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From Plains to Pockets: The Journey of the Buffalo Nickel

The Buffalo Nickel, also known as the Indian Head Nickel, is one of America’s most iconic coins. Minted from 1913 to 1938, it showcases the rich cultural heritage of Native Americans and the majestic buffalo. This article explores the Buffalo Nickel’s history, design, production, and its significance to collectors and the public.

The Birth of the Buffalo Nickel

The Need for a New Design

In the early 20th century, American coins were due for a redesign. The Liberty Head Nickel had been in circulation since 1883 and was considered outdated. President William Howard Taft authorized a redesign in 1911, and the task was given to sculptor James Earle Fraser, a former student of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a famous sculptor.

Buffalo Nickel

James Earle Fraser’s Vision

James Earle Fraser aimed to create a design that captured the American West’s spirit. He chose two iconic symbols: a Native American and a buffalo. Fraser’s design honored the Native American tribes and the wildlife integral to America’s frontier history. Growing up on the American frontier, Fraser had a deep appreciation for Native American culture and the American bison.

The Design of the Buffalo Nickel

The Obverse: A Proud Native American

The obverse (front) of the Buffalo Nickel features a composite portrait of three Native American chiefs: Iron Tail of the Sioux, Two Moons of the Cheyenne, and Big Tree of the Kiowa. Fraser combined their features to create a powerful and dignified representation of a Native American. The word “LIBERTY” is inscribed to the right of the profile, and the year of minting is located at the bottom.


The Reverse: The Mighty Buffalo

The reverse (back) of the coin showcases an American bison, often called a buffalo. Fraser modeled the buffalo after Black Diamond, a famous buffalo at the Bronx Zoo. The animal is depicted standing on a mound, with the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “E PLURIBUS UNUM” inscribed above it. The denomination “FIVE CENTS” is found at the bottom of the coin.

Buffalo Nickel

Production Challenges and Changes

Initial Production Issues

The Buffalo Nickel faced several production challenges from the outset. The high-relief design caused the dies (tools used to stamp the coins) to wear out quickly, leading to frequent die replacements and increased production costs. Additionally, the mound on which the buffalo stood on the reverse side caused issues with striking the coins evenly.


Design Modifications

In 1913, shortly after production began, the design was modified to address these issues. The mound was replaced with a straight line to facilitate more consistent striking. Despite these changes, the Buffalo Nickel remained difficult to produce, and the dies continued to wear out quickly.

Collecting Buffalo Nickels

Key Dates and Mint Marks

Buffalo Nickels were minted at three different locations: Philadelphia (no mint mark), Denver (D), and San Francisco (S). Certain dates and mint mark combinations are particularly sought after by collectors. Some key dates include the 1913-S Type 2, the 1918/7-D overdate, and the 1937-D “three-legged” buffalo variety.


Grading and Value

The value of a Buffalo Nickel depends on its date, mint mark, and condition. Coins are graded on a scale from Good (G) to Mint State (MS), with higher grades indicating better preservation. Factors such as strike quality, luster, and the presence of any wear or damage also influence a coin’s value.

Buffalo Nickel

Popularity Among Collectors

The Buffalo Nickel has long been a favorite among coin collectors due to its unique and iconic design. Its historical significance and the challenge of completing a collection with all dates and mint marks add to its appeal. Even novice collectors are drawn to the Buffalo Nickel for its artistic beauty and historical value.


The Legacy of the Buffalo Nickel

Cultural Impact

The Buffalo Nickel has left a lasting mark on American culture. Its design is instantly recognizable, even to those who are not coin enthusiasts. The coin represents a time in American history when the frontier spirit and the nation’s natural heritage were celebrated.

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 commemorate the original design and to appeal to both collectors and investors.



The Buffalo Nickel stands as a testament to America’s rich history and cultural heritage. From its inception and production challenges to its enduring popularity among collectors, the Buffalo Nickel is more than just a coin; it is a symbol of the American spirit. Its design, capturing the essence of Native American culture and the majestic buffalo, continues to inspire and fascinate people around the world.

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.

6. What is the “three-legged” Buffalo Nickel?

The “three-legged” Buffalo Nickel is a variety of the 1937-D coin, where a minting error resulted in the buffalo appearing to have only three legs. This error makes it a rare and sought-after coin among collectors.


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