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Buffalo Nickels: More Than Just 5 Cents

The Buffalo Nickel, also known as the Indian Head Nickel, holds a special place in American numismatic history. Minted from 1913 to 1938, this iconic coin symbolizes the spirit of the American West and honors the heritage of Native Americans and the majestic buffalo. In this article, we will explore the rich history, intricate design, collecting allure, and lasting legacy of the Buffalo Nickel.

The Birth of the Buffalo Nickel

The Need for a New Design

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States sought to modernize its coinage. The Liberty Head Nickel, in circulation since 1883, was seen as outdated. In response, President William Howard Taft authorized a redesign, tasking sculptor James Earle Fraser with creating a new nickel design that captured the essence of America’s frontier spirit.

Buffalo Nickels

James Earle Fraser’s Vision

Fraser, deeply influenced by his upbringing on the American frontier and his admiration for Native American culture, envisioned a coin that would pay homage to both Native Americans and the bison. His design aimed to reflect the strength, beauty, and resilience of these iconic symbols of the American West.

The Design of the Buffalo Nickel

The Obverse: A Tribute to Native American Heritage

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


The Reverse: The Mighty Bison

On the reverse (back) side, the Buffalo Nickel showcases an American bison standing atop a mound. This design, inspired by Black Diamond, a buffalo housed at the Bronx Zoo, symbolizes the rugged beauty of the American wilderness. The inscriptions “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,” “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” and “FIVE CENTS” adorn the coin’s periphery.

Production Challenges and Changes

Buffalo Nickels

Initial Hurdles in Production

The Buffalo Nickel faced several challenges during its early years. Its intricate design, with high-relief features and the mound on the reverse, led to rapid die wear and production difficulties. These issues necessitated frequent die replacements and adjustments to ensure consistent quality.


Design Modifications

To address these challenges, modifications were made to the coin’s design in 1913. The original mound on the reverse was replaced with a straight line beneath the buffalo, easing striking and extending die longevity. Despite these adjustments, the Buffalo Nickel remained demanding to produce throughout its circulation.

Collecting Buffalo Nickels

Key Dates and Rarity

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


Grading and Valuation

The value of a Buffalo Nickel hinges on factors like date, mint mark, and condition. Coins are graded on a scale from Good (G) to Mint State (MS), with higher grades indicating superior preservation. Features like strike quality, luster, and any signs of wear or damage further influence a coin’s worth.

Enduring Popularity

The Buffalo Nickel’s enduring popularity among collectors is attributed to its distinctive design, historical significance, and challenging nature of completing collections encompassing all dates and mint marks. Novice and seasoned collectors alike are drawn to the coin’s artistic allure and cultural resonance.


The Legacy of the Buffalo Nickel

Buffalo Nickels

Cultural Significance

The Buffalo Nickel remains a poignant symbol of America’s frontier heritage and the nation’s natural splendor. Its design encapsulates a pivotal era in American history, celebrating the spirit of exploration, resilience, and the indigenous peoples who shaped the landscape.

Influence on Coinage

The impact of the Buffalo Nickel extends beyond its era. The design’s enduring appeal influenced subsequent coin designs, notably inspiring the American Buffalo Gold Bullion Coin introduced by the United States Mint in 2001. This modern rendition pays homage to Fraser’s original vision, catering to collectors and investors alike.



The Buffalo Nickel transcends its monetary value, embodying a legacy of artistic excellence, cultural homage, and historical significance. From its tumultuous production history to its cherished status among numismatists, the Buffalo Nickel stands as a testament to America’s diverse heritage and enduring spirit.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. Why is it called the Buffalo Nickel? The Buffalo Nickel derives its name from the iconic American bison depicted on its reverse side. The term “nickel” refers to its five-cent denomination.
  2. Who designed the Buffalo Nickel? Sculptor James Earle Fraser designed the Buffalo Nickel, drawing inspiration from Native American culture and the American West.
  3. When was the Buffalo Nickel minted? The Buffalo Nickel was minted from 1913 to 1938.
  4. What is the most valuable Buffalo Nickel? Among the most valuable Buffalo Nickels are rarities like the 1913-S Type 2 and the 1937-D “three-legged” buffalo variety, prized for their scarcity and condition.
  5. How can I determine if my Buffalo Nickel is valuable? Assess its date, mint mark, and condition. Certain key dates and mint mark combinations fetch higher prices, while coins in better preservation grades command greater value.
  6. What is the significance of the buffalo on the coin? The buffalo symbolizes the rugged beauty of the American West and its wildlife, paying homage to a bygone era of frontier exploration and Native American culture.
  7. What are some tips for identifying a Buffalo Nickel’s mint mark? The mint mark on Buffalo Nickels is located on the reverse (back) of the coin, below the denomination “FIVE CENTS.” Look for a small letter: “D” for Denver, “S” for San Francisco, or absence of a mint mark indicating Philadelphia mint.
  8. Why are some Buffalo Nickels worn down or missing details? Many Buffalo Nickels circulated widely during their time in use, causing wear and tear. This wear, along with the coin’s design, can result in details like the date or buffalo’s horn being worn away over time.
  9. What is the significance of the 1937-D “three-legged” Buffalo Nickel? The 1937-D Buffalo Nickel gained fame due to a minting error where excessive polishing caused the buffalo’s front leg to be partially or completely missing. This variety is highly sought after by collectors for its rarity and distinct appearance.
  10. Can I find Buffalo Nickels in circulation today? While rare, it is possible to find Buffalo Nickels in circulation, particularly those minted in the early 20th century. However, due to their age and collector value, they are less commonly encountered in everyday transactions.
  11. What should I do if I suspect I have a valuable Buffalo Nickel? If you believe you have a valuable Buffalo Nickel, it is advisable to have it authenticated and graded by a reputable coin dealer or professional grading service. They can assess its condition, rarity, and market value accurately.


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