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Buffalo Nickel Continues to Enchant
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
September 05, 2012

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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With an Indian chief on one side and a buffalo on the other, the new nickel’s design might have been pulled from a Wild West show poster. Instead, it came from the fertile brain of sculptor James Earle Fraser.

Fraser pieced together the features of a few different real-life Indians to come up with an ideal portrait for the obverse. By his own recollection, he matched wills with an ornery zoo bison to capture the calm but slightly menacing likeness on the reverse.

As if using the tools of a centuries-old tribe, Fraser chiseled the designs in textures as rugged as the Old West. The Buffalo nickel wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t meant to be. But as a work of art, it was second to none.

Reporters began following the Buffalo nickel’s gestation in the summer of 1912. Newspapers reported the Liberty Head nickel, minted since 1883, did not coincide with the Treasury Department’s conception of art. Secretary Franklin MacVeagh had decided to replace the Goddess of Liberty with the head of an Indian. The July 7 issue of the New York Times said Fraser would meet with MacVeagh the following week to work out the details.

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The December issue of The Numismatist said, “According to recent newspaper reports, the new design for a nickel five-cent piece, the work of James Earle Fraser of New York City, has been approved by the Secretary of the Treasury and by the National Art Committee, and is said now to need but the approval of President Taft to become the official design for the coin of that denomination.”

The Philadelphia Mint struck pattern Buffalo nickels in January 1913. Regular production began on Feb. 17, when a single press went into operation, turning out 120 coins a minute.

Fraser clearly had his fingers on the nation’s cultural pulse. In late February and early March 1913, it began pounding with a frenzy as an eager populace began searching for Buffalo nickels. The March 11, 1913, issue of the Herald-Journal noted the irony of releasing the Buffalo nickel because “both the Indian and the Buffalo are on the toboggan slide to oblivion.” However, that was the way it had been since the 1850s, when the government placed Native American motifs on the $1 and $3 gold pieces and copper-nickel cent, even as it battled Indian tribes and forced them onto reservations. The reality was that problems facing Native Americans did not translate into difficulties with coins depicting Indian artifacts or images.

The Buffalo nickel was exceptional not only for its artistry but because it was named for its reverse side, although a few newspapers referred to it as the “Indian Head” nickel. The Feb. 10, 1913, issue of the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette got it right. “New Kind of Nickel Soon to Make Debut,” said the headline. “Government Preparing to Put Out Five-Cent Pieces to be Known as the ‘Buffalo Nickel.’” The article said:

“New nickels of an entirely different design than the present five-cent piece will make their appearance in Cedar Rapids within a few weeks. They are called the ‘Buffalo nickel,’ and have a buffalo figure on one side and Indian head on the obverse.

“The ‘Buffalo nickel’ is a work of art in miniature, designed by the distinguished artist J.E. Fraser of New York.

“On the obverse side is the head of a Cheyenne Indian chief without the war bonnet but with a feather arranged in his plaited hair. On the reverse is an American bison.

“These new coins will replace the old ones bearing the Goddess of Liberty design and the Roman numeral ‘V.’ They will be in general circulation within the next few days.”

The first Buffalo nickels were distributed at the groundbreaking for the National Indian Memorial, Fort Wadsworth, N.Y. It was a momentous occasion on both counts, and President William Howard Taft attended the ceremony. the Feb. 23, 1913, issue of The Gazette Times said:

“The first of the new nickels showing the American Indian on one side and the American buffalo on the other, were put in circulation among the crowd that witnessed this ceremony.

“Dr. George F. Kunz, president of the American Science and Historic Preservation Society, had obtained a bagful of the new five-cent pieces from the Director of the Mint. The first one was given to President Taft and the rest were distributed among the Indian chiefs and distinguished guests.”

Plans called for a 60-foot bronze statue of an Indian warrior to tower 165 feet above the highest elevation around New York harbor. However, the memorial was never completed, possibly foreshadowing the Buffalo nickel’s relatively short lifespan.

Many cities received their first Buffalo nickel allotment in early March 1913. Under the headline “New Buffalo Nickel Here,” the March 7, 1913, issue of the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette reported: “The new Buffalo nickel has arrived in Cedar Rapids. The coins create interest because of the new designs stamped upon them. Red Cloud [sic], the famous Indian chief, is pictured on one side, and on the other a buffalo is stamped.

“The nickels are a new departure in coin designs.… There will soon be 3 million issued by the Washington Mint [sic]. Other Mints over the country will issue the new coins, and the Denver Mint is now stamping out about 100,000 of the coins a day.”

In Texas, the arrival of the first Buffalo nickels stirred both apprehension and admiration. The March 6, 1913, issue of the San Antonio Light said, “At first, some feared the new nickel would not work in telephones.” It added:

“While no shipment of the new ‘Buffalo’ nickel has been received here from the Washington Mint for distribution, several have been sent to bankers and others. Leon Wendell, cashier of the West Texas Bank & Trust Company, has one and has been kept busy showing it to friends.”

