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The Untold Story of the Buffalo Nickel: An American Icon

The Buffalo Nickel, also known as the Indian Head Nickel, is one of America’s most famous and beloved coins. Minted from 1913 to 1938, this coin has a unique design that honors America’s Native American heritage and the mighty buffalo. In this article, we will explore the fascinating history of the Buffalo Nickel, its design, how it was made, and why it is so important to coin collectors and history lovers.

The Birth of the Buffalo Nickel

The Need for a New Design

By the early 1900s, many people thought American coins needed a fresh look. The Liberty Head Nickel, used since 1883, seemed old-fashioned. In 1911, President William Howard Taft decided it was time for a change. He asked sculptor James Earle Fraser to create a new design for the nickel.

Buffalo nickel - Wikipedia

During this period, there was a broader movement to improve the artistic quality of American coinage. The goal was to create coins that were not only functional but also beautiful and symbolic. This movement led to the redesign of several other coins, including the Lincoln Cent and the Mercury Dime. The Buffalo Nickel was part of this wave of artistic improvement in American coinage.

James Earle Fraser’s Vision

James Earle Fraser wanted to create a design that showed the spirit of the American West. He picked two strong symbols: a Native American and a buffalo. Fraser’s design was meant to honor Native American tribes and the wildlife that were important parts of America’s history.


Fraser grew up on the American frontier and had a deep appreciation for Native American culture and the American bison. His experiences and observations of the West influenced his artistic vision. Fraser once said, “The buffalo and the Indian were both symbols of the American West and both were passing.” He wanted to capture this fleeting heritage in his coin design.

The Design of the Buffalo Nickel

The Obverse: A Proud Native American

The front of the Buffalo Nickel shows a powerful image of a Native American. Fraser used features from three real Native American chiefs: Iron Tail of the Sioux, Two Moons of the Cheyenne, and Big Tree of the Kiowa. He combined their features into one strong and proud portrait. The word “LIBERTY” is written to the right of the profile, and the year the coin was made is at the bottom.

Buffalo or Indian Head Nickel Values and Prices

Fraser’s choice to depict a Native American was significant. At the time, there were few representations of Native Americans on U.S. coins. This design choice brought attention to the rich cultural heritage and the historical significance of Native American tribes in the United States. The detailed and respectful portrayal of the Native American chief added a sense of dignity and respect to the coin.

The Reverse: The Mighty Buffalo

The back of the coin shows an American bison, often called a buffalo. Fraser used a buffalo named Black Diamond from the Bronx Zoo as his model. The buffalo stands on a small hill, with the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “E PLURIBUS UNUM” above it. The coin’s value, “FIVE CENTS,” is written at the bottom.


The buffalo was an important symbol of the American frontier. These animals were once widespread across the Great Plains but were nearly driven to extinction by the late 19th century due to overhunting and habitat loss. Fraser’s depiction of the buffalo was not only an artistic choice but also a reminder of the nation’s natural heritage and the need for conservation.

Production Challenges and Changes

Initial Production Issues

Making the Buffalo Nickel was not easy. The high-relief design wore out the dies (tools used to stamp the coins) quickly, which made production expensive. Also, the hill under the buffalo made it hard to strike the coins evenly.


The initial design’s complexity caused several issues during the minting process. High-relief designs, while visually striking, are challenging to produce because they require more pressure to strike the coins properly. This extra pressure wore out the dies faster, leading to frequent replacements and increased production costs.

Design Modifications

In 1913, soon after the coin started being made, the design was changed to solve these problems. The hill was replaced with a straight line, making it easier to strike the coins evenly. However, the dies still wore out quickly, keeping production challenging.

Buffalo Nickel, Type 2 (1913-1938) | CoinWeek

Despite these modifications, the Buffalo Nickel remained a difficult coin to produce throughout its entire run. The design changes were necessary to maintain the coin’s quality and ensure that each piece was struck correctly. These production challenges, however, did not diminish the coin’s popularity or its significance.

Collecting Buffalo Nickels

Key Dates and Mint Marks

Buffalo Nickels were made at three different mints: Philadelphia (no mint mark), Denver (D), and San Francisco (S). Some dates and mint marks are very special and highly sought after by collectors. Key dates include the 1913-S Type 2, the 1918/7-D overdate, and the 1937-D “three-legged” buffalo variety.


