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Buffalo Nickel (1913-1938)

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Buffalo Nickel (1913-1938): A Brief History

Designed by famed sculptor James E. Fraser, the Buffalo nickel (or Indian Head nickel) is considered the most uniquely American coin.

Why is it called a Buffalo Nickel?

The Indian Head nickel is more commonly referred to as a Buffalo nickel. Even though the coin is known as a buffalo nickel, the creature on the reverse of the coin is actually an American Bison. The term buffalo is a misnomer for bison, dating back to early American settlers.

Buffalo Nickel Varieties

First minted in 1913, there were two distinct varieties of Buffalo nickels that year. The first variety had “five cents” inscribed on a mound below the bison on the reverse. Unfortunately, this design caused that area on the coin wear down faster; therefore, the reverse was redesigned to the second variety, which had the “five cents” struck on a recessed area below the bison. Another well-known error variety is the 1937 D 3-Legged Buffalo.

Models for the Buffalo Nickel

Three different Native Americans were referenced for James Earl Fraser’s Buffalo nickel obverse design. The “buffalo” that appears on the reverse of the nickel was supposedly modeled after “Black Diamond”, a bison from the New York Central Park Zoo.

American Buffalo Bullion

The Buffalo nickel design was repurposed for the first .9999 fine gold bullion coins made by the U.S. Mint. 

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