The Buffalo Nickel has captivated the imagination of the American public for almost a century. Its design, with a Native American on the obverse and a “Buffalo” on the reverse, seems to echo the spirit of the American West. The designer, James Earle Fraser, managed to create a design which perhaps did not represent American Liberty, like most other coins of the time, but it did portray two elements of the United States that everyone knew and recognized. No wonder then, that many Americans still remember fondly the time that these nickels circulated in American commerce, a time when a nickel still bought you something.
The design itself, however familiar it might be, needs some explaining to fully understand where it came from. Liberty Nickels, predecessor to the Buffalo Nickel, had been in circulation since 1883 and had passed the required 25 years before they could be replaced. Thus, in 1909 the United States Mint created a number of patterns meant to replace the Liberty Nickel, all of which featured a bust of George Washington. This didn’t make it further than a few test designs, and it would take until 1911 until a new design was created for the five-cent denomination, which would not be produced until 1913.
Contrary to what most people think, the reverse does not display a Buffalo. Even though many people think that buffaloes once roamed the American West in huge numbers, providing Native Americans vital supplies for their life, they were not buffaloes at all. The buffalo is actually native to Africa (African Buffalo) and Asia (Water Buffalo, plus a number of extinct species) and has never been found in North America. What is generally referred to as the American Buffalo is in fact the American Bison, or known by its Latin name Bison bison. It is related to Bison bonasus, the European Bison or Wisent, but the American Bison is a different species. What is referred to as the Buffalo Nickel, should correctly be named Bison Nickel.
The American Bison that is seen on the Buffalo Nickel has some folklore related to it. It appears that Fraser’s comments later in his life about which animal he based his design on are inaccurate. The most likely candidate is an American Bison named Black Diamond, which resided in New York at the time the design was created. This however, is disputed by some, including Q. David Bowers in his Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels. Bowers says that the animals head has “its horns set much higher”, and seems an unlikely source. Another animal is called Pablo, which was supposed to have been the animal featured on the 1901 $10 note, even though some sources say that this is Black Diamond as well.
The obverse of the Buffalo Nickel is just as confusing. In his book, Bowers gives a full summary of the events related to the design, and is a worthwhile read if you are interested. Fraser seems to have indicated that the Native American was a composite image of several persons, creating what he called a “type”, not an actual person. Comments in the 1930’s by Fraser named the Native Americans as Iron Tail, Big Tree, and Two Moons, who supposedly had visited him in New York while working on the design. Several other Native Americans tried to make a profit out of claims that they sat for Fraser, adding to the confusion. Simply stated, we do not know who the Native Americans are on the Buffalo Nickel, nor do we know which animal is portrayed. What we do know, is that they add to the mystery of the American West. Fraser’s comments did not help much, except to add to the confusion. The three people he named, however, seem to be the most likely clue.
The Buffalo Nickel design included elements required by law, such as the word LIBERTY in front of the Native American on the obverse, and E PLURIBUS UNUM on the reverse. The denomination is spelled out as FIVE CENTS, in capital letters, with the mintmark below it on Denver and San Francisco struck coins. Several patterns are known dated to 1913 which indicates that the Mint experimented somewhat with the design and the size of the obverse and reverse design. Additional change came in 1913, when the reverse design was slightly altered to solve problems that had resulted in fewer strikes per die pair than expected. The result would last until the late 1930s, leaving the American public with memories of a nickel not soon forgotten.