History of the Buffalo Nickel

Superior Galleries

While you would be hard pressed to find a Buffalo nickel in your pocket change nowadays, there is a history to this nickel. The Buffalo nickel took the United States from pre-World War I, through the Great Depression and to the beginning of World War II. Any coins found from circulation are rare, and because of design flaws, most are hard to date without out destroying the integrity of the coin.


Before the Buffalo nickel there was Charles Barber's Liberty Head nickel, which had been in production since 1883. This coin had not been well received, but under the Coinage Act of 1890, a coin's design could not be changed until after it had been in circulation for at least 25 years, meaning the lackluster Liberty Head had to be used until 1909. In a May 1911 letter from his son to then Secretary of the Treasury, Franklin MacVeagh, it was advised that a new nickel could become "a permanent souvenir of the most attractive sort." MacVeagh didn't want to pass up the chance to change the coin. However, MacVeagh completely bypassed Barber, and started looking for a new design and designer. James Earle Fraser was chosen and work began. On March 4, 1913, coins from the first bag to be released into circulation were given to President William Howard Taft and a group of 33 Indian chiefs during the groundbreaking for the National Memorial to the North American Indian located in Fort Wadsworth, New York.


Designed by artist James Earle Fraser, the Buffalo nickel features an Indian head profile on the obverse, or front, and the image of a buffalo on the reverse, or back of the coin. Instead of drawing from memory, Fraser used an assemblage of three chiefs, Iron Tail, Two Moons and Chief John Big Tree, who had previously posed for him. Similarly, the bison, Black Diamond, from Central Park Zoo was the model for the reverse. At the time, the words "In God We Trust" were not a requirement of nickels or pennies, and therefore are not seen on the buffalo nickel. By the time the 1938 Jefferson nickel was released, however, all coins were by then required to bear the inscription. The nickels were minted out of Philadelphia (no mark), San Francisco (S), and Denver (D), with the mint mark shown below the denomination "five cents" on the back. Fraser set his initial, "F," just under the date on the face of the coin.

Time Frame

The minting of the Buffalo nickel was performed between 1913 through 1938. During its production 1.2 billion nickels were minted. Because of World War I there was a decrease in demand for coins, only 1.6 million of the rare 1921-S Buffalo nickels were produced, and no nickels were made at all in 1922. With the onset of the Great Depression, during the years of 1931 to 1933, a mere 1.2 million nickels were struck in San Francisco. After the Denver only production of the 1938 Buffalo nickels, its run was over, and in as few as 30 years later it was already hard to find any Buffalo nickels in circulation.


A few months after the early release of the Buffalo nickel, it became apparent that the denomination lettering would wear down too quickly in circulation. Barber was quick to make crude adjustments to the coin to "resolve" the issue and make other changes while he was at it. The image of the buffalo on a mound, standing for strength, was altered when Barber simply drew a line through the mound and crudely set the words "five cents" below the line, all but erasing the mound completely. The rare original coin of the buffalo on raised ground is now considered Type 1 with the adjusted, lined version being named Type 2. For all of his work, however, Barber did nothing to address the wear issue of the date on the front. Chemicals can be used to reveal the date, but ruin the value of the coin. Another interesting rare form of the coin was the result of an accident. When one of the reverse dies had become damaged, a workman attempting to fix the problem accidentally ground the die too far. These 1937-D Buffalo nickels are missing one of the front legs and the "three-legged buffalo" nickels are hard to come across.

Points of Interest

Although it is commonly known as the Buffalo nickel, the coin is actually named the Indian Head nickel but this name is rarely used by coin collectors. A second interesting misconception about the coin is that the beast on the back of the coin is not a buffalo at all, but a North American bison. It is believed that early European explorers found these new creatures to look similar to the buffalos of Africa and Asia and named them as such. Even though the two, buffalo and bison, are not the same, the terms are often used interchangeably as seen with the name Buffalo nickel even though the image on the coin is that of a bison.