Michael Clark Rockefeller was the fifth child of New York Governor and U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and his wife, Mary Todhunter Rockefeller. Michael had six siblings, including a twin sister Mary.
Michael attended The Buckley School in New York and then graduated from the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Michael then went on to graduate cum laude from Harvard University with a B.A. in history and economics.
In 1960, aged 22, he served as a private in the US Army for six months. Micheal then went on an expedition for Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to study the Dani tribe of the western Netherlands New Guinea.
Rockefeller returned to New Guinea himself to study the Asmat, and to collect Asmat art.
On November 17th, 1961, 23-year-old Michael and Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassing were in a 40-foot (12 metre) dugout canoe around 6 kilometres (3 miles) from the shore when their pontoon boat was swamped and overturned. Their tour guides swam to get help, but the help took a while in getting there.
After drifting for some time, early on the 19th of November, Michael said to Rene: “I think I can make it”, before starting to swim towards the shore. Their boat was around 22 kilometres (14 miles) from shore when he decided to start swimming.
Rene was rescued the next day, but despite search efforts, Michael was never seen again.
It is strongly believed that Michael died from either drowning or being attacked by a shark or a saltwater crocodile.
Headhunting and cannibalism were very much present in Asmat in 1961, so the possibility that Michael fell victim to the Asmat tribespeople cannot be ruled out completely.
In 1969, a journalist named Milt Machlin travelled to the island where Michael disappeared to investigate his disappearance.
Milt ruled out the possibility that Michael was a captive, but he did conclude that circumstance evidence that he found supported the theory that Michael had been killed.
Author Paul Toohey claimed, in his book Rocky Goes West, that Michael’s mother hired a private investigator to go to New Guinea to try and resolve his disappearance. The reliability and accuracy of this claim have been questioned, but Paul claims that a private investigator swapped a boat engine for the three skulls of men that the tribe claimed were the only white people that they ever killed.
The investigator then, according to Paul, returned the skulls to the family in New York, thinking that one of the skulls belonged to Micheal.
The History Channel’s programme, Vanishings, reported that Micheal’s mother paid the private investigator the $250,000 reward which was awarded for the final proof of whether Michael was alive or dead.
The family have never commented on the private investigator story, and so it is unknown as to whether it is a true story, or if it was just made up.
Michael was declared legally dead in 1964.
Unsolved, Mystery, Missing, Missing Person, Cold Case, USA