The History of the Buffalo Nickel

The Buffalo Nickel. This is the part where an “enough said” should be inserted. While the coin holds its own in the world of numismatics against some of what coin dealers might call the “top dogs” of the sort, it can somewhat be romantic to take it back all the way to the beginning and remind ourselves just why this coin is one of the most collected amongst coin enthusiasts.

Replacing the Nickel Design

It was under Chief Engraver Charles Barber’s reign (1879-1917) that the idea for a new nickel design was put into place. Due to the Law of 1890, which prohibited new designs for denominational coins more than once during a 25-year period, eligibility was only granted to the five-cent piece and the silver dollar during this time. It was only the five-cent piece that endured all the attention though as news from the Treasury Department hit of the replacement potential and thus began the journey and interest of the new nickel’s designer, James Earle Fraser.

James Earle Fraser

Born in Winona, Minnesota, in 1876, Fraser was a first-hand witness to the treatment and suffering of the Native American peoples as well as the bison while growing up on the northern prairies of the Midwest. With a talent for piecing together three-dimensional objects from just about anything, Fraser became a student at the Art Institute of Chicago at just 16 years old.

His most well-known work, which also happened to be his first major work, was The End of the Trail sculpture that was finished while he was still a teenager. The sculpture depicts a Native American hunter upon his horse in the representation of “weariness and despair.” This major accomplishment within the arts earned him a place at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he spent five years before returning to the United States.

Upon his return, he studied under another famous name within numismatics, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Saint-Gaudens, who was very well known for his coin designs as well as his brilliance in sculpture, believed Fraser to be his “most gifted protege.” Fraser was able to produce a number of portrait busts among other works during this time period as well as teach at the Art Students’ League in New York City from 1906-1911.

Fraser’s opportunity to design a coin that commemorated the American Indian in addition to the near-extinct bison was something he could not take lightly and therefore made it his duty to do as such. Before his death in 1953, Fraser completed a number of commissioned works.

The Design

The obverse of the famous coin features the profile of a mature Native American warrior facing to the right with his hair in braids and two feathers presented in the part. The piece of clothing laid across his shoulder provides a space for the coin’s date with the initials “F” for Fraser just below it. The word “LIBERTY” follows the outer edge of the rim of the coin on the right-hand side.

The reverse depicts the full-bodied nature of the male bison. It stands upon a grassy mound that bears the words “FIVE CENTS” while space is provided below for the particular mint mark that coin could encompass. The words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” follow the top curve of the coin above the bison while ‘E PLURIBUS UNUM” squeezes between the tail end of the bison and the aforementioned legend lining the top curve.

The man depicted on the obverse would quickly become a question of many after the coin was released. The intrigue sparked Fraser to reveal the names of two possible subjects among three models that were used: a Sioux named Iron Tail and a Cheyenne named Two Moons. The third was lost in Fraser’s memory but was later revealed to have most likely been a Kiowa named Big Tree. Fraser’s wife, Laura Gardin, later confirmed that Big Tree did model for her husband and fellow sculptor sometime past 1912. She also mentioned that Iron Tail was the favorite among her husband’s subjects. It was later pointed out that Iron Tail was the one model that bore the closest resemblance to the man on the new nickel design.

The bison, or buffalo which appeared to be Fraser’s preferred term of the animal, that was found to have represented the reverse design on the coin was Black Diamond. The intriguing figure was a member of the New York City Bronx Park Zoo. When referring to the use of the buffalo design, Fraser was quoted as saying “my first objective was to produce a coin which was truly American, and that could not be confused with the currency of any other country. I made sure, therefore, to use none of the attributes that other nations had used in the past. And, in my search for symbols, I found no motif within the boundaries of the United States so distinctive as the American buffalo.”

Final Release

The first Buffalo Nickels struck for release occurred on February 17, 1913, and the coins were officially released into circulation on March 4th of the same year. After being met with initial praise, the design presented flaws that were met with distinct backlash outlining the little time it took for wear to appear on the coin. This resulted in alterations and second type coins to be released of the Buffalo Nickel that happened all within the same year of its release. Modifications were made allowing for Type 1 and Type II coins to be named and highly sought after even in today’s market.

The Buffalo Nickel’s lifespan would ultimately end and be replaced by the still used Jefferson Nickel after just 25 years. In 1938, the design was tossed and its place amongst collectors and numismatists were cemented.

Source: The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels by David W. Lange