Michael Rockefeller disappeared in 1961. While many people who disappear are largely unknown, Michael Rockefeller is known for being part of the famous and powerful Rockefeller family.
Michael was on an expedition in the pacific ocean in 1961 at the time of his disappearance. While most believe the case to have been solved, the fact that no proof of his death has ever been found means that uncertainty remains.
In this article, we have a look at this case. You will also find a reader’s poll at the end of this article, which we invite you to vote in. You will also be able to see the overall consensus among our readers.
Michael Rockefeller was part of one of America’s most prestigious families – the Rockefeller family. The family’s patriarch John D. Rockefeller co-founded Standard Oil – which was at one point the largest petrol company in the world.
John D. Rockefeller was the wealthiest person in the world, and his son John Jr. had a successful finance career of his own, and produced Nelson Rockefeller – who would become U.S. Vice President.
Michael, born in 1938, was the fifth child of Nelson, and like all those in the family before him, hopes were high. He excelled in High School and graduated from Harvard University aged 22.
In 1961, Michael went on an expedition to the Pacific Ocean on behalf of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
The intention was for Michael and a friend to produce a documentary on a tribe known as the Dani tribe, who were known to reside in the pacific island of Netherlands New Guinea – an area that is now known as Papua – a province of Indonesia.
In the same trip, Rockefeller and a friend visited another part of the island – which was the home of another tribe known as the Asmat. After returning home to the United States, Rockefeller became heavily interested in the tribe.
Rockefeller returned to Netherlands New Guinea, and continued his interest in the Asmat tribe. Over a few months, Rockefeller continued to investigate and immerse himself in the culture of the area.
On 17th November 1961, Rockefeller was in a canoe with an anthropologist named René Wassing. Their canoe capsized out of nowhere, around 3 miles (6km) from shore.
The pair drifted for a while, and moved further away from the shore. It seemed that rescue was not forthcoming for the duo.
Rockefeller told Wassing that he was going to attempt to swim to shore, telling Wassing that “I think I can make it”. This was the last Wassing saw of Rockefeller.
Rockefeller attempted to swim to the shore, which at this point was believed to be over 10 miles away. Tragically, Rockefeller was never seen again.
Wassing was rescued the next day, and immediately alerted the rescuers that Rockefeller had made his way to the island.
Rockefeller’s disappearance made worldwide headlines – such was the power of the Rockefeller family. The news was especially prominent in the United States, with many high-profile figures going on record to hope for the safe return of Rockefeller.
A huge search effort was made. The sea around the nearby land was searched, as well as the land. Locals were shown pictures of Rockefeller, though no one in the area said that they had seen him.
Due to the fact that Rockefeller had swam towards land, there was only a rather small search grid that he was expected to be found within. Despite widescale efforts and months of searching, the search eventually ceased.
The investigators determined that Rockefeller had either drowned, or had perished at the hands of an animal in the ocean, such as a shark.
There were also suggestions that Rockefeller could have fallen victim to cannibalism – which some tribesmen engaged in at the time. Some suggest that a tribe consumed Rockefeller’s remains.
Others theorised that he was living as part of a tribe on the island, or that he was being held captive by a tribe.
The Rockefeller family were left despondent after Michael’s death. There have been allegations that the Rockefeller family hired a private investigator to look into the disappearance. However, nothing was ever confirmed by the family, who privately mourned.
In 2000, a documentary called Keep the River on Your Right featured anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum saying that he spoke with tribesmen from a local village that had apparently told him that Rockefeller was eaten by their tribe. This has never been verified though.
A major development in the case came in 2014, when author Carl Hoffman published a book titled Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art.
The book stated that when visiting a village close to the shore, that Hoffman had been told by several people slight variations on a similar story. The fact that there were many consistencies between stories suggested that there was a lot of weight behind the theory.
The story was that Rockefeller had made it to the shore, but had been killed on arrival by tribesmen. This was backed up by numerous people, and existing theories.
Rockefeller was declared legally dead in 1964. Other members of the Rockefeller family never gave up on finding him. Since then, new generations of the family have been born.
While many people consider the answer to Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance to be known, nothing has been confirmed. The fact that no body has ever been found makes this a disappearance that has not been solved.
We take a look at five potential theories:
Theory One: Michael Rockefeller died before reaching the island
Many people believe that Rockefeller never made it to the island, instead dying in the water. Over 10 miles is a long stretch of water to navigate – even for a trained swimmer, Also, it would have been cold at night, making hypothermia a realistic prospect.
Many have questioned whether or not Rockefeller could have realistically made it. Therefore, a common suggestion is that Rockefeller died, and that his body was simply never found.
The fact that sharks and crocodiles were known to inhabit the seas around the island would also pose a significant risk. A tired and weary swimmer would be no match for a hungry shark or crocodile. Were Rockefeller to have been eaten by an animal, it would also account for the lack of body.
Theory Two: Michael Rockefeller died on the island
A strong theory that many believe is that Rockefeller successfully swam ashore, only to be killed by tribesmen. This is one of the most common theories put forward.
If Rockefeller had successfully made it to land, the first village that he would have come across was Otsjanep. In 1958, three years prior to Rockefeller’s expedition, tribesmen from the village had been killed in a shootout with Dutch servicemen. Some have theorised that this would have led to the village trying to get revenge on the Dutch by killing Rockefeller.
At a time where foreign travel was somewhat rare, tribesmen would understandably be wary of foreign nationals – such as the white-skinned Michael Rockefeller.
Many tribes at the time were known to engage in cannibalism, raising the prospect that Rockefeller was eaten. This would also explain the absence of a body.
Theory Three: Michael Rockefeller became part of the tribe
Rockefeller was known to have a deep affection for the island, and was fully aware of their culture. It is possible that he could have become a member of the tribe.
Rockefeller may have happily lived out the rest of his life as a member of a tribe. He did have a passion for the area, so he may have felt this was a way that he could lead a happy life.
An issue with this theory is that Rockefeller was never found, despite widescale efforts to find him. Furthermore, there is not really a feasible reason as to why Rockefeller would be so eager to keep this a secret – which he would’ve needed to do to evade rescue.
Theory Four: Michael Rockefeller was kept captive by the tribe until he died
Another theory proposes that Rockefeller was captured upon making it to shore, and was then kept captive by a tribe. The tribe would have kept him hidden from search parties.
It isn’t entirely clear why the tribe would keep Rockefeller captive, as no hostage demands were ever made to any government. They may have thought he could have information they needed, but again it is unlikely.
It is highly unlikely that the tribe would keep Rockefeller captive for long, as they would surely have killed him or set him free. However, this theory would account for the lack of body in the case.
Theory Five: Michael Rockefeller faked his death and took up a new identity
A possible theory is that Rockefeller did make it to shore, but didn’t engage with any tribes. He was known to be a rich man, and he may well have had the means to travel discreetly from the island, onto a fresh start.
There isn’t really a clear motivation for an apparent fake death, as it seems that Rockefeller was happy with his life, and at a young age, still had so much to live for.
But the lack of body in this case does mean that he might have potentially started up a new life for himself. He could be anywhere in the world, if this theory is accurate.
With the above theories in mind, we now invite you to cast your vote on the theory that you believe is most likely in the poll below.
Due to the notoriety of the Rockefeller family, the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller is always sure to cause speculation and interest in the future. Sadly, it seems that Michael will never be seen again.
While the Rockefeller family continue to function to this day, it does so without one of its own. It seems unlikely that this particular mystery will ever be solved.