The buffalo nickel AKA the Indian Head Nickel was minted from 1913 through 1938 and was designed by James Earle Fraser. On the reverse side of the coin, it is actually a bison pictured instead of a buffalo.
Early in 1911, then Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh’s son wrote to him suggesting that there should be a new design on the five-cent piece. His son had read the law which stipulated a coin design could not be changed more often than every 25 years.
The 25 year “waiting” period for the Liberty nickel had passed back in February of 1908. MacVeagh had assumed office under President William Howard Taft in March 1909, and missed all of the excitement when President Theodore Roosevelt managed to get several top artists to redesign the cent and gold coins.
Fraser’s artistic ability earned the undying respect of a dying Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who recommended Fraser to President Theodore Roosevelt to sculpture the official presidential bust. Roosevelt and Fraser quickly became friends. Despite the fact that William Howard Taft was president in 1912, Roosevelt recommended that Fraser be chosen to design the copper-nickel 5-cent coin.
It is rather interesting that the Philadelphia Mint was kept in the dark during the initial design discussions. It is widely speculated that this was done because of previous issues with Charles E. Barber over the double eagle design by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1908.
Barber was still the chief engraver and believed that he should have all authority of engraving and coin design and since he designed the nickel that was still in production, he probably was not in any big hurry to change the design.
The obverse design for the Indian Head 5-cent coin, commonly known as the “Buffalo Nickel,” depicts a large powerful portrait of an Indian, facing right. The appearance is rough looking, unlike the smooth cheeks and other facial features that typified the many versions of Lady Liberty that have been on U.S. Coins. The portrait is believed to be a composite of three different Indian Chiefs, although their identities have been disputed.
A few Native Americans have laid claim to being the model for the Buffalo Nickel. The artist himself identified two of the Indian Chiefs as Chief Iron Tail, a Sioux and Chief Two Moons, a Cheyenne. Unfortunately, Fraser had trouble remembering the name of his Indian Chief models.
Fraser had been asked the question so many times, that it was evident he was growing tired of the whole issue rather than set the record straight. In an undated letter to Mint Director George E. Evans believed to be from 1913, the letter suggests that Fraser considered the Indian design represented a type, rather than a direct portrait. In the letter, he stated that he could recall Two Moons and Iron Tail as having served as his inspiration and possibly “one or two others.”
The one Indian originally believed to be the third model was Chief Two Guns White Calf, a Blackfoot. His claim lost a great deal of validity when in 1931, Fraser denied having used him as a model. In a letter dated June 10, 1931, from Fraser to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs of the U.S. Department of Interior, and later released to the press on July 12, 1931, Fraser is quoted as saying:
“The Indian head on the Buffalo Nickel is not a direct portrait of any particular Indian, but was made from several different portrait busts. As a matter of fact, I used three different Indian heads; I remember two of the men. One was Irontail, the best Indian head I can remember; the other one was Two Moons, and the third I cannot recall. I have never seen Two Guns Whitecalf nor used him in any way, although he has a magnificent head. I can easily understand how he was mistaken in thinking that he posed for me. A great many artists have modeled and drawn him, and it was only natural for him to believe that one of them was the designer of the nickel. I am particularly interested in Indian affairs, having as a boy lived in south Dakota before the Indians were so carefully guarded in their agencies. Later the Crow Creek agency was formed at Chamberlain, but I always feel that I have seen the Indian in this natural habitat, with the finest costumes worn. I hope their affairs are progressing favorably.”
Through the years, the search for the third model has continued although many still believe that Two Guns was the third model used. Another Indian, Chief John Big Tree claimed he was the third model. However, there are many inconsistencies in his clam as well. Chief John big Tree was an actor.
While the true identity of the third model may never be known, we do know a bit more about the model used for the reverse. The American bison serves as the reverse of the coin. Yes, it is a bison on the nickel, not a buffalo. Technically speaking, buffaloes are found mainly in India and Africa, not in the U.S.
When the first settlers came to America and first encountered the American Bison—they did not know what they were. The only animals they could relate them to were the Asian Water Buffalo. Naturally, they started calling them buffalo for lack of a correct name, and over the years the name has stuck.
As such, the American Buffalo is not a true buffalo. Its closest relative is the European Bison or Wisent and the Canadian Woods Bison, not the buffalo of Asia or Africa, such as the Cape Buffalo or Water Buffalo. Scientifically, the American Buffalo is named Bison and belongs to the Bovidae family of mammals, as do domestic cattle.
Because our history has so ingrained us to the name “Buffalo,” we continue to use it. As such “Bison” and “Buffalo” are used interchangeably. Our American Bison and the Water Buffalos are not even related. The term “Buffalo” will be used when referring to the reverse of the coin.