The Origin Of The Buffalo Nickel

Learn about the origin of the Buffalo Nickel, with information on the designer, the models used and the years the coins were in circulation.

The buffalo nickel has fascinated collectors since it was first introduced, and the story of how it came to be is almost as fascinating as the coin itself.

In 1911, Franklin MacVeagh, Secretary of the Treasury, was contacted by his son who suggested that it was time for a new nickel. Under the Coinage Act of 1890 coins could only be changed every twenty-five years and the Liberty Head nickel that was in use at the time had been around since 1883. MacVeagh liked the idea and at the suggestion of Theodore Roosevelt, even though Roosevelt was no longer President, a well known sculptor by the name of James Earle Fraser was chosen to design the new coin.

Fraser, who also sculpted the End of the Trail statue, grew up on the prairies out west and therefore chose the American Indian and bison for his design. The Indian on the coin was modeled after three American Indians-- Iron Tail, Big Tree and Two Moons. Fraser had a chance to photograph and study these three while they visited in New York City. By choosing men from different tribes he knew he could design a profile that would represent all Indians, not just one tribe.

The story of the buffalo on the coin was a surprise to some. Many thought that he had modeled it after bison he had seen roaming the prairies when he was a child. His model, instead, was Black Diamond, a buffalo at the New York Zoological Gardens in New York City. It has been said that Fraser stood for hours studying Black Diamond, settling for nothing less than a perfect likeness of the American Bison.

The first buffalo nickels were entered into circulation on March 4, 1913 at the groundbreaking ceremony of the National Memorial to the North American Indian in Fort Wadsworth, New York. Thirty three Indian Chiefs where present at the ceremony, as well as President Taft, and all were presented coins from the first minting.

Within the first year, the coin needed a small redesign to keep the "five cents" from wearing off so quickly, so the first coins minted were slightly different from the later versions. On the first version, the buffalo stands on a mound and the words "five cents" were placed on that mound. The coin was changed, cutting away the mound and leaving a blank area beneath for the denomination. Because of this change, and the short time that the first version was minted, the earlier buffalo nickel is much sought after by collectors.

The buffalo nickel was minted from 1913 until 1938, with no nickels minted in 1922, because of World War I, or 1932 and 1933 during the Great Depression. In 1934, though, production picked up once again.

Toward the end of the 1930's, the 25 years for a coin to be in circulation was nearly up. This meant the end of the buffalo nickel and a new design was put into circulation in 1939. That new design was the Jefferson nickel that is still in production today.

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