Coin History – The Indian Head “Buffalo” Nickel

Throughout the history of coinage in the United States, a handful of coins have captured the imagination of collectors and the general public at the same time. The Morgan Dollar certainly comes to mind as does the Winged Head “Mercury” Dime. Another coin that many would add to that list is the Indian Head Nickel, commonly known as the Buffalo Nickel.

Minted from 1913 to 1938, the Buffalo nickel was one of the coins that was changed in the early 20th century by the United States Treasury. With a design approved in 1912 by sculptor James Earle Fraser, the new 5-cent piece began circulating in 1913 despite the objects of a particular nickel-operated coin machines manufacture. Nevertheless, the coin went into circulation and is widely considered one of the most artistically pleasing coins ever struck by the United States.

The Indian Head Nickel measured 21.2mm in diameter and weighted 5 grams. It was composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel. All of these measurements, along with the 1.95 mm thickness are identical to the current Jefferson Nickel in circulation today. Across all the Mint locations, a total of 1,212,995,919 of the coins were struck between 1913 and 1938.

Background & Legislation

The Buffalo Nickel was preceded by the Liberty Head Nickel that had been designed by Mint Engraver, Charles Barber. It had been introduced in 1883 and, as discussed in the Walking Liberty Half Dollar and Standing Liberty Quarter Coin History articles, the designs were not widely revered for their artistic style.

Legislation in 1890 passed that required coinage designs not be chanced until they had been in use for at least 25 years. The only way around this was through an Congressional authorized change. Interestingly, the 1890 act allowed for the Nickel and the Dollar in circulation at the time to be exempt from the requirement. This made them eligible for immediate redesign but it did not happen as history tells us.

The push for coinage design changes started in 1904 under President Roosevelt. He had become vocal about his dissatisfaction with the designs and artistic value of the coins in circulation. At the time, Roosevelt had wanted Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign all of the circulating coins in the United States. Saint-Gaudens had redesigned the Eagle and Double Eagle gold coins that entered circulation in 1907. Unfortunately, the artist passed the same year, scuppering Roosevelt’s grand plan. Fast forward to 1909 with Mint Director Abram Andrew coming onboard. By this point, there had been a strong desire to replace the aging Liberty Head Nickel and Andrew’s predecessor, Frank Leach, had instructed Mint Engraver Charles Barber to make some pattern coins to replace it. That project met an abrupt halt with Andrew coming into the office as he was more focused on the Lincoln Cent.

Bluntly, Andrew did not like the Lincoln Cent that had been released in 1909. Indeed, he disliked it to the point that he was considering congressional authorization to redesign the Cent. He had contacted sculptor James Earle Fraser to design a replacement but the asking of Congress – nor the changing of the design of the Cent – ever came to be. However, Fraser made an impression and that lead, eventually, to the Buffalo Nickel.

During this time in history, Franklin MacVeagh was the Secretary of Treasury under President Taft. It was under Secretary MacVeagh that the Mint announced it would soliciting new design for the Nickel. The timing of this in 1911 has been speculated to have coincided with a letter that the Secretary’s on, Eames, wrote to him indicating that the Nickel was the only coin that could change design under his administration as the rest were impacted by the 25-year in circulation rule. Whether or not this letter was the impetus for the solicitation of designs, the Mint began accepting design concepts.

Following Mint Director Andrew was George Roberts, taking over the position in 1911. Roberts initially favored a design of the five cent piece that depicted Abraham Lincoln. However, when Fraser presented designs featuring a Native American on the Obverse and a bison on the other, Roberts quickly favored theses designs over his initial preferences. In July 1911, after Roberts recommended Fraser to design the Nickel but it took until January 1912 before Fraser to be informed that he had indeed been commissioned to the work. When he was informed, Fraser was also provided a multitude of instructions around the coins. Fraser took all this one and by June 1912 had completed models and prepared coin-size electrotypes (coin sized metal models). He brought these to Washington D.C. to show Secretary MacVeagh. They met on July 10, 1912 and the design was enthusiastically agreed up on by Secretary MacVeagh.

