The story and disappearance of Michael Rockefeller is incredibly sad and intriguing. Michael was the son of a powerful American politician and businessman, but when he went to study an untouched tribe, he was never seen again. It has everything that you would want in a fictional mystery novel, but it was real life.
The celebrity element just added to the entire story and made it a household disappearance at the time. Let’s take a deeper look into what REALLY happened to Michael Rockefeller.
He Had A Famous Dad
If the Rockefeller name sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Michael was born in 1938 and was the youngest son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. He was also the newest member of the Rockefeller dynasty of millionaires.
Although his father was the governor at the time, he would go on to become much more than that. In fact, he was the 41st Vice President of the United States from 1974-1977 under President Gerald Ford.
The Rockefeller Legacy
Nelson Rockefeller would also serve under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight D Eisenhower. He was a Republican, but was often cited as being fairly liberal and progressive.
As a businessman, he was the president and chairman of the Rockefeller Center, Inc and he formed the International Basic Economy Corporation in 1947. He was a big fan of visual art and encouraged public access to the arts. He was the trustee and president of the Museum of Modern Art.
Where It All Began
Michael Rockefeller was the grandson of the legendary John D. Rockefeller and the great-grandson of oil mogul John D. Rockefeller senior.
It’s safe to say that the family was doing just fine financially. But, it was what happened to Michael that would send the family into a heap of grief and pain. It was so unexpected, and sent a family that seemed to have everything going right for them into a world of trouble.
Michael graduated from Harvard University with a B.A in history and economics. He was a student senator and an exceptional wrestler. He served in the US army for six months and then went on an expedition for Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to study the Dani tribe of western Netherlands New Guinea.
He left with a friend to study the Asmat tribe which absolutely fascinated him. Upon his return to Harvard, he wanted to do more.
He Had Different Motives
He wasn’t interested in running the family business and took a position on the board of a museum. Michael had traveled extensively before, so he was well-rehearsed in what was going on around the world.
He wanted to embark on an anthropological expedition to a place that very few have seen or will ever see. By the 1960s, the Asmat tribe had not yet seen a white man. They had severely limited contact with the outside world.
He Was Incredibly Curious
The Asmat believed the land beyond their island to be inhabited by spirits and when white people came across the sea, they saw them as some kind of supernatural begins.
Michael and his team were very curious about this tribe, specifically the village of Otsjanep, which was home to one of the major Asmat tribes, and not a friendly one at that. The locals put up with the white people for a bit.
They Were Okay With It At The Time
They didn’t mind Michael hanging around and documenting what was happening. But, the tribe didn’t allow the purchase of cultural artifacts that serve as part of the Asmat rituals and religious rites.
Michael was undeterred and was driven by the idea of being able to bring parts of the Asmat world back to his. At the time, a war between villages was not uncommon. Michael was fascinated by the Asmat warriors.
The Warriors Were Ruthless
They would often times take the heads of their enemies and ate their flesh. Asmat men would engage in ritual homosexual acts and in bonding rites, and they would sometimes drink each other’s urine.
Michael was as energized as ever to learn more about this tribe. In fact, despite his wealth and privilege back in America, he was much happier learning about a tribe that had next to nothing but ritual and tradition.
He Just Vanished
On his final journey back to visit the Asmat tribe on November 17, 1961, his boat capsized 12 miles from shore. The other guy that he was with, a government anthropologist named Rene Wassing, says that Michael tried to swim to shore.
He was never seen again. But, since he was rich and politically connected, there was a huge search party for him. Ships, airplanes, and helicopters scoured the region searching for the lost Rockefeller.
Was It A Drowning? Or Something More?
Nelson Rockefeller and his wife flew to New Guinea to help in the search, but it was to no avail. Despite the efforts, they were unable to find his body. After nine days, the Dutch interior minister stated that there was no longer any hope.
Michael’s official cause of death was due to drowning, but the death itself caused a lot of stir in the American media. Rumors spread like wildfire in the tabloids.
It Was The Front Page News In America
Some say that he may have been eaten by sharks, while others claim he was living in the jungle somewhere near New Guinea, escaping from the cage of wealth he was born into in America.
But, Dutch authorities couldn’t verify any of these claims, saying that he just vanished without a trace. This was a cold case until 2014, when the entire disappearance was brought back up with new accusations that claimed to know what happened.
The Truth Came Out
Carl Hoffman, a reporter for National Geographic, revealed that he had talked to two sources who lived on the island and they said the Asmat killed Michael.
Two Dutch missionaries who lived with the Asmat for two years and spoke their language told local authorities that they heard the Asmat talk about how they killed Michael Rockefeller. They sent a police officer to investigate the village, and he was sent back with a skull that was supposedly Michael’s.
These reports were buried in classified files and not further investigated. The Rockefellers were told that they were all rumors with no evidence to back up the claims. The Dutch covered it up because, by 1962, they had already lost half of the island to the new state of Indonesia.
They feared if it was believed they couldn’t control the native population, they would be quickly ousted from the other half.
Be Quiet About It
When Hoffman investigated the 50-year-old claims, he traveled to the village of Otsjanep. He was posing as a journalist documenting the culture of the Asmat people. The interpreter overheard a man tell another man to not discuss the American tourist who had died there.
Hoffman asked the man who it was, and the villager said it was Michael Rockefeller. Hoffman learned that it was common knowledge the Asmat people killed Michael and that it shouldn’t be talked about.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
They said that the killing of Michael Rockefeller was a reprisal in its own right. A few years before he visited in 1957, the Dutch government tried to take control of the Asmat villages, fighting each other and ended up opening fire on Otsjanep.
