Renowned sculptor James Earle Fraser was fascinated by the American
Indian, so much so that it was no surprise he chose an Indian motif
for the 5-cent coin design. And the bison design for the reverse made
a perfect companion image.
It is arguably the most
"American" of all United States coins and is a collector favorite.
COIN VALUES: See how much Buffalo nickels are worth today
Fraser's artistic prowess 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 became quick 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, overdue by
five years for a design change. In the early 20th century, coin
designs were automatically changed every 25 years.
obverse design for the Indian Head 5-cent coin, commonly called the
"Buffalo nickel," depicts a large, powerful portrait of an
Indian, facing right. The appearance is rough-hewn, unlike the smooth
cheeks and other facial features that characterize innumerable Liberty
The portrait is purported to be a composite
of three Indians, although the identities of the models have been
disputed. A few Native Americans laid claim to be the model for the
coin. Frazer identified the models as Iron Tail, a Sioux; Big Tree, a
Kiowa; and Two Moons, a Cheyenne. All three visited Roosevelt while in
New York City, according to Fraser, who studied and photographed them
during their stay.
Fraser's designer initial, F, appears
incuse below the date on the obverse.
More is known about
the American bison that served as the model for the reverse
It was Black Diamond, an inhabitant of the New
York Zoological Park. Fraser employed a little artistic license to
portray the bison as though he were living free on the Great Plains.
The stuffed head of Black Diamond was displayed at a major coin
convention during the 1980s.
During the inaugural 1913
year, two distinct subtypes were produced at the Philadelphia, Denver
and San Francisco Mints: the Bison on Mound and the Bison on
Because of the fear that the five
cents denomination legend on the reverse would wear off quickly in
circulation, Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber modified the reverse
hub. Barber placed five cents within an exergue to protect it from
excessive wear, and smoothing down the roughened fields, reducing the
mound to level ground.
Among the challenging dates to
find are the 1916 Doubled Die, of which approximately 100 pieces in
all grades are believed to exist. The 1918/7-D coin was created during
a die shortage when a 1917 working die was impressed with that of a
hub dated 1918.
The 1937-D Three-Legged Bison coin
resulted from a Mint technician over polishing a reverse die, taking
away a portion of one of the two forelegs.
Head 5-cent coin is a popular series with collectors. High-quality
collections offered for sale at coin shows are quickly gobbled up to
meet market demand.
After its legislated 25-year run, the
Indian Head 5-cent coin was replaced in 1938 by a new design depicting
the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.
Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:
Cents and half cents:
2- and 3-cent coins:
Dimes and half dimes: