America’s Buffalo Nickel Coins

James Earle Fraser was a student of the famed sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens. In time, he became famous in his own right with many sculptures and works well known around the world. His most familiar work would appear on the five cent coin, known as the Buffalo Nickel or Indian Head Nickel, depending on the source.

A wonderful perspective and a iconic portrayal of history, both the obverse and reverse are often cited as uniquely American.

The portrait on the front of the nickel was long believed to be a composite, although that has not stopped various Native American tribes claiming to be the model for the front of the Buffalo nickels. However, Fraser eventually named the Indians who inspired the coin design, once it had reached the end of its production run. He named three Native Americans, a Sioux named Irontail, a Cheyenne named Two Moons and a Kiowa Indian by the name of Big Tree.

The bison is a symbol of the great expansion westwards, and it is this animal, not a buffalo, that can be seen on the coin. A bison named Black Diamond that once belonged to the zoon in New York’s Central Park, was believed to be the model for the animal depicted on the coin, although an animal at the Bronx Zoo named Bronx is also said to be the animal on the coin. If you attend coin shows around the country, you may see the stuffed head of Black Diamond; the animal was slaughtered in 1915.

Coins in the US can only be redesigned after they have been in circulation for at least 25 years. In 1938, the last Buffalo nickels were minted, with a design showing Thomas Jefferson and Monticello.

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