The Disappearance of Michael Rockefeller

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Podcast Transcript

In 1961, Michael Rockefeller, an heir to one of the greatest fortunes in the world, disappeared on an art-collecting trip off the coast of the island of New Guinea. 

For decades, the family simply assumed that he accidentally drowned off the coast in an attempt to rescue his anthropologist colleague. 

However, in the decades since he disappeared, more information may have come forward about exactly what happened, and it may not have been a simple drowning. 

Learn more about Michael Rockefeller and the possible grizzly truth about his disappearance on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I get into the details of what happened to Michael Rockefeller, I should probably provide a bit of a background as to why anyone would care. 

For those of you who are younger or perhaps live outside of the United States, you might not have heard the name Rockefeller or might have just heard it referenced.

The name Rockefeller is one that, since the late 19th century, has been associated with extreme wealth. It began with John D. Rockefeller, who founded the Standard Oil Company in 1870. At its peak, Standard Oil controlled 90% of the entire petroleum industry.

He was the wealthiest person on Earth, and many people think that on a per capita basis, he might have been the richest person in history. At his peak, his net worth was the equivalent of 3% of the entire United States gross domestic product.

The wealth of the Rockefeller family didn’t disappear with the death of John D. Rockefeller in 1937 at the age of 97. 

His son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was a financier who was responsible for the creation of Rockefeller Center in New York City. If you have ever seen a giant Christmas tree in New York next to an ice skating rink, that’s Rockefeller Center. 

John D. Rockefeller Jr. had a son, Nelson Rockefeller, who went on to become the governor of the State of New York from 1959 to 1973, which was the largest US state during that period, and later became the Vice President of the United States under President Gerald Ford. 

Nelson Rockefeller was the father of Michael Rockefeller.

So, I want to establish that this was the family that Michael Rockefeller was born into. The reason why this entire affair gained such public attention, and the reason why I’m doing an episode on it, is because Michael Rockefeller was a member of one of the richest families in the world, and his father was one of the most powerful politicians in America.

Micahel Rockefeller was born on May 18, 1938, the youngest child of Nelson and Mary Rockefeller. He had a twin sister named Mary.

His early life was precisely what you’d think it would be for someone named Rockefeller. He attended primary school at the prestigious Buckley School in New York City. After that, he attended the elite Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

From there, he went to, surprise, Harvard, where he graduated cum laude in history and economics.  

After he graduated from Harvard in 1960, he did a very un-Rockefeller-type thing, and he served six months in the US Army as a private. 

As seems to happen to many wealthy families over time, each succeeding generation becomes less and less productive and more distant from the core business. 

After he completed his stint in the Army in May 1960, Michael didn’t go into business. He didn’t pursue a career in politics. Rather, he went on an expedition organized by the Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to western New Guinea. 

At the time, the western portion of New Guinea was still under the control of the Dutch and wouldn’t become a province of Indonesia until 1969. The transfer of West New Guinea from Dutch to Indonesian control is a very interesting story, but that will be for another episode. 

The expedition that Michael took part in was to study the Dani people and their system of ritualized warfare. The expedition resulted in the documentary film Dead Birds, which was released in 1963. Michael served as the sound recorder for the film. 

It was during this expedition that Michael developed a fascination with the people of New Guinea, in particular the Asmat people. During the documentary, he took a side trip with another expedition member to meet the Asmat people, who were located in the southern part of Western New Guinea.

After the expedition was over, he went back to New Guinea to study Asmat woodcarvings and the Asmat people.  His father, Nelson Rockefeller, had opened the Museum of Primitive Art in 1954, and Michael wanted to go and find items from the Asmat people in New Guinea to add to the collection.

In a letter he sent while conducting his research, he wrote:

I am having a thoroughly exhausting but most exciting time here … The Asmat is like a huge puzzle with the 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 …

At the time Michael Rockefeller was visiting the Asmat, it was one of the last places on Earth that was truly untouched by the modern world. There were no wheeled vehicles. There was no technology to speak of. No metal was used in tools, and there wasn’t even paper. 

On November 17, 1961, Rockefeller was in a boat off the coast with a Dutch anthropologist named René Wassing and several local guides. 

While they were in their boat off the coast approaching the village of Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep), a sudden storm appeared, which caused large waves that capsized them about 3 miles or 4.8 kilometers from shore. 

Their guides quickly decided to swim to shore to get help. 

Michael and Renee clung to the capsized boat and drifted farther from the shore.

Eventually, Michael told Renee, “I think I can make it,” and began to swim towards land. At the time he began to swim, they were an estimated 14 miles or 22 kilometers from the shore. 

Michael Rockefeller was never seen again. 

The next day, help eventually arrived, and René Wassing was rescued, but Michael was nowhere to be found. 

News of his disappearance spread quickly.  The Dutch authorities in New Guinea quickly mounted a search for Michael, and Governor Rockefeller flew to New Guinea to help with the search efforts. 

After two weeks of searching by air and by sea, no evidence of Michael Rockefeller was found, and the search was called off. 

Michael Rockefeller was presumed dead by drowning, which was the verdict accepted by his family. 

However, when someone from such a significant family disappears without a trace, it will tend to raise eyebrows, and there were a host of theories about what might have happened. 

If he had drowned, then there was a good chance that his body would have eventually washed up on shore. 

Some thought that perhaps he was attacked by sharks that infested the waters. Others thought that he might have been killed by crocodiles that inhabited the shore. 

Still, some claimed that Rockefeller survived and then lived with the Asmat people, completely abandoning his family and western civilization.

However, over time, rumors began circulating with missionaries who lived in the region and spoke the Asmat language. Rumors that dealt with Michael Rockefeller. 

Here, I should make perfectly clear that everything I deal with from here on out is speculation. There is no hard forensic evidence. There is no body that can be examined, and given that the events took place over 60 years ago, most of the people who may have been involved are no longer around. 

It turned out that after the search for Michael Rockefeller ended, it wasn’t the end of the disappearance case.

For years after the disappearance, there were interviews conducted, reports filed, and witnesses who came forward to Dutch authorities. Most of this evidence had never been made public. 

Multiple journalists who went to New Guinea over the decades to investigate the story all came back with a roughly similar tale: Michael Rockefeller had actually survived his swim and was murdered by men in the Asmat tribe. 

As the event was told by witnesses who were young men when it happened, it all started several years earlier. 

The people of the Asmat region were very warlike and were in an almost perpetual state of war with their neighbors. In particular, the village of Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep) fought with the nearby village of Omadesep (o-MAD-e-sep).

In 1957, people from Omadesep (o-MAD-e-sep) tricked six warriors from Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep) into going with them to hunt dogs. While on the way, the men from Omadesep (o-MAD-e-sep) turned on the Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep) men and killed five of them, with one managing to escape.

Upon hearing what had happened, the men from Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep) organized a party and killed 113 men from the Omadesep (o-MAD-e-sep) group that had killed their five warriors.

When the Dutch authorities heard about this, they went to Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep) to put an end to the fighting. 

However, the Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep) had no clue why the Dutch had shown up to interfere in their affairs. This was none of their business. Moreover, they had no clue what the Netherlands was or any of the Dutch claims of authority. They just saw them as another tribe. 

There was a violent confrontation between them and the Dutch, which resulted in several Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep) being killed by gunfire. Something they had never seen before. 

All they knew was that someone from the white tribe had killed their warriors, and they demanded revenge. The constant need for revenge is pretty much the reason why the area was in a state of perpetual warfare.

When Michael Rockefeller arrived, he had no idea of the recent history between the Asmat and the Dutch. He went around to various villages trading for artificats, which most people were happy to do. However, he also tried to acquire large, elaborate ceremonial poles called bisj poles.

Bisj poles were erected to honor ancestors who were killed and demanded vengence. They were taken very seriously by the Asmat people. Rockefeller had acquired several of them, and made offers for many more, which angered the Asmat deeply. 

According to what had been told by the Asmat people who claimed to have been witnesses, Michael Rockefeller actually survived his swim. He had with him a floatation device which had kept him from drowning. When he made it to land, he was exhausted and suffering from exposure. 

He was found by several tribal leaders who didn’t know what he was at first. Eventually, they realized he was a member of the white tribe that had killed their warriors several years before. Moreover, he was the same guy who had just recently come to their village trying to take away their bisj poles. 

He was alone and helpless. 

Rockefeller, who had no clue what was happening and thought he was being rescued, was taken to a clearing where a large group of Asmat men were assembled, and he was ritually murdered. 

He was decapatated, and his entire body was then dismembered by the men present, who then proceeded to cook and eat him ritually. 

The Asmats at this time still practiced cannibalism and headhunting. 

Having no knowledge of the outside world, the Asmats didn’t understand any distinction between Dutch and American, any more than the Dutch were able to understand what was happening between the villages of Omadesep (o-MAD-e-sep) and Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep). 

After the murder, the Asmat began to regret what they had done and tried to keep what happened a secret, but people talked. Missionaries heard what had happened and passed the information on to the Dutch. 

Years later, young men who witnessed it retold the story to National Geographic writer Carl Hoffman. 

If this story is true, and there are many details that have been corroborated by several witnesses, including testimony that was collected immediately after Michael Rockafeller’s disappearance, then the death of Michael Rockefeller wasn’t a simple accidental drowning. 

The Dutch tried to insert themselves into a tribal conflict in which they had no part, and ended up killing several men from Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep). Michael Rockefeller unknowingly offended the people of Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep) by trying to take their bisj poles, and the men of Otsjanep (OCH-an-ep) wrongly took revenge against someone who they didn’t know wasn’t a part of the Dutch group that killed their villagers several years earlier. 

The disappearance of Michael Rockefeller might have been have been a tragic accident, but instead, one of the most epic cases of cultural misunderstanding.