While the official name is the Five Cent Indian head, this coin has come to be known in the hobby as a “Buffalo Nickel.” Peculiarly, the sturdy animal featured on the coin is not an actual buffalo — it is an American bison!
One may understandably have a hard time distinguishing between the animals. Early American settlers called bison “bufello” due to the similar appearance between the two animals, and the name “buffalo” stuck for the American mammal. Bison is a Greek word meaning ox-like animal while the term buffalo came from French fur trappers as “boeufs” (meaning ox or bullock) — both have a similar meaning. Like buffalo, bison belong to the Bovidae family. The American bison is the national mammal of the United States.
True buffalos do not inhabit North America. The American bison lives only in North America, while the two main buffalo species, African cape buffalo and Asian water buffalo, reside in Africa and Asia. Asian water buffalo were domesticated around 4,000 years ago. They are used for tilling rice fields and milk production. African cape buffalo have never been domesticated and are highly dangerous to humans.
With the true identity of the animal on the reverse of this popular U.S. coin revealed, another layer of curiosity and rich history of our U.S. coinage has been explored.
Press release courtesy of The Stamp and Coin Place Blog.