Enterprising merchants took advantage of Buffalo nickel fever by offering the coins to their customers. An ad in the March 28,1913, issue of the Gettysburg Times said, “FREE! FREE! A Buffalo nickel free with each order of $1 or more, Saturday, Minters Grocery.”

Buffalo nickels launched thousands of savings accounts. The 1913 edition of The Outlook said: “A Tammany leader, wiser in his generation than some of the children of light, recently captured the hearts of young and old in his district by giving to every child who applied for it a tin savings bank with a Buffalo nickel in it to start an account. He distributed 1,728 banks the first day.”

Some people held onto Buffalo nickels as souvenirs. Others eventually spent them. In Georgia, a young man paid for a marriage license with 45 Buffalo nickels. The Jan. 27, 1915, issue of the Atlanta Constitution said, “The young groom, upon the advent of the Buffalo nickel, contracted the fad of collecting them.”

The Philadelphia Mint struck matte proof Buffalo nickels beginning in 1913, but they weren’t popular. The May 1913 issue of The Numismatist said:

“Proof coins have as a rule been ready for distribution to those ordering them on Jan. 15 of each year. This year, however, because of the change in the design of the nickel, there has been a delay of about two months in getting out the minor proofs. They are at last being received by collectors.

“The proof of the five-cent piece is even more unsatisfactory than that of the Lincoln cent. While the lines of the design are finer and struck up more clearly—the wrinkles on the buffalo’s skin, and parts of the Indian’s head, for example—the appearance of the coin is practically the same as that of the one struck for circulation.…

“Although a different die is supposed to have been used in striking these proofs, there is no detectable difference in design between it and that used for the nickels distributed for circulation.”

The editor predicted the Buffalo nickel’s “lead-like” appearance would promote counterfeiting. He was right. Two weeks after the Buffalo nickel made its debut, the Middletown Daily Times reported that counterfeits were circulating in Philadelphia.

Dissatisfaction with proofs and the prevalence of counterfeits were part of a larger bundle of Buffalo nickel problems. The March 15, 1913, issue of the Hamilton, Ohio Evening Journal said, “As a beauty, the new so-called Buffalo nickel is not likely to prove a joy forever.” The newspaper claimed the design was “too crowded” and “lacked the simplicity of the old nickel.”

The March 14, 1913, issue of the Fort Wayne Sentinel provided a sampling of press opinions of the Buffalo nickel. An Ohio paper said, “If there ever was an ugly coin, it is the new nickel with the head of an Indian occupying all of one side, and a plunging buffalo on the other.” Another newspaper decried the “crude but earnest attempt to present in profile the features of Woodrow Wilson without the smile.”

The New York Sun’s Buffalo nickel review was reprinted in the May 24, 1913, issue of the Tipton Tribune:

“The designer of the new nickel, with a buffalo on one side and an Indian on the other, must have been a friend of Colonel [‘Buffalo Bill’] Cody.

“The new five-cent piece is a wonder, if not a joy. Mark especially the Indian head or the extraordinary beast God called a bison. And the Indian is too big for his fence. An Ugly Coin.”

A headline in the Jan. 25, 1914, issue of the Lima Daily News said, “Buffalo Nickel Now Creating a Lot of Trouble.” The writer claimed, “The old coins were good enough, but the fussy old artistic taste prompted Uncle Sam to look around for a new and more tasty design.”

Possibly the biggest problem with the Buffalo nickel was that it deviated from preconceived notions of what a coin should look like. “Once more the Mint has issued a coin in the shape of a medal,” said the March 10, 1913, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The objection to the new five-cent piece with the buffalo is that it does not look like a coin and that the lettering is hard to decipher.”

In Mansfield, Ohio, a woman received a Buffalo nickel in change from a delivery man without examining it. Later, she telephoned the company and accused the driver of giving her a poker chip instead of a nickel. According to the Mansfield News, the driver couldn’t make the woman believe it was a coin. She wasn’t happy until he returned to her home and traded “an old style nickel” for the Buffalo nickel.

Under the headline “Another Ridiculous Coin,” the March 11, 1913, issue of the Beaver, Pa., Daily Times reprinted a story from the New York World:

“Is it not possible for Congress to curb the men in the Treasury Department who periodically play tricks with our money? A few years ago, a sad attempt was made to beautify our gold coins. Then came the celebrated Lincoln cent. Now we have the Buffalo nickel.

“Whatever may be said of the art expressed by these pieces, they are more like medals, tokens, bangles, fobs or beer checks than money. Their inscriptions are indistinct and with a little wear will disappear.

“Our coinage ought not to be left wholly to the caprice of artists. Legibility should be the first consideration, with ornamentation second. There should be absolutely no uncertainty as to denominations.”

The Buffalo nickel situation was further muddied by hoboes who altered the designs. The practice may have originated in New Jersey, but the so-called Hobo nickels were prevalent as far away as Utah. The Secret Service was not amused. The Ogden Standard reported:

“Salt Lake is flooded with Buffaloes that have been changed on the obverse side. By a clever bit of engraving, an added shaded effect has been placed upon the head of the Indian and a beard fitted to his chin. The result is startling. Mr. Callaghan promises it will be even more so when the identity of the engraver is discovered.”

