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The History of the Buffalo/Indian Head Nickel

The buffalo nickel (also known as the Indian head nickel) was produced from 1913 through 1938 and was designed by James Earle Fraser. It is actually a bison, not a buffalo, on the reverse but more on that later.

Early in 1911, Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh's son wrote to him suggesting that there be a new design on the five-cent piece. The son had read the law which stipulated a coin design could not be changed more often than every 25 years. The 25 year “waiting” period for the Liberty nickel has passed back in February of 1908. MacVeagh had assumed office under President William Howard Taft in March 1909, and missed all the excitement when President Theodore Roosevelt managed to get several top artists to redesign the cent and gold coins. Fraser's artistic ability earned the undying respect of a dying Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who recommended Fraser to President Theodore Roosevelt to sculpture the official presidential bust. Roosevelt and Fraser quickly became friends. Despite the fact that William Howard Taft was president in 1912, Roosevelt recommended that Fraser be chosen to design the copper-nickel 5-cent coin.

It is interesting to note that the Philadelphia mint was kept in the dark for quite some time during the initial design change discussions. Though not proven, it is widely speculated that this was done because of previous issues with Charles E. Barber over the double eagle design by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1908. Barber was still the chief engraver and believed that he should have all authority of engraving and coin design and since he designed the nickel that was still in production, he was probably not in any big hurry to change it.

The obverse design for the Indian Head 5-cent coin, commonly called a "Buffalo nickel," depicts a large, powerful portrait of an Indian, facing right. The appearance is rough looking, unlike the smooth cheeks and other facial features that typify the many versions of Lady Liberty that have been on U.S Coins. The portrait is believed to be a composite of three Indian chiefs, although the identities of the models have been disputed. A few Native Americans laid claim to be the model for the coin. The artist himself identified two of the models as Chief Iron Tail, a Sioux and Chief Two Moons, a Cheyenne. Unfortunately, Fraser had trouble remembering the names of his models. He had been asked the question so many times, that it was evident he was growing tired of the whole issue rather than set the record straight. In an undated letter to Mint Director George E. Roberts believed to be from 1913, suggests that Fraser considered the Indian design represented a type, rather than a direct portrait. He said he could recall Two Moons and Iron Tail as having served as his inspiration and possibly “one or two others”. In alter years he dropped the number of possible “other” models to one.

The one Indian originally believed to be the third model was Chief Two Guns White Calf, a Blackfoot. His claim lost a great deal of validity when in 1931, Fraser denied having used him as a model. In a letter dated June 10, 1931, from Fraser to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs of the U.S. Department of Interior, and later released to the press on July 12, 1931, Fraser is quoted as saying:

 “The Indian head on the Buffalo nickel is not a direct portrait of any particular Indian, but was made from several portrait busts which I did not Indians. As a matter of fact, I used three different Indian heads; I remember two of the men. One was Irontail, the best Indian head I can remember; the other one was Two Moons, and the third I cannot recall. I have never seen Two Guns Whitecalf nor used him in any way, although he has a magnificent head. I can easily understand how he was mistaken in thinking that he posed for me. A great many artists have modeled and drawn him, and it was only natural for him to believe that one of them was the designer of the nickel. I am particularly interested in Indian affairs, having as a boy lived in South Dakota before the Indians were so carefully guarded in their agencies. Later, the Crow Creek agency was formed at Chamberlain, but I always feel that I have seen the Indian in this natural habitat, with the finest costumes being worn. I hope their affairs are progressing favorably.”

Through the years the search for the third model continued although many still believe it was Two Guns. Another Indian, Chief John Big Tree claimed he was the third model. There are many inconsistencies in his story/claim as well. Chief John Big Tree was also an actor.

While we may never know for sure the identity of the third person, we do know a little about the model on the reverse The American bison serves as the reverse of the coin. Yes, it is a bison on the nickel, not a buffalo. Technically, buffaloes are found mostly in India and Africa, not in the United States. When the first settlers came to America and happened upon the Bison - they did not know what they were. The only animals they could relate them to were the Asian Water Buffalo. They started calling them buffalo for lack of a correct name, and the name stuck for many, many years. So, the American Buffalo is not a true buffalo. Its closest relative is the European Bison or Wisent and the Canadian Woods Bison, not the buffalo of Asia or Africa, such as the Cape Buffalo or Water Buffalo. Scientifically, the American Buffalo is named Bison and belongs to Bovidae family of mammals, as do domestic cattle. Because our history has so ingrained in us the name "Buffalo", we still use it, although "Bison" and "Buffalo" are used interchangeably. As just stated, our American Bison and the Water Buffalos are not even related. (There are actually two types of Bison as well. The Plains Bison and the Woods Bison - one being smaller and darker than the other and having populated different regions of the US in the early years) However, since so many people are familiar with their own learned definition of a "buffalo" you'll find we still sometimes use that term when referring to a bison. As such, the term buffalo will be used when referring to the reverse of the coin.