Certain years and mint marks have become particularly valuable due to their rarity or unique characteristics. For example, the 1913-S Type 2 Buffalo Nickel is rare because fewer coins were produced at the San Francisco Mint that year. The 1918/7-D overdate occurred due to a minting error where the die used to strike the coin was not properly corrected, resulting in a visible “7” over the “8” in the date.

Grading and Value

The value of a Buffalo Nickel depends on its date, mint mark, and condition. Coins are graded from Good (G) to Mint State (MS), with higher grades meaning better preservation. Factors like how well the coin was struck, its shine, and any wear or damage also affect its value.


Grading Buffalo Nickels involves assessing the coin’s overall condition, including the sharpness of the design, the presence of any wear or damage, and the coin’s luster. Professional coin grading services use a standardized scale to grade coins, making it easier for collectors to determine a coin’s value and authenticity.

The Buffalo Nickel, Another Iconic American Coin - Grand Rapids Coins

Popularity Among Collectors

The Buffalo Nickel is a favorite among coin collectors because of its unique and beautiful design. Its historical importance and the challenge of collecting all the different dates and mint marks make it very appealing. Even new collectors love the Buffalo Nickel for its artistic and historical value.


The Buffalo Nickel’s popularity has endured for decades, making it one of the most collected and celebrated American coins. Its appeal lies in its distinctive design, historical significance, and the intriguing stories behind some of its rare varieties. Collectors often enjoy the challenge of finding well-preserved specimens and completing their collections.

The Legacy of the Buffalo Nickel

Cultural Impact

The Buffalo Nickel has made a big impact on American culture. Its design is well-known, even to people who don’t collect coins. The coin represents a time in American history when the frontier spirit and the nation’s natural heritage were celebrated.


The Buffalo Nickel is more than just a piece of currency; it is a symbol of America’s cultural heritage. Its design captures the essence of the American West and serves as a reminder of the nation’s past. The coin’s popularity has also influenced the design of other coins and commemorative issues, further cementing its place in American culture.

Influence on Modern Coin Design

The success and popularity of the Buffalo Nickel have influenced modern coin design. In 2001, the United States Mint released the American Buffalo Gold Bullion Coin, which features a design similar to the Buffalo Nickel. This coin was created to honor the original design and appeal to both collectors and investors.


The Buffalo Nickel’s design has inspired various commemorative coins and modern issues. Its enduring popularity demonstrates the power of well-crafted and meaningful coin designs. The American Buffalo Gold Bullion Coin, for example, was created to appeal to both collectors and investors, showcasing the timeless appeal of Fraser’s original design.


The Buffalo Nickel is more than just a coin; it is a piece of American history. From its creation and production challenges to its lasting popularity among collectors, the Buffalo Nickel symbolizes the American spirit. Its design, which captures the essence of Native American culture and the majestic buffalo, continues to inspire and fascinate people worldwide. Whether you are a coin collector or a history enthusiast, the Buffalo Nickel holds a special place in America’s story.


The Buffalo Nickel’s story is a testament to the importance of preserving and honoring cultural heritage through art and design. Its journey from concept to coin, the challenges it faced during production, and its lasting impact on American culture make it a true icon. As collectors continue to seek out and treasure these coins, the legacy of the Buffalo Nickel lives on, reminding us of a unique chapter in America’s history.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. Why is it called the Buffalo Nickel?

It is called the Buffalo Nickel because of the buffalo depicted on its reverse side. The term “nickel” refers to the five-cent value of the coin.


2. Who designed the Buffalo Nickel?

The Buffalo Nickel was designed by sculptor James Earle Fraser.

3. When was the Buffalo Nickel minted?

The Buffalo Nickel was minted from 1913 to 1938.


4. What is the most valuable Buffalo Nickel?

One of the most valuable Buffalo Nickels is the 1913-S Type 2, which can be worth thousands of dollars depending on its condition.

5. How can I tell if my Buffalo Nickel is valuable?

The value of a Buffalo Nickel depends on its date, mint mark, and condition. Key dates and mint marks, like the 1913-S Type 2 and the 1937-D “three-legged” variety, are particularly valuable. Grading the coin’s condition is also important in determining its worth.


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