The Buffalo Nickel: A Deep Dive into America's Iconic Coinage

The Buffalo Nickel: A Deep Dive into America's Iconic Coinage
Posted on April 05, 2024 by BOLD Precious Metals

Welcome to the fascinating world of the Buffalo Nickel, a coin that broke convention by showing the strong bison rather than the customary eagle. This famous coin, sometimes referred to as the Indian Head Nickel, is unique in the annals of American numismatics.

Were you aware that the Buffalo Nickel was the first American coin to feature an animal other than an eagle?

Sculptor James Earle Fraser designed it in 1912 as a tribute to the American Indian and the bison's significant role in Native American culture.

Native American tribes on the Great Plains depended heavily on the bison, also known as the buffalo. They held the bison in high regard due to its spiritual ties, cultural significance, and ability to provide food. But by 1900, the number of bison had dropped from millions to just a few hundred due to overhunting and other causes.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, attempts to rebuild bison populations are still underway, underscoring the persistence and significance of this magnificent animal. The coin, which was minted from 1913 until 1938, is proof of this lasting heritage.

Come along as we explore the fascinating history, elaborate design, and enduring influence of the Buffalo Nickel—a coin that conveys a deeper cultural narrative in addition to having numismatic significance.

    History and Design

Artist James Earle Fraser sculptured Buffalo Nickel, the five-cent coin of the United States Minted in 1912. It was part of the Mint's overall aim to make American currency attractive, resulting in a buffalo on one side and a lifelike portrait of the Native American face on the other.

On February 22, 1913, exactly one year after the United States entered the World War of 1912, the first nickels bearing a design of a buffalo made its debut at the National American Indian Memorial significant ceremonies in Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, and New York City.

For this particular coin, the coins were minted by Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mint production facilities.

The approval process for the design was delayed for several months in 1912 by the company's arguments with the Hobbs manufacturer. Yet the officials made attempts to improve the designs of the coins, but these ended up with a worn appearance and indistinct strikes.

Normally, the date was the earliest erased part on a nickel that was being mended; it was located on a protruded portion at the bottom of the Indian's face.

The coin was produced mandatorily from 1913 to 1938. On its 25th anniversary in 1938, the Mint, which was no longer producing the Standing Liberty coin, placed the Jefferson nickel in circulation instead.


The figure on the back of the coin was based on Black Diamond, an American bison living at the Central Park Zoo. The bison is depicted standing on a raised mound, with the words "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" and "E PLURIBUS UNUM" positioned above it. The phrase "FIVE CENTS" is located on a mound beneath the American bison.

The front of the coin shows the side profile of a Native American facing to the right. The term "LIBERTY" is inscribed in small letters at the upper-right corner, and the date is shown at the lower left. Note the intricate texture of the feathers and the man's prominent cheekbones.

Three distinct American Indians are thought to have served as the models for the Native American image on the coin's obverse. Before he passed away, the designer gave the names of two American Indians who served as models for Fraser while he created the coin. They were Chief Two Moons of the Cheyenne and Chief Iron Tail of the Lakota Sioux.

Despite the fact that many people have claimed to have sat with Fraser for this design, he was unable to remember the identity of the third person, and adequate evidence has not yet been discovered to identify them. In broader terms, it is believed to be a blend of all three natives rather than just one!

Buffalo Nickel's Creator: The Artistry of James Earle Fraser

The designer and sculptor of the Buffalo Nickel, James Earle Fraser, was born in Minnesota on the 4th of November 1876. His father was a railroad engineer, and he participated in marking where the Seventh Cavalry's bodies were from the Battle of Little Big Horn.

The fact that Fraser has lived for some time in America and has been exposed to Native Americans has shaped his style of work to the next level. He was a promising talent who represented his sculpting talents at the Art Institute in Chicago as a young student and thus was awarded a chance to study further. Last but not least, he got engaged in the creation of monumental artworks together with a famous sculptor Richard Bock.

The Mint sought to improve the appearance of American coinage, and in 1912, James Earl Fraser created the Five Cent Indian Head coin. This distinctive coin deviated from the conventional Lady Liberty design, showcasing a lifelike image of a Native American and a bison on the back.

    Minting History

The Buffalo Nickel—also known as the Indian Head Nickel—was struck from 1913 until 1938. The first coins were issued at the National American Indian Memorial's groundbreaking ceremony on February 22, 1913. The Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints produced them.

It was first released in American coinage during a transitional period characterized by a move toward designs that were more artistic and culturally significant. However, because of problems with its design, the coin had difficulties in its early years. The design's high relief made striking difficult, which accelerated wear and made stacking challenging.

There was no mound beneath the buffalo on the reverse in 1913, the first year of minting. This design flaw was soon noticed because the word "FIVE CENTS" wore down quickly. The following year, a raised mound was added to protect this inscription.

The coin experienced numerous compositional and design adjustments during its minting. This coin came to an end when it was replaced in 1938 by the Jefferson Nickel, which had an entirely different composition and design.

The coin is still a beloved and iconic coin among collectors and enthusiasts despite its comparatively short mintage period. Numismatists are enthralled with its distinctive design and historical significance, rendering it a treasured specimen of American coinage history.

New animals and buffalo were added to the 50 State Quarters Program in 1999.

    Buffalo Nickels – Key Dates & Varieties

The coin's design holds a rich history and great significance in the US, making it highly valued among collectors. Certain key dates of these coins add to their rarity and overall value.

  1. 1913-S Buffalo Nickel, Type 1

    Just 2,105,000 of the San Francisco Mint's Type I coins were produced. Many are well-worn, and the denomination is unreadable due to the design. Out of the three Type I coins, it is the rarest. However, on the open market, 1913 TYPE 1 Nickels in pristine, uncirculated condition sell for as much as $27,500.

