It isn’t often that I can find anything praiseworthy to say about modern American
culture but I’ve had to grudgingly admit to admiring certain twentieth century currency
coin issues. It’s even harder to state that, in my opinion, some American coins are
superior in both design and manufacture to our own contemporary issues. I deliberately
pinpoint the words design and manufacture as one often lets the other down in the
Of all the twentieth century American designs one, in particular, not only captures
the character of the West and is ‘All American’ in its iconography but is a yardstick
for good coin design and production. I refer not to a commemorative issue or short-lived
rarity but to one of the most familiar and commonplace of all USA coins - The ‘Buffalo’
The coin’s story is well documented and, as a collectors’ piece, even warrants its
own national collectors’ club with thousands of members. Not bad for a coin which
was only issued between 1913 and 1938 – and even then not in all years. Apart from
minor modifications even the design remained immobilised for 25 years. So what is
the appeal, what is all the affection and fuss about? Well, simply, quality endures.
I’ll start at the beginning -
During his presidency of the United States, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt had often
voiced his contempt for the rather lack-lustre design and execution of his country’s
coinage. The target of his disquiet was the then Chief Engraver of the United States
Mint, Charles Barber, who was competent but mediocre as a designer. Roosevelt felt
that coinage should be bold yet simple in its design with a high relief such as that
on ancient Greek coins. He also felt that the subject matter should be ‘all American’
without flouting the time-honoured conventions placing a head on the obverse, and
a design incorporating elements from nature on the reverse.
After a number of essays were submitted, one by James Earle Fraser, a former assistant
to the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and a prolific artist in his own right, was
chosen for the Five Cent piece or ‘nickel.’ Fraser’s design filled the flan on both
sides in bold relief, while the legends, as with many ancient Greek coins, were subsidiary
to the main design.
Prominent on the obverse was a profile ‘Indian’ head with the date and the word LIBERTY.
Indians had been portrayed before on American coins, but they were always shown as
Caucasian white men wearing an Indian head-dress. Fraser’s design, on the other hand,
accurately portrays how the native peoples really looked.
In keeping with the strictly American theme, he depicted an American bison on the
reverse. The inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and E PLURIBUS UNUM are placed
over the bison (or ‘Buffalo’) with the denomination FIVE CENTS in the exergue. To
Fraser the buffalo symbolised the ‘Winning of the West’ and provided a perfect unity
of theme with the native American on the other side.
The design was hugely popular with the public, although there was the expected criticism
from certain quarters, as with any new design. Over 1.2 billion ‘Buffalo’ nickels
were minted from 1913 to 1938 at three mints: Philadelphia (no mintmark), San Francisco
(a small ‘S’) and Denver (a small ‘D’).
Hover your cursor to
see the coins in detail
Buffalo Nickel 1935
The mintmark is on the reverse under the denomination and the designer’s initial
is shown as a small incuse ‘F’ below the date.
Mintmark ‘D’ in exergue of 1938 Denver nickel
Designer’s Initial ‘F’
below date on obverse
Now, having described the piece, what of interest can be said about this coin? The
answer, surprisingly, is quite a lot. Taking the obverse first, this was modelled
using the combined features of three real Indian chiefs: John Big Tree, an Iroquois;
Iron Tail, a Teton Sioux, and Two Moons, a Cheyenne.
John Big Tree was probably the best known of the trio as he was later hired by the
Falstaff Brewing Company to tour the country as the ‘Indian on the nickel’ and thus
promote their products. Two Moons had been a Cheyenne Chief at the Battle of Little
Big Horn and had even taken part in the resulting massacre of Colonel Custer’s troops,
just 40 years before. He visited Washington, D.C. several times, even meeting President
Woodrow Wilson. Two Moons was in his sixties when Fraser used him as a model for
the Indian Head. The new coin spread Two Moons' fame, but it didn't bring him any
royalties. He died in 1917, just four years after the Buffalo nickel made its debut
in 1913. As for Iron Tail, not much is known, and he seems to have slipped from the
pages of history.
Fraser said that his goal had been to create a "truly American" coin; when the first
Buffalo nickels were released in February 1913, they certainly had everyone talking.
A coin collectors' magazine described the Native American portrait as “a work of
art, powerfully modelled and strong." Treasury officials were quick to point out
that it was a composite portrait, which wasn't supposed to represent any particular
Indian. Coins from the first bag to go into circulation were presented to outgoing
President Taft and no less than 33 Indian Chiefs at the groundbreaking ceremonies
for the National Memorial to The North American Indian at Fort Wadsworth, New York.
Now, what can be said about the reverse design?
Technically, the ‘buffalo’ is not a buffalo at all, but a North American Bison; buffaloes
are found mostly in India and Africa – but not in the United States. The miss-use
of the name arose when early settlers didn’t know what the animals were and thought
they must be some kind of water-buffalo. The name stuck, in much the same way as
the term ‘Indian’ did for the native North Americans themselves. Incidentally, the
Sioux Indian name for the animal is ‘Takanka.’
The buffalo used as a model for the reverse of the nickel was almost as famous as
the Indian Chiefs. Far from being a wild Plains Buffalo he was, in fact, a long term
resident of the Bronx Zoo, given the name ‘Black Diamond’ because of his unusually
dark coat. Not everyone was impressed with Fraser’s portrayal of the buffalo. The
director of the Bronx Zoo called the bison on the nickel a “…sad failure with its
head drooped as if it had lost all hope in the world.” Despite Black Diamond’s new-found
fame and the public affection for him, he was sold to a meat-packing company a couple
of years after the nickel’s debut. There was a public outcry and many people tried
to buy him, to save him – but to no avail. The company rejected all offers and soon
started selling ‘Black Diamond Steaks.’
However, Black Diamond’s head was salvaged, preserved and mounted and to this day
is sometimes exhibited at various coin shows and conventions across the United States.
As with most coin types there are numerous varieties, mint errors and minor modifications
which appeal to the observer of minutiae, with his 20x glass and notebook tucked
in his anorak, thus creating quite a cult following for the coin!
The most well known of these varieties and one which commands a hefty premium is
the famous ‘three-legged buffalo.’ For the year 1937 the Denver mint struck a total
of nearly 17.8 million Buffalo Nickels from a wide variety of different die pairs.
During the striking process one pair came to bear an unusual distinguishing mark.
This came about because, during the striking process, a “die clash” had taken place,
that is the obverse and reverse die had come together without a blank between them.
As a result certain design elements were transferred from the obverse to the reverse
– and vice versa. The obverse die was ruined but officials felt that the reverse
die could at least be salvaged and used again. They decided to try and polish the
flaws away using an emery stick to remove the clash marks. During this operation
most of the lower portion of the bison’s right front leg was also removed by mistake
– so creating the much sought after ‘three-legged’ variety which, in high grade,
can command a four-figure sum!
There are of course other varieties: overdates, double-entered legends and two distinct
die changes on the initial mintage of 1913, but it’s the overall appearance, the
design, the nostalgia and the patriotic symbolism which makes this an enduring collector’s
All this does at least show that, comparing it with the earlier and bolder British
designs, our ex-colonial cousins have at least learnt something worthwhile.
And, as an afterthought, there are two additional items of interest. American ‘nickels’
are actually made of cupro-nickel, the same 75% - 25% mixture which is used for our
own ‘silver’ coins; and they are, today, the same size, weight and metal composition
as they were when first struck in 1866!