The Buffalo Nickel, or Indian Head Nickel as it was sometimes known, is perhaps the most iconic of American coins. Issued between 1913 and 1938, it was designed by famed sculptor James Earle Fraser. With a Native American chief on the obverse and an American Bison on the reverse, the coin truly captured the spirit of the American West.
Following in the great tradition of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and President Teddy Roosevelt, President William Howard Taft asked Fraser in 1911 to submit a new design for Charles Barber’s Liberty Head Nickel. By 1912, Fraser had submitted several designs with a similar theme – a Native American on the obverse and an American Bison on the reverse.
Fraser was awarded $2,500 (approximately $75,000 today) for his efforts. Minting began in 1913, after a slew of minor tweaks and modifications. The coins were released into circulation on March 4, 1913, and were praised by the public. The media had a different take on the coins. The New York Times printed an editorial that stated the “New nickel is a striking example of what a coin intended for wide circulation should not be…..it is not pleasing to look at when new and shiny, and will be an abomination when old and dull.”
Difficult to Strike
As soon as the coins entered circulation, Treasury officials noted that changes needed to be made. The date and the denomination (FIVE CENTS), soon wore off the coin with increased circulation. The changes that Barber suggested to Fraser and the Treasury officials were to make the numerals in the date on the obverse wider. In addition, the legend “FIVE CENTS” was enlarged. Lastly, the bison went from standing on a mound to standing on flat ground, with a line above the legend “FIVE CENTS” – all of which were intended to keep the date and legends visible for an extended period of circulation.
Striking these coins was difficult. Fraser’s work had intricate designs in the Native American Chief’s hair, braid and feathers. Likewise, the Buffalo’s horn, cape and tail were difficult to strike. As bad as it was for the Philadelphia Mint to accomplish, the branch Mints in Denver and San Francisco had a much more difficult time. Coins struck at these branch mints in the 1920s are notoriously weakly struck.
Fraser’s design accomplished his goal of creating a coin that was uniquely American. Fraser had the Native American chief – a composite of at least 4 Native American chiefs that he sketched – facing right, with “LIBERTY” above and the date below. The reverse had the American Bison facing left, with the legends “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” above and the denomination “FIVE CENTS” below. The bison model that he used was the popular Black Diamond who lived at the Central Park Zoo.
The 1913 Type I and Type II Nickels each had around 30 million coins each struck at the Philadelphia Mint. Both 1913-D coins each had 4 to 5 million struck, while each type of S mint had 1 to 2 million minted. 1914 saw more than 20 million struck and produced an overdate 1914/3. A rarity was created when a 1916/1916 Doubled Date Obverse was minted. Additionally, there was a 1918/7-D struck.
Popularity Among Collectors
Starting with 1920 and continuing to 1926-D, all dates and mintmarks are slightly better with the exceptions being the 1921-S and 1926-S which are scarce dates, and worth considerably more than the other early 1920’s dates. The remaining dates and mintmarks from 1927 through 1938-D are all the common. Exceptions include the 1935 Double Die Reverse, the 1936-D with three and a half legs on the Buffalo, and the 1937-D. A pressman at the Denver Mint caused the 1937-D 3-Legged Buffalo error. While trying to remove marks on the reverse die, he filed the marks down completely, which removed the Buffalo’s right front leg.
Buffalo Nickel Key Dates
Key dates include 1913-S Type 2, which features a distinct line under the artwork on the reverse, and 1915-S, minted in San Francisco. One of the most famous examples of rare Buffalo Nickels is the 1918/7-D, indicated by an “8 over 7” overdate that is clearly visible. Several other series minted at the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Mint that care considered key dates include 1921-S, 1924-S, and 1926-S. Finally, the highly prized 1937-D 3-Legged version of the Nickel is both rare and amusing, as the buffalo depicted on the reverse seems to have only three legs. Produced in Denver, Colorado, the 3-Leg Buffalo Nickel is a fun addition to any coin collection. Other key dates include: