Michael Clark Rockefeller was heir to the Rockefeller fortune, that is if he had survived long enough to inherit it. The young man was presumed dead after November 19, 1961, after he disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
Michael was a fourth-generation Rockefeller and the son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Nelson would go on to be the U.S. Vice President under Gerald Ford as President.
You may know that the Rockefeller fortune was made by billionaire John D. Rockefeller who founded theStandard Oil Companyin 1870. He became the wealthiest man in the United States.
Michael Rockefeller Disappearance
Supposedly Michael Rockefeller met a tragic and horrific end at the hands of cannibals. That is, according to journalist Carl Hoffman who was an expert in tribal communities in the New Guinea region.
Michael graduated from Harvard in 1960 and was interested in exploration. If there is anyone who may feel guilty about encouraging the young man to explore this region of the world it may have been his father. Nelson opened the Museum of Primitive Art in 1954, donating his own tribal collection.
The Asmat are an ethnic group that resides in the Papua province of Indonesia off the coast of Australia. They are excellent wood craftsmen, known for their quick and efficient boats. They were known to practice ritual cannibalism and even homosexuality as part of their complex rituals.
Michael Rockefeller, after graduating Harvard, set out to collect his own collection of tribal art. Perhaps he wanted to be like his father, Nelson who was an avid tribal art collector.
His new interest would prove to be a fatal endeavor. Back then the territory was known as Dutch New Guinea. Michael embarked on a scouting expedition to Papua. He was drawn in by the prospect of returning with the Asmat’s religious symbols such as the Bis poles. They refused to release these holy objects to strangers.
Michael and Dutch anthropologist René Wassing were in a canoe together on November 17, 1961, near the village of Otsjanep, when it capsized and the would-be Rockefeller heir quickly made an effort to swim to shore.
Michael was never seen again, while René was rescued.
Carl Hoffman’s Account Of Michael
In 2015 Journalist Carl Hoffman published Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest (view on Amazon), about Michael Rockefeller’s last moments on Earth.
Michael had decided to try to swim to the shore while his friend staying in the boat. Hoffman writes that Michael said, “I think I can make it.”
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Carl Hoffman traveled to the region where Michael Rockefeller was last seen. Although his death was recorded as caused by drowning, a body was never recovered. Nelson and his wife flew to the area themselves to help the Dutch government search for their son.
Hoffman describes a trip to the village of Otsjanep where his interpreter overhears a man warning the others not to speak of the white man that was killed on the island.
Besides Hoffman’s account of what he learned from his trip to the tribal village of the Asmat, we may never know what really happened to Michael Rockefeller. Had he lived, he would have enjoyed a life of obscene wealth. Knowing what we know of him, Michael may have turned down money and taken interest in an Art Director position at his father’s tribal art museum.
By Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8608418
President and Fellows of Harvard University; Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/node/2411
By Mandavi – Original by User:Vardion, Image:A large blank world map with oceans marked in blue.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2169414
Hoffmann, Carl (March 2014).“What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller”.Smithsonian Magazine. RetrievedFebruary 25,2014.
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