The Hobbs Manufacturing Company Kerfuffle

Perhaps no other coin in the history of the United States was so scrutinized and influenced by a private company than the Indian Head Nickel. With the designs of the coin approved and preparations being made to mint the coin, knowledge that a new design was coming became known to the public. Multiple companies wrote to Secretary MacVeagh in the proceeding months, asking for clarifications on the designs. Rightfully so, the companies were concerned about changes they may have to make to their own machines that accepted the Nickel as payment. In response, MacVeagh wrote to the inquiring companies and assured them that there would be no changes in diameter, thickness, or weight of the Nickel. All except one company was satisfied with this answer. That company was the Hobbs Manufacturing Company in Worcester, Massachusetts. The company’s owner and namesake, Clarence Hobbs, continued to ask for further information.

The additional information was important for Hobbs. His company produced a device that could decide counterfeit Nickels. Rightfully so, he was concerned that the changes would render his device, the creation of George Reith at the company, useless. Discussions between Secretary MacVeagh and Hobbs continued throughout the rest of 1912 and got to the point that Hobbs demanded various changes to the coin. Fraser, in his own right, was reluctant to agree as he felt it would distract from the intended design of the coin. By December 1912, the Hobbs Company went as far as to submit a modified design for the 5-Cent piece. MacVeagh seemingly shut it down immediately and to ice this particular cake, officially pushed for Mint Director Roberts to approve Fraser’s design. That was done on December 18, 1912 which effectively gave Fraser the authority to complete his design. Fraser was paid $2,500 for his efforts, roughly $67,700 in 2021.

All indications are that the Hobbs Company was relentless in continuing their injections of opposition to the new Nickel. In January 1913, Fraser met with the company after being asked by Mint Director Roberts if the company was satisfied with the design modifications that had been done to appease them. Frasier indicated that they want further changes made and he agreed to meet with them further. Over the course of January, Fraser did meet with George Reith, the mechanic at Hobbs Company who had invented the anti-slug device. Those meeting resulted in a minor change to the coin, essentially changing only the border of the coin to be “made round and true”. Samples were struck at the Philadelphia Mint on January 21, 1918 and Roberts appeared to be satisfied with the changes – as did the Hobbs Company.

But that was not the end of the Hobbs Company affair with the Buffalo Nickel. Indeed, it was far from over. The company continued to object to the coin’s design. On February 3, 1918, Hobbs sent a lengthy letter to Roberts with a list of change that he wanted on the coin and that Fraser needed to attend a meeting with himself and Mr. Reith. That meeting happened on February 5 and no agreement was reached on the design changes. The frustration for the sculptor was at the boiling point. Shortly after the meeting, Fraser sent a 10-page letter to Secretary MacVeagh suggesting that his time was being wasted by the Hobbs Company and their continued injections of issues with the soon-to-be released Nickel. Fraser went on to request that the Secretary hold a meeting and put the matter to bed once and for all.

MacVeagh agreed and held a meeting at his office in Washington D.C. on February 14, 1918. Hobbs Company and Fraser both came to the meeting with lawyers. The Secretary noted that no other firm had complained about the new design and that the crux of Hobbs’ argument – that the new nickel would render the anit-slug technology useless – had, indeed, not been widely sold. He went on further to say that the demands from the company would compromise the artistic merit of the Nickel. The following day, MacVeagh issued a letter indicating that the coin would go forward as designed and that it was the end of the matter as far as he was concerned.

After rendering his decision, Secretary MacVeagh was not done with the Hobbs Company. First, he learned shortly after this decision, that the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company was in the process of removing the Hobbs’ anti-slug devices from service. The performance of the device had proven to be unsatisfactory for the company. This is important in that the Hobbs Company highlighted the company as a satisfied and enthusiastic customer. Still not pleased with the results of their meeting, the Hobbs Company did not end its efforts to stop the new Nickel. Indeed, the company appealed to President Taft. By this time, the production of the new coin had already begun and Taft, with only two weeks remaining in his term, was not interested in stopping production or intervening. MacVeagh wrote to the President secretary to indicate that the company had received plenty of time and attention in the pre-production of the new Nickel.