  2. 1913-D Buffalo Nickel, Type II

    The coin with a semi-key date is the 1913-D Type 2. Compared to the 1913-D Type 1, notably fewer of them were reserved by collectors and speculators. This type 2 coin in uncirculated and pristine condition is worth around $35,000.

  3. 1913-S Buffalo Nickel, Type II

    With a mintage of just 1,209,000, the 1913 S Type 2 is an extremely rare coin. James Earle Fraser created both of its designs, and it was struck in San Francisco. The bottom of the reverse of the Type II has been redesigned, and the buffalo, which was originally standing on raised ground, is now on a line or plane. This rare coin in uncirculated condition can sell for $40,000 on the open market.

  4. 1914 Buffalo Nickel 4 Over 3

    The 1914 4 Over 3 represents a type of Indian Head where a 4 is struck over a faint 3 in the date. This coin is valued at approximately $400 in circulated conditions. The worth of the coin is influenced by the clarity of the doubling, with FS-101 (formerly FS-014.87) being the most sought-after and commanding a higher premium. Other overdates that are less discernible command smaller premiums.

  5. 1914-D Buffalo Nickel

    A 1914-D in circulation is valued between $45 and $425 as of March 2024, while an uncirculated one can fetch as much as $27,500. The grade of the coin is established by its kind and condition.

  6. 1916/1916 Doubled Die Obverse

    The date on this rare coin is strongly doubled. Frequently, the overdate is visible without the need for magnification, particularly on higher-grade coins. Even heavily used examples fetch several thousand dollars, and examples in mint condition fetch upwards of $60,000.

  7. 1918/7-D Buffalo Nickel

    1918/7-D With the exception of a few more recently found varieties, this coin is the rarest coin in the series. Two hubs from 1917 and 1918 were impressed onto a single working die to create it. The coin features a crisp strike and a light golden-gray patina.

  8. 1918-D Buffalo Nickel

    With the exception of a few more recent variations, the 1918-D is the rarest coin in the series. The 1918-D 8 over 7 type has a potential market value of $37,000 to $350,750. It weighs 5 grams, has a diameter of 21.2 mm, and is composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel.

    Factors Deciding How Much Is a Buffalo Nickel Value

Coins stamped at every US Mint location can be recognized by their mintmarks. The value of your nickel can vary significantly depending on whether it has a mintmark or not. They are typically listed in the coin's description and can be found on the coin itself. Philadelphia is probably where it was minted if it is written without a mintmark. The value of your coin can be significantly impacted by mintmarks that align with unusual dates.

Mint Mark:

The mint mark is situated directly beneath the denomination "FIVE CENTS" on the reverse of the coin. The US Mint used three distinct facilities, Denver (D), San Francisco (S), and Philadelphia (no mint mark), to produce them.


Old coins in pristine condition can fetch great value. Coins in mint condition have a higher value than their face value.

Supply and Demand:

The relationship between a coin's supply and demand determines its value. The demand for rare coins is high, and the supply is low, which results in higher Buffalo Nickel value.

    Buffalo Nickel (1913-1938) Value

Buffalo Nickel Value

The coin is a highly sought-after collectible item these days. Some collectors will go to tremendous lengths to obtain these coins because they find it difficult to assemble a complete set. As hard as it is to assemble a complete set of these coins, it can be just as challenging to locate some of the coins in excellent condition.

Collectors appreciate these coins, which increase their value in the best possible condition. Regretfully, due to their extreme age, these coins are frequently fairly worn.

Age and condition are the two factors you need to consider when assigning a value to this coin. Of course, an older coin is preferable, but age in and of itself has no significance. You have a highly valued coin if you happen to possess one that was made in the initial years and is in excellent shape.


The value of a nickel is largely determined by its condition, and a strict coin grading system is utilized. The coin grades are as follows:

Poor (PO-1): Also known as Basal State, these coins are hardly identifiable and often have noteworthy parts of the design and/or date missing.

Fair (FR-2): Necessary parts of the date should be observable to identify the coin, although the lettering may be completely worn away, and the images are hardly visible.

About Good (AG-3): Also known as "Almost Good," most of the coin's design is outlined; however, the rims have worn far enough into the design to erase parts of the lettering.

Good (G-4, 6): The general design of the coin is outlined, but some parts are weak. Despite non-collectors often describing their coins as being in "Good" condition, these are still heavily worn coins.

Fine (F-12, 15): All seven letters of the word LIBERTY should be visible with minor wear and tear on the coin.

Very Fine (VF-20, 25, 30, 35): All main features are visible, and the coin shows medium to light wear. All seven letters of the word LIBERTY are clearly visible.

Extremely Fine (XF-40, 45): There might be some remnants of mint luster, but the coin has light wear overall.

About Uncirculated (AU-50, 53, 55, 58): Extremely light wear with just a hint of friction on the highest points.

These grading levels are intended as general guidelines, but criteria can differ between types and often by year.


In summary, the Buffalo Nickel value continues to represent the diversity of American culture and the development of American coinage. Its striking design, which pays homage to Native American heritage while portraying the formidable bison, captures the essence of an important and resilient tale. This famous coin's legacy lives on as collectors and enthusiasts cherish it, serving as a constant reminder of the value of artistry and history in our money.

Between 1913 and 1938, this coin underwent a period of artistic innovation and transition in American numismatics, leaving a lasting impression on coin collectors worldwide. For those who are enthralled by the complex tales interwoven into each piece of currency, its rarity, historical significance, and distinctive design elements make it a valued possession.

If you want to add this historical legacy to your collection and portfolio, BOLD offers a wide range of silver buffalo rounds in various sizes and gold buffalo coins at the lowest prices. Expand your collection and investing portfolio by honoring American heritage with BOLD today!

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