May 18, 1938 - November 19, 1961?: Age 23
All the reports I read of Michael Rockefeller's death — or more precisely, disappearance — begin with the information that he was one of "the" Rockefellers, a member of one of the most wealthy and powerful families in the world. And so does this one. I find that a little sad. What would people write if I had died at 23? What if you died at 23?
Truth is, at 23 most people are still very much identified with their original families and indeed in most cultures that identification lasts one's whole life. But in 20th Century North America, most people like to define themselves by what they do: their dreams and accomplishments. Rockefeller had both.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1960 he served in the army for six months, then joined an expedition of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to study the Dani tribe in western New Guinea. Rockefeller had found his passion: his desire to explore the disappearing frontiers of the known world, or at least the world known by white Europeans.
He immediately returned to New Guinea to collect artifacts for the Museum of Primitive Arts in New York, of which he was a trustee. There he and Dutch anthropogist René Wassing traded knives, tobacco, and cloth for primitive carvings. Dutch officials (who administered New Guinea) were uneasy about his desire to collect some of the decorated heads of the head-hunting tribes: apparently he was offering ten steel hatchets for one head. Head-hunting was strictly forbidden by the Dutch authorities, but one official said tribesmen had asked permission to go head-hunting again "for one evening only, please, sir."
On November 18 the two men set out with two native guides in a 40-foot catamaran to visit a village. The boat was top-heavy and the motor very small given the tides and currents of the coast. Three miles offshore, the engine was swamped, leaving the boat heaving in the rough seas with no meals of steering or stabilization. The boat capsized. The two guides decided to swim for shore, but Rockefeller and Wassing held on to the boat for the night. The next morning Rockefeller, a strong swimmer, decided to strike out for shore. Stripping down to his underwear, he tied his glasses around his neck, strapped on two gas cans as floats, and dove in. "I think I can make it," were his last words.
He did not, of course. Nobody knows what happened to him, although the mostly likely thing is that he drowned or was taken by a crocodile or shark. The two guides made it to shore but it took them all day to walk the 11 miles through the jungle to the village to raise the alarm. Wassing was rescued by a Dutch patrol boat 20 miles offshore 8 hours after Rockefeller left. The massive search efforts included helicopters, ships, and more than 1,000 native canoes, and the personal presence of his father Nelson and Michael's twin sister Mary. After 10 days, his father called the search off. There was nothing more they could do.
There were reports... In 1972 a book told the story of a sailor who claimed to have seen Michael alive in 1968, held captive by a tribe and suffering intense pain from never-treated broken legs. Given the rich rewards offered anyone who found the young man, this seems unlikely. Later another book (The Search for Michael Rockefeller by Milt Machlin) claimed that there was some evidence to support the theory that he was killed by natives in revenge against the "white tribe" for killing some village leaders three years earlier. Another author (Paul Toohey in Rocky Goes West) claims that a private investigatore hired by Rockefeller's mother traded a boat engine for the skulls of three men that a tribe claimed were the only white men they had ever killed. The family has never confirmed this story, and none of this speculation has ever been borne out by actual evidence.
Sources: Wikipedia; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon and Schuster, 1988.