Design and Models – And Controversey

The Obverse design of the Indian Head Nickel features a distinct profile image of a Native American. The question that has been asked throughout the years, even to Fraser himself, was who the model for the Obverse was on the coin. For his part, Fraser was inconsistent in his answers to the question over the forty years he lived after the coin when into circulation.

1930 Indian Head Nickel (Image Courtesy of NGC)
1930 Indian Head Nickel (Image Courtesy of NGC)

To be clear, Fraser never indicated a specific Native American was used for the portrait on the Obverse of the coin. Instead, he suggested that the portrait was a blending of characteristics from previous portraits he had done. Indeed, in December 1913, he wrote the following to Mint Director Robert:

[b]efore the nickel was made I had done several portraits of Indians, among them Iron TailTwo Moons, and one or two others, and probably got characteristics from those men in the head on the coins, but my purpose was not to make a portrait but a type.

A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels

As years progress however, several Native Americans came forward claiming to be the model for the coin. By 1931, Two Guns White Calf was claiming and capitalizing off his claims as being the model. Fraiser, in 1938, tried to put the matter to bed by saying that he used three Native Americans for his models of the coin: Iron Tail (Sioux), Big Tree (Kiowa), and Two Moons (Cheyenne). However, despite his efforts and the United States Mint, both continued to receive inquires about the truthfulness of Two Guns White Calf’s claim up until his deal in 1953.

Additionally, John Big Tree, a Seneca, also claimed to be Fraser’s model for the Buffalo Nickel. Indeed, he made numerous public appearances as the “nickel Indian” until his death in 1967.

As for the Reverse, the tale of its model is also not without its own complications. Fraser indicated that the model for the Reverse was an American Bison named Black Diamond. He claimed in interviews that the model was “none other than Black Diamond, the contraries animal in the Bronx Zoo.”

Indian Head Nickel Reverse (Image Courtesy of NGC)
Indian Head Nickel Reverse (Image Courtesy of NGC)

The problem is that Black Diamond was never at the Bronx Zoo. Black Diamond lived at the Central Park Zoo until 1915 when he was sold & slaughtered. Further, the horns on the buffalo on the Reverse are in a different place than those that were on Black Diamond. One possible candidate for the model was Bronx, a bison that was the herd leader for many years at the Bronx Zoo.

Ultimately, we cannot know for certain the models of both the Obverse and Reverse of the Indian Head Nickel. It seems almost certain however that the Obverse is an amalgamation of several Native Americans despite individual claims over the years.

Much like the Mercury Dime, the Indian Head Nickel has been referred to as the “Buffalo” nickel almost since its release. It was a colloquialism that stuck, despite the official name of the coin.

Release and Production of The Indian Head Nickel

The first Indian Head Nickels were given out on February 22, 1913. They were distributed at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the National American Indian Memorial at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island in New York. That day, 40 of the new nickels were sent by the Mint to the ceremony where they were distributed to the Native American chiefs who participated.

Sadly, as a side note, the memorial itself was never built.

The official release date for the nickel into general circulation was March 4, 1913. Reception of the new coin was generally positive, feeling that the coin was a truly American design. However, some were more tepid in their response to it. Most notably, The Numismatist in March and May 1913 dedicated editorials to the coin, giving it a lukewarm review and suggesting changes be made to it.

