The Five-Cent Indian Head, more commonly referred to as the “Buffalo Nickel,” was introduced in 1913 and struck continuously until 1938. Designed by James Earle Fraser, the coin’s imagery was praised for its strong character and bold originality.
President Theodore Roosevelt made no attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with American coinage. He openly criticized the designs, especially Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber’s Liberty Head Nickel, which had been in production since 1883. However, the Coinage Act of 1890 required a coin design to be in use for at least 25 years before it was eligible for replacement. The nickel was not eligible for redesign until 1908. At this point, however, President William Howard Taft had assumed office, and it was not until 1911 that his Treasury of Secretary, Franklin MacVeagh, realized that the 25-year stipulation had been met.
MacVeagh commissioned Fraser, pupil of legendary sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to redesign the nickel. Surprisingly, Mint officials were kept more or less in the dark during the selection process. The reasons for this are not quite clear, but many assumed MacVeagh wanted to avoid any confrontation or conflict with Barber.
Fraser’s preliminary sketches for the nickel were well received, but some time passed while officials argued over the details. In fact, the coins were not officially released into circulation until March 4, 1913. But despite the arduous process, the coins were instantly popular, and especially praised for their uniquely American themes.
The obverse of the Buffalo Nickel features a portrait of a Native American, facing right. While Fraser never fully disclosed the model for the portrait, it is known that the design is a composite of several Native Americans. In fact, Fraser used living models—Chief Iron Tail (of the Sioux tribe), Chief Two Moons (of the Cheyenne tribe) and Chief John Big Tree (of the Seneca tribe)—a bold move at a time when only classical profiles of Greece or Rome were considered to be fine art.
The reverse of the Buffalo Nickel features an American Bison. Fraser modeled the design after “Black Diamond,” a bison from the Central Park Zoological Garden in New York. He depicted the buffalo standing on a raised mound, thus giving the impression of strength and honor.
Despite the caliber of Fraser’s designs, the Buffalo Nickel encountered many challenges. After the first of the Buffalo Nickels were struck, it became apparent that the image of the bison and the text would wear off quickly. The coins also proved too thick to stack on top of one another. Other objections included: Fraser’s monogram being too prominent, the text was too crowded, the bison’s face was too human, and that the coin lacked the phrase “In God We Trust.” The Mint employed Charles Barber to make modifications, but the changes failed to help. The coin was rarely well-struck and the design was still subject to faster erosion.
Production of the Buffalo Nickel also resulted in several well-known varieties. One of the most interesting was the famous 1918/1917 overdate from the Denver Mint. This occurred when a 1918 dated die was struck over a 1917 dated die, yet the mistake was not recognized until 1931. Another well known variety is the 1937-D “Three Legged Buffalo Nickel.” When one of the reverse dies had become damaged and a Mint pressman reground it too forcefully, part of the design was worn away, thus weakening the appearance of one of the bison’s front legs. The die was used to strike thousands of nickels before it was noticed. The last well known variety is the 1938-D/S nickel. By December 1937, the Mint had decided to strike the Buffalo Nickel exclusively at Denver in the following year. However, confusion over dies intended for the San Francisco mint and dies intended for the Denver Mint caused the double lettered strike, which resulted in an “S” mintmark being again struck with a “D.”
After the requisite twenty-five years of circulation, the Buffalo Nickel was replaced by the Jefferson Nickel in 1938. Though problems with die and striking were never able to be fully solved, the Buffalo Nickel was always praised for its classic American imagery. The coin was remarkably popular and still continues to be one of the most distinctive coins in American numismatics.