The History of the Buffalo Nickel - Part I

by Keith Scott


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. Anyway….

To Be Continued!!!

Keith Scott has been a collector for over 30 years and owns a small internet-based coin store at www.mountainviewcoins.com. Visit his website www.mountainviewcoins.com for a history of US coins, metal market updates and news about your favorite coins.

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