Production of the new nickel was fraught with challenges. Mint Engraver Barber, who’s department was responsible for assuring all the Mint facilities had working dies, noted early on that the dies were wearing out at a rapid rate. Indeed, he noted on March 11, 1913, that dies were wearing out three times faster than the Liberty Head nickel and his department was struggling to keep up with the need for new dies. Additionally, the date and denomination were points on the coin that were wearing particularly fast and the Mint, along with the Treasury, fears that the value on the coin would be worn away. This indeed did happen on many of the coins

To help with the die wear, Barber made proposals to Fraser for revisions to the coin. The two changes were to enlarge the FIVE CENTS and to change the ground on which the bison stood on the Reverse to flat ground. Fraser approved and this is how what is now known as the Type II nickels came into being. Die changes were made but, ironically, it made the die wear worse! The Treasury Secretary, William McAdoo at this point, wanted further changes to the coin but Fraser wasn’t interested in revisiting the nickel yet again.

Over the years, the thickness of the numbers in the date were gradually increased but it never really solved the problem in its entirety. In 1916, minor changes were brought to the design with LIBERTY given more emphasis and moved slightly. The nose on the Native American on the Obverse was also slightly elongated in an effort to improve wear with little success.

Production of the Indian Head Nickel occurred at all three main facilities in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco with high production totals throughout the 1910s. With a recession beginning in 1921, the Mint suspended production of the Nickel in 1922.

The Indian Head Nickel was in production for 25 years with production ending in April 1938 with the introduction of the Jefferson Nickel. While the Indian Head Nickel was praised for its design, the fast wearing dies and difficult production lead to its demise.

The design however still lives today as the design of the American Buffalo gold one ounce coin.

Collecting The Indian Head Nickel

Because of the high wear on dies throughout its life, finding high quality strikes in high conditions are challenging for collectors of the Indian Head Nickel. Many coins throughout the entire series show significant wear on the date and details on the bison on the Reverse. This makes high quality specimens have a higher premium than other coins of the era.

The lowest mintage of the Indian Head Nickel was the 1926-S. Just 970,000 were produced making it the only sub-million mintage in the series. Another key date is the 1931-S. Originally, only 194,000 were struck but then Mint Director Mary Margaret O’Reily asks for a million more pieces to be struck to prevent hoarding – which didn’t really happen. Many of these were saved and can be found in high quality despite the low mintage.

Perhaps the most well known coins in the Indian Head Nickel series is the 1937-D, know as the “three-legged” nickel. The error occurred at the Denver Mint when a pressman was attempting to remove marks from the Reverse die that were caused by the dies making contact with each other. The pressman accidentally removed the animal’s leg and by the time the Mint inspectors discovered the issue, thousands of coins had already be struck and mixed with other coins.

1937-D Three Legged Variety (Image Courtesy of NGC)
1937-D Three Legged Variety (Image Courtesy of NGC)

Another key variety coin in the series is the 1938-D/S which was caused by the dies having the “S” Mint Mark being prepunched with the “D” for the Denver Mint to be used at that facility. Since there were no 1938 nickels struck at the San Francisco facility, Numismatic history David Q. Bowsers suggests in his book A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels, that the dies were repunched so that they would not be wasted given there was no intent to proceed the coins in San Francisco. The variety was discovered in 1962 and was the first noted “Over” variety discovered.

Aside from these varieties, collecting of Indian Head Nickels can be done relatively easily and at low cost. Most of the coins in the series can be obtained for anywhere from $5 to $250 in Fine to Very Fine condition.


3 thoughts on “Coin History – The Indian Head “Buffalo” Nickel”

  1. I met John Big Tree in 1966, when he was a purported 103. Horn & Hardart, a restaurant operation in New York City, had hired him to sit by a phony teepee, but nobody there seemed to know why he was placed in the middle of the dining area. He word a buffalo nickel on a necklace and I guess accurate native clothing. Putting together the coin set I wanted to talk with him about the series but he was too deaf to hear me. Anyway needed a big crutch to get around and was obviously not well at all. A reporter had interviewed him and made up a phony story that as a Seneca he would not fly then-existing Mohawk Airlines because they were hereditary enemies of his tribe. In retrospect the whole thing seems really sad.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.