The U.S. Mint was founded in 1792 and has been producing coins for our nation ever since. Today, there are dozens of varieties that are popular with collectors – but none of them hold a flame to the buffalo nickel. This unique piece of American history is coveted by numismatists everywhere, as much for its unique design as for its historical significance.

A brief history of the nickel

The first U.S. coins made out of nickel were actually one-cent pieces. In 1865, Congress authorized the federal government to make a three-cent coin out of similar composition. And although there had been a five-cent piece in circulation for some time (called the half-disme), it was made out of silver.

It wasn’t until 1866 that the nickel as we know it today came into existence. The tiny half-disme was difficult to keep track of and easy to misplace. Industrialist Joseph Wharton began to petition Congress for a larger, heftier, coin made out of nickel (Incidentally, he owned the country’s largest nickel mine at the time and held a near monopoly on the industry). In 1866 his wishes were granted.

Congress not only approved the new nickel-based five-cent piece but increased it’s weight so it would be much larger. The first nickel ever minted bore the image of a Union shield surrounded by laurel wreaths on the front and a large numeral “5” surrounded by 13 stars and bands of rays on the back. The American Journal of Numismatics referred to it as “the ugliest of all known coins.”

Replacing the nickel design

By the early 20th century, the nickel had only gone through the redesign process two times: First was the shield nickel (1866-1883) and later the liberty nickel (1883-1913). The buffalo nickel, sometimes referred to as the “Indian head nickel”, was then produced from 1913 – 1938.

During this time, President Woodrow Wilson thought there was a distinct lack of artistry in U.S. coinage and wanted something new. Due to the laws at the time, however, only two coins were eligible for a redesign: The five-cent piece and the silver dollar.

James Earle Fraser, a student of famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was tasked with creating a coin that celebrated the American West. Although the buffalo nickel wasn’t his first design – he had suggested several others first, including one featuring President Lincoln – it was the only one everyone could agree upon. Treasury Secretary Frank MacVeagh chose the now-iconic Indian Head artwork for the obverse (front) and the American Bison for the reverse.

Why the buffalo?

James Earle Fraser grew up in the prairies of Minnesota and witnessed first-hand the treatment and suffering of the Native American peoples as well as the bison. When referring to the use of the buffalo design, Fraser was quoted as saying “my first objective was to produce a coin which was truly American, and that could not be confused with the currency of any other country. I made sure, therefore, to use none of the attributes that other nations had used in the past. And, in my search for symbols, I found no motif within the boundaries of the United States so distinctive as the American buffalo.”

According to Andy Dickes, collections manager at the Money Museum, a bison named Black Diamond served as a model for Fraser’s design. The man depicted on the obverse, however, is subject to much debate. While some experts claim that the Native American is either a Sioux named Iron Tail or a Cheyenne named Two Moons, others claim that the model was a Kiowa named Big Tree – and some say the design is an amalgamation of all three.

Legacy

The buffalo nickel ultimately had a rather short lifespan. It was retired after just 25 years after many people complained about how quickly the design wore down. Still, it remains highly popular amongst collectors today. Locating a buffalo nickel in pristine condition can be nearly impossible, but worth it. An uncirculated buffalo nickel has a minimum value of $17 – $22, but an old nickel in well-preserved condition can sell for $1,000 or more.