James Earle Fraser: creator of the Buffalo Nickel

Growing up in South Dakota, the young James Earle Fraser saw many buffalo roaming the Great Plains. Thus it was only fitting that as a grown man he came to create the first American coin to include a bison in its design.

New design wanted to replace Liberty ‘V’ Nickel

Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh, who was a Teddy Roosevelt appointee, began the process for a new nickel design in 1911. He was spurred on by his son, who told him that a new nickel would be “a permanent souvenir of the most attractive sort.” MacVeagh passed over chief engraver Charles Barber to seek a fresh approach to the new nickel. Barber’s own design of the ‘V’ nickel had been in circulation since 1883 and it was time for a change. The Treasury Secretary selected Fraser’s work, which had an old West theme and a unique design. The obverse features a profile of on American Indian–a realistic presentation at that– and the nearly extinct buffalo on the reverse.

Indian chiefs pose for Fraser

How did Fraser design a realistic Indian? Three Indian chiefs posed for him, including Two Moons, who was the Cheyenne chief who fought against Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He created a composite of the three chiefs.

Fraser’s Buffalo nickel was among several new coin designs inspired by former President Roosevelt’s desire for a radical departure from the tried and true. Charles Barber’s quartet of circulating coins — the ‘V’ nickel, and Liberty dime, quarter, and half dollar — were functional, traditional and seemingly uninspired.

Conversation between Pres. Roosevelt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens to change coinage

A conversation between President Roosevelt and sculpture Augustus Saint-Gauderis in 1905 resulted in what has become a renaissance of American coinage. A former assistant to Saint-Gaudens, Fraser was a prolific artist whose “End of the Trail” Indian sculpture was his best known work. The bison who modeled for Fraser was not from his native South Dakota, but one named Black Diamond. Topping the scales at over 1,500 pounds in his prime, he was the “contrariest” – according to Fraser – animal in a New York City zoo.

The new coin helped raise awareness of the buffalo’s plight – the magnificent creature was on the brink of extinction – but that was not the designer’s intent. To Fraser the bison was a symbol of the ‘winning of the West’ and gave the coin a ‘perfect unity of theme’ with the Indian chief on its obverse.

Fraser’s artistic effort has a fundamental vocabulary of detail that cannot easily be worn away. The coin is rugged. The details are broadly and deeply cut. Even in grades below fine, both the Indian and the buffalo are aggressive and alive….The heavy metal of the hair protects the image of the front of the face. Therefore, no matter how worn a Buffalo nickel is, the native always has some expression.

Charles Barber complains about new design

There were a few complaints about Fraser’s design. Chief engraver Barber saw no beauty or drama in the new coin. He complained that the design elements were too large and did not allow enough space for the inscriptions. The vending machine industry also registered its complaints. The new coins wouldn’t pass counterfeit detection devices properly, they claimed.

MacVeagh weighed the objections and ignored them flat out. The vending machine companies had to adapt their devices to the new nickel while Charles Barber was left to stew. The Mint was ordered to proceed with Fraser’s original design. On March 4, 1913, coins were presented to President Taft and 33 Indian chiefs from the first bag of nickels to go into circulation. This presentation took place at groundbreaking ceremonies in Fort Wadsworth, New York, at the National Memorial to the North American Indian.

Charles Barber “adjusts” new design

Barber eventually had his opportunity to “adjust” Fraser’s design. The Type I nickel had the denomination FIVE CENTS on a raised mound. Rapid wear in this area was evident only after a very short time. Barber cut away the mound and stood the buffalo on a straight line; he then placed the denomination in the recessed area under the line. He didn’t stop there.

He smoothed out details in the Indian’s profile and the buffalo’s hide. Barber made further “adjustments” to the coin in 1916, and some specialists consider this a third type. Most collectors, however, consider only Type I and II coins as the only varieties. Despite his several “improvements,” however, Barber never solved the mystery of the disappearing dates.

Two famous rarities in Buffalo nickel series

Two famous rarities in the series are the 1918/7-D overdate and the 1937-D 3-legged Buffalo. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this coin; the leg was “removed” by over zealous die-polishing to remove clash marks. Other rarities in high grades are the S-mint coins from 1913 through 1928. Fraser’s beautiful coin saw its end in 1938 after 25 years in circulation. It was replaced by Thomas Jefferson’s image, which has now been on the nickel for 73 monotonous years.

Sad ending for Black Diamond

The Buffalo nickel, however, had a more graceful ending than Black Diamond, the noble beast that modeled for Fraser. A few years after the coin’s debut, poor Black Diamond was sold to a meat-packing plant. There were attempts to purchase him in order to save his life. The offers were rejected and shortly thereafter “Black Diamond” steaks were being sold. Thus for a short time collectors could have their buffalo (nickel) and eat it, too.