In 1913, the Indian Head nickel was introduced into the flow of United States currency. Also known as the Buffalo Nickel, the five-cent piece was a key ingredient in the early 20th Century’s overhaul of American coinage.
Early Incarnation & The Coin’s Mysterious Man
The then-newly-designed nickel featured obverse and reverse images by noted American sculptor James Earle Fraser. The former depicts a proud Native American countenance, while the latter features an American bison, both emblematic of the American West from the 1870s-1880s.
Legend has it that a trio of individuals sat for Fraser, and the iconic profile is a composite of the three. Two were confirmed to be Chief Iron Tail and Chief Two Moons, Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne respectively, while the identity of the third subject has been lost to history.
Fraser’s talents were obvious at the time he was selected as the Indian Head nickel’s designer, as he had been as assistant for renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, himself an artistic master behind notable coinage. Saint-Gaudens is credited with designing both the $10 and $20 eagle and double eagle coins from 1907.
Subtle Differences in Design
The popularity of the Indian Head nickel is unquestioned … during the coin’s 25-year minting, more than 1.2 billion Indian Heads were struck. Knowledgeable coin collectors will note that two subtle nuances were to be found on first year 1913-minted coins: the bison standing on a mound base, or a thinner straight-line base. Replaced by the Jefferson nickel in 1938, the Indian Head saw new life six decades later in 2001, when the United States Mint revisited Fraser’s design, and the American Buffalo Commemorative Coin was released.
The Road to Production Paved in Gold
The understated magnificence of Fraser’s masterpiece was renewed once again in December 2005, as production of the 24-karat American Buffalo Gold Coin was authorized by Public Law 109-145, also known as the Presidential $1 Coin Act.
The American Buffalo gold coin is legal tender and has a face value of $50, although it currently sells for around $1,500 — give or take a few hundred.
These American Buffalo Gold Coins are the first .9999 24-karat gold coins ever struck by the United States Mint, and are sought out by precious metals collectors and numismatists with equal vigor. As the American Buffalo Gold Coins are legal tender, each is guaranteed by the U.S. Government as to metallic content and purity, and can be purchased directly through the United States Mint.
In reviewing James Earle Fraser’s resume of sculpted work, it’s not surprising to see why he was chosen to redesign an integral part of American coinage at the turn of the century. One can’t help but be awed by the number of architectural pieces and public monuments Fraser has to his credit. How ironic then that standing tall amongst sculpted American presidents and historic luminaries is a modest five-cent piece, adorned front and back by an American Indian and bison: Fraser’s Buffalo nickel, as timeless a design as any that has graced United States currency, and the model for today’s American Buffalo Gold Coin.
If you’re interested in adding this valuable remnant of U.S. history to your collection, check out the Gold Buffalo in Garfield Refining’s store, and browse our selection of other essential American coinage.