A buffalo (bison) named Black Diamond, who was a resident of the New York Zoological Park served as the model. Fraser utilized a little artistic freedom to depict the bison as though he was on the Great Plains. A few years after the release of the nickel, Black Diamond was sold to a meat packing plant who then sold him as Black Diamond steaks despite numerous attempts to save him. The stuffed head of Black Diamond was displayed at a major coin convention during the 1980's.

The American Indian fascinated Fraser, so much so that it was no surprise he chose an Indian design for the 5-cent coin design. Fraser, who grew up in the Dakota Territory in the 1880's was a witness to the slaughter of the American buffalo and the destruction of the way of life of Native Americans of the Great Plains. By creating the Buffalo Nickel, Fraser was able to honor and preserve an important part of American history.

The preliminary sketches were very impressive and Mint Director George E. Roberts, who also had held that post when President Roosevelt revamped the coinage, was highly enthusiastic. Although the designs were, on general principle, quickly approved by Secretary MacVeagh, quite some time passed while various officials argued among themselves how the details should appear on the coin. By June 26, 1912, Roberts had tentatively approved plaster models of the new five-cent coin-although he did request that Fraser lower the relief somewhat.

During the summer of 1912, all was going well and a finished product was close at hand, or so it seemed. The Hobbs Company of New York, a manufacturer of coin-operated vending machines, got wind of the planned design change on the five-cent piece and wanted to review the designs for they feared the new design would not work in their vending machines.

Several months of bickering, changes, etc would ensue between Hobbs, Fraser, MacVeagh, etc. In December of 1912, MacVeagh grew tired of the mess and ordered that Fraser be allowed to complete his work. In late 1912/early 1913, models went to Chief Engraver Charles Barber, who oversaw the preparation of dies and the striking of pattern coins early in January 1913. It is known that Barber was cooperative in the effort, which was uncharacteristic of him considering that the coin being replaced was one he designed and he had no or little input into the new design.

All seemed well until, somehow, a pattern coin fell into the hands of one of the Hobbs folks and the design war began once again. Changes were asked and the Mint Bureau agreed. The changes were accommodated without sacrificing artistic creativity and once again all seemed well as it seemed the Hobbs folks were content. Again, so it seemed. Although the on-site engineer indicated that all seemed fine, once the engineer returned to company headquarters in New York, Hobbs' officials did an abrupt about-face. The company now wrote the Mint that the latest pattern was totally unacceptable-and produced a long list of additional changes that also would have to be made.

Fraser complained to MacVeagh about the circus-like atmosphere. MacVeagh tended to agree, and asked Mint Director Roberts to settle the matter quietly by not asking the artist to do anything more. Roberts saw the matter differently and ordered Fraser to work on the latest list of Hobbs' demands. It was now nearly the middle of February 1913, and there was no end in sight. The artist complained once again to the Treasury.

Finally, on February 15th, MacVeagh set up a final conference that was held with all interested parties with the end result being MacVeagh ordering an end to the matter and that the most recent designs be used. Production began on February 21, 1913 with a single coining press at the Philadelphia Mint started turning out the nickels at the rate of 120 a minute.

When the coins reached circulation, public reaction was mixed. Although MacVeagh promised the nickel would be "immensely interesting and beautiful." the New York Times condemned them as a "travesty on artistic effect." Other critics said that the coin's "rough" surfaces would encourage counterfeiters (I guess a nickel went a long way back then). Unfortunately, the biggest complaint, and one that would plague the nickel forever was the complaint about the nickels inability to withstand heavy use. One coin collectors' magazine predicted that the slightest wear would obliterate the date and the inscription Five Cents "beyond understanding." Sure enough, although now in circulation for only a month it was noticed that the lettering for the words 'FIVE CENTS' on the Buffalo Nickels was wearing away. The words were positioned within the outline of the raised mound on which the buffalo was standing. The early coins showed the bison standing on a grassy mound. For the new version, engraver Charles Barber cut away the base of the mound to make a straight line. He also lowered the words Five Cents so the rim would protect them from wear.

Collectors noticed right away that the inscription was clearer. But the changes did not help the date on the other side of the coin. Excessive wear of the numerals continued to plague Buffalo nickels. Barber again made minor modifications in 1916 by lowering the relief of the head and strengthening several details, including the nose. In addition, the lettering of the word LIBERTY was made heavier. Although the date problem was now well known, with all the modifications Barber made, he never addressed the problem of the date wearing down too rapidly. That was unfortunate as now we see all the games being played with acid, etc., in order to restore dates. More on acid date recovery later. By the end of 1937 planning for the Buffalo nickel's successor was well under way, as the design's required 25 years would end the following year. It was to be replaced by the third coin to bear a likeness of one of our presidents, Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson nickel continues in production to this day

Keith Scott has been a collector for over 30 years. His website has US coins for sale. He also writes Coin Collecting Articles for fun. Visit his websites for a history of US coins, metal market updates and news about your favorite coins.

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