Michael is alive.

Michael may be gone, but the Asmat artefacts that he collected, are placed in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Not only this, but the Peabody Museum has also published the catalogue of an exhibition of pictures, Michael took during the last expedition of his life.

Whether eaten by a crocodile or killed by a cannibal or meeting his fate by drowning, an adventurous young boy from America’s most influential family will never return. While his cause of death remains a mystery, one thing is sure, the young man lived a life full of adventure, away from the luxuries offered by the influential Rockefeller family.

I am Mallika Singh, a lawyer and writer by profession. Writing gives me a sense of freedom and independence. I am a keen observer and an ardent reader. When not at work, you can find me at the stable. Horse riding is another passion that keeps me going.


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