Rumors of a Buffalo nickel recall were rampant. A headline in the May 20, 1913, issue of the Ada, Oklahoma Evening News shouted, “The Buffalo Nickel is to be Recalled.” The article claimed:

“Announcement has been made by Secretary McAdoo at Washington that no more of the Buffalo nickels are to be put out by the Mint, and those outstanding will be gradually called in from circulation.”

Buffalo nickels were never recalled, but McAdoo ordered a design revision in the spring of 1913. Collectors designate the original Buffalo nickel as Variety 1 and the revised design as Variety 2. On Variety 2 nickels, “Five Cents” is more clearly defined, and the buffalo stands on a plain instead of a mound.

A British publication, Spink’s Numismatic Circular, called the change an improvement. The Jan. 25, 1914, issue of the Janesville Daily Gazette was not as kind. “New Nickels Cause of Much Suspicion,” said the headline. “Removal of Buffalo From Cracker Box Causes Confusion in Many Quarters.” The story explained:

“Buffalo nickels as originally issued seemed to be all right. Then somebody declared that the nickel was not at all artistic. They said the buffalo is standing on a dry goods box and put on a sort of grassy pedestal.

“The words ‘Five Cents’ were made more distinct, and a few blades of something that looks as if it might be grass were placed around the buffalo’s hoofs.

“Then trouble started all over the country. Persons receiving them in change wanted to know if the new nickel was good. Bank tellers spent most of the day explaining to countless customers that both nickels were absolutely good.

“The Treasury Department sent banks a dozen forms a day, notifying tellers that hordes of counterfeiters were abroad, turning out nickels by the peck.”

Despite the difficulties, demand for Buffalo nickels was still strong in 1914, as some newspapers belatedly told of the design revision. The Feb. 7, 1914, issue of the Atlantic News Telegraph said there was a “big increase in coinage due to the Buffalo nickel.” The same story said that “the dies for the popular piece” had been changed.

“The new ‘Buffalo nickel’ has been a money-maker for Uncle Sam,” the Telegraph said. It went on to say, “[Mint Director George Roberts] was surprised at the prominence that the newspapers have given recently to the fact that a change has been made in the dies of the ‘Buffalo nickel.’”

Roberts told the reporter the dies had been recut in April 1913 to make the design “more distinct and clear cut.” “But this is not ‘news,’” Roberts said. “It’s history.”

The design revision didn’t solve all of the Buffalo nickel’s problems. Although “Five Cents” was better protected from wear, nothing was done to prevent abrasion of the date. Dateless Buffalo nickels would soon become commonplace.

The 1915 edition of Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record gave Mint superintendent Adam M. Joyce’s assessment. “The Buffalo nickel is faulty from a practical standpoint,” he said. “It resulted from the desire by the government to mint coins to the satisfaction of artists, not practical coiners.”

The Record said that because of the Buffalo nickel’s high relief, production costs were much higher. According to Joyce, greater pressure was required to strike Buffalo nickels, and the proportion of spoiled coins was much higher than it used to be.

Problematical or not, the Buffalo nickel kept the Mint’s presses busy throughout 1914. “When you find a Buffalo nickel in change, do you put it away?” the March 16, 1914, issue of the Lowell Sun asked. “That is why there are so few of the coins in circulation.”

The July 6, 1914, issue of the Milwaukee Journal reported, “Recently, to meet the emergency demanded by the issue of the ‘Buffalo’ nickel, the Mints turned them out at the rate of 1,440,000 a day.”

Wild West shows helped promote the Buffalo nickel. A headline in the May 3, 1913, issue of the Altoona Mirror said, “Wild West Portrayed — Robert Gable Gets Likeness of Chieftain Who Posed for Buffalo Nickel.” Gable was a photographer who had been commissioned to shoot publicity photos for the 101 Ranch Wild West Show souvenir booklet. The Mirror said, “The most interesting photograph was of Chief Iron Tail, who posed for the new Buffalo nickel.”

In 1914, The Survey, published by the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York, described a performance at Spring Street Neighborhood House in New York City. Chief Iron Tail, Chief Black Fox, their wives Charlie and Susie Yellow Boy, and an interpreter came from the 101 Ranch show for a Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls dinner. The Survey reported:

“Chief Iron Tail, whose profile adorns the Buffalo nickel, assisted by Chief Black Fox and little Susie Yellow Boy, showed how he danced after the massacre of General Custer and his troopers at the Battle of Big Horn Creek in 1876.

“The chief grunted his approval of the Camp Fire ceremonies and the Scout stunts. Many of the boys and girls are treasuring copies of the old Sioux leader’s thumb-print.”

The stories were fun while they lasted. However, just as Buffalo nickel fever had swept the country in 1913 and 1914, the infusion of millions upon millions of Buffalo nickels into circulation wore away the novelty if not admiration for the design.

Long after giving way to the Jefferson nickel in 1938, James Earle Fraser’s design has remained the quintessential U.S. five-cent piece. Buffalo nickel rings, belt buckles and other items, including the 2001 American Bison commemorative dollar and the Bison gold bullion coin series, pay tribute to the beloved design. Long live the Buffalo nickel.

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