It was in that context that the warriors stumbled upon Michael backstroking his way toward the shore bordering their lands. Apparently, it was just a big misunderstanding.
A Public Execution
According to the Dutch missionary who had heard the story first, the tribesmen thought that Michael was a crocodile, but he as he drew closer, they recognized him as a white man, much like the Dutch colonizers.
Many of the men he encountered were kids of the men that had been killed years prior by the Dutch government. Mostly out of fear, they eventually speared and killed him in the city center.
Don’t Be Eating For This One
While a public death in front of the entire villain may sound pretty extreme, the aftermath was just as gruesome. They cut off his head and cleaved his skull to eat his brain. They ended up cooking his flesh and his thigh bones were turned into daggers.
His tibias were made into points for fishing spears. His blood was drained and the tribesmen drenched themselves in it while they performed ritual dances and sex acts.
Restoring Balance In The World
In accordance with what they believe, they were just restoring balance to the world. The white man had come and killed some of their men, and now they had to take retribution.
By consuming the body of Michael, they could absorb the energy and power that had been taken from them. They would come to regret their decision when the search of their village lasted a long time. It terrified the people of the village.
They Had Instant Regret
There were helicopters and planes flying overhead constantly. Most people in the village had never seen those before. The region was also plagued by a horrible cholera epidemic that many saw as the revenge of the murder.
Even though the Asmat people were very open to Hoffman about what had happened, no one would say who did it. Shortly before he returned to the US, he saw a man in the village miming a murder.
It Happened Again Recently
He quickly went over to the man and started to film what was happening. The tribesmen pretended to spear someone, shoot an arrow, and chop off a head. He was also hearing words that related to murder.
He was able to get some of the epilogue on film. One part said, “don’t speak and tell the story. I hope you remember it and you must keep this for us. I hope, I hope this is for you and you only.” The death of Michael was also brought up again because of another death of an American at the hands of a tribe in 2018.
He was a missionary from the US trying to spread the word of God and Christianity. His name was John Chau. He was 26 years old and loved adventure. He was also incredibly obsessed with the North Sentinel Island and the tribe that inhabits it.
Chau was linked to the Christian missionary group All Nations. Many people that knew John well said that he lost his mind with his unhealthy obsession with the North Sentinelese tribe.
He Had An Incredible Obsession
He had been planning the trip for many years, and had told many people that it was his dream to spread the word of God to the virtually untouched island tribe which has a reputation of being aggressive.
He had visited the Andaman islands in 2015 and 2016, and was well aware of the risks that come with going to an island that has seen almost no peaceful exchanges with the North Sentinel tribe.
No One Wanted Him To Go
His missionary organization had told him that it wasn’t a good idea to be doing what he set out to do, but that wasn’t enough. His goal was to have a long-term relationship with the tribe, and if possible, be accepted by them and even live with them.
Almost everyone saw that as a fantasy, except for him. The tribe is unkind, to say the least, to anyone who isn’t part of their tribe.
They Have Yet To Retrieve His Body
The Indian government had lifted restrictions to visit the island in August of 2018, so he wasn’t doing anything illegal. He repeatedly trespassed onto the island, and was eventually killed by arrows while on the beach.
The Indian police have yet to retrieve his body. It’s going to be nearly impossible to do so without force. The tribe speaks a language that no one else does. Translators can only know one or two words at a time.
Very Little Contact
The only contact of the island has been the occasional gift giving of bananas or coconuts. Indian ships monitor the water around the island making sure that no one goes there undetected.
But, Chau was able to get smuggled by a few local fishermen. He paid them off to hide him in their boat and take him to the island. He had written in his diary that was published after his death that he had a close call his first night on the island.
He Had The Chance To Escape
His shouted to the tribesmen that his name was John, and that he loves them, and Jesus loves them. They proceeded to shoot arrows at him, with one even hitting his bible.
He retreated back to the boat and would wait to go back to the island the next day. That would be the day that he was killed as the fisherman witnessed it. The fisherman also says that he knows where the tribe buried him.
The Gifts Weren’t Enough
He brought gifts with him for the tribe, including a football and some fish. That was obviously not enough to save his life. There have been five men arrested in relation to this incident.
Four fishermen, a friend of Chau’s, and a local tour guide have all been identified as the people that helped him get to the island undetected. They are still looking for two more friends of Chau’s who supposedly egged him on to do the trip.
It’s Not Surprising
This end result shouldn’t be all that surprising. This isn’t the first time that the North Sentinel tribe has killed someone who got a little too close to their home.
Two Indian fishermen accidentally got too close to the shore and were killed by arrow fire in the middle of the night. The fishermen fell asleep and the tide washed them to the island where they were killed by the tribe.
They’ll Shoot At Anything
They’re also not scared of any confrontation. When the Indian government sends helicopters to see if the tribe is still thriving and doing okay, they are always met with force.
The tribesmen and women get out their bows and fire on the helicopters every single time. There has only been one peaceful encounter with them, and that came in the early 1990s when a group of researchers went to the island carrying coconuts.
The Only Peaceful Encounter
One of the only words that we know that the tribe uses is a translation of “coconut”. The team kept yelling the word and throwing coconuts to the people on shore so they knew that they were safe.
The tribe was curious, but accepting of the gifts. After about five minutes the tribe was getting increasingly uncomfortable, to which the researchers decided to leave and avoid any inevitable confrontation with them.