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Buffalo Nickels: Rare Finds and Hidden Treasures

The Buffalo Nickel, also known as the Indian Head Nickel, is one of America’s most iconic and cherished coins. Minted from 1913 to 1938, this coin features a stunning design that honors America’s Native American heritage and the majestic buffalo. In this article, we’ll delve into the rich history of the Buffalo Nickel, explore its design and production, and uncover why it remains a rare find and hidden treasure among coin collectors and history enthusiasts alike.

The Birth of the Buffalo Nickel

The Need for a New Design

By the early 20th century, there was a strong desire to update the designs of American coins. The Liberty Head Nickel, which had been in use since 1883, was considered outdated. In 1911, President William Howard Taft authorized a redesign of the nickel, assigning the task to sculptor James Earle Fraser, a former student of the renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.


During this period, there was a broader movement to enhance the artistic quality of American coinage. The goal was to create coins that were not only functional but also visually appealing 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.

Buffalo Nickels

James Earle Fraser’s Vision

James Earle Fraser aimed to create a design that captured the essence of the American West. He chose two powerful symbols: a Native American and a buffalo. Fraser’s design was intended to be a tribute to the Native American tribes and the wildlife that were integral to America’s frontier 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 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.


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 reverse (back) of the coin showcases an American bison, commonly referred to as 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 Nickels

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

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.


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, 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.


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 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 of the 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 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.


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.

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 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.

Buffalo Nickels

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.

Buffalo Nickel

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 commemorate the original design and to 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 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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