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Denver Coins --> United States Coins --> United State Nickel --> Indian Head Nickel / Buffalo Nickel

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- Indian Head nickel -

The Indian Head nickel, sometimes known as the buffalo nickel or the bison nickel because of the animal displayed on the reverse, was an American nickel five-cent piece minted from 1913 to 1938. It was designed by sculptor James Earle Fraser. The Indian Head nickel was replaced by the Jefferson nickel in 1938.

Design history

Iron Tail, an Oglala Sioux chief who was one of the models for the Indian Head nickel - Sarasota History Center

Two Moons, a Cheyenne chief who was one of the models for the Indian Head nickel
Big Tree, Addoeette, a Kiowa chief who was one of the models for the Indian Head nickel

The Liberty Head nickel design had been introduced in 1883 by Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber. In the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt had embarked upon a campaign to change the designs of U.S. coins, most of which had been designed by Barber. Roosevelt considered Barber's coins ugly and preferred ancient Greek designs, which incorporated high relief. During his administration, Roosevelt had the old double eagle replaced with a new design by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, but most of the minor coinage was not altered. In 1911, Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh, who had worked with Roosevelt in the past and agreed with his opinions on U.S. coin designs, hired James Earle Fraser to design a new nickel.

Fraser featured a profile of a Native American on the obverse of the coin, which was a composite portrait of three Native Americans: Iron Tail, an Oglala Sioux chief, Two Moons, a Cheyenne chief, and Big Tree, a Kiowa chief.

A member of the Seneca Nation, John Big Tree, claimed his profile was used to create that portion of the portrait from the top of the forehead to the upper lip.[1] The sculptor is reported to have said, however, that another Chief Big Tree, Adoeette or Addoeette, from the Kiowa tribe, was the Big Tree who was one of his models for the coin.

The "buffalo" portrayed on the reverse was an American Bison, possibly Black Diamond, from the Central Park Zoo.

Design changes

Soon after the Indian Head nickel went into circulation, it became apparent that the reverse design was problematic; the "FIVE CENTS" inscription, which was on a raised mound at the bottom of the reverse, was one of the highest spots on the coin and thus, wore away very quickly. As a result, the design was modified by Charles Barber during its first year of production. Barber removed the raised mound and lowered the relief of the inscription so that it would not wear away so quickly, along with making other design changes, [1] however, one problem that was not addressed, was the placement of the date. Similarly to the "FIVE CENTS" in the original design, the date was placed in a relief that exposed it to a great deal of wear. (Another similar problem later would be seen on the Standing Liberty Quarter.)

This issue was never addressed definitively by the Mint, therefore, many Indian Head nickels have their dates partially or completely obliterated through extensive circulation. Some collectors place the coin in a solution of weak acid or even apply acid to the worn area of the coin, in hopes of re-etching the date. Such re-etched Indian Head nickels have very little value as investment collectibles.

A more radical, albeit unofficial, design change for the Indian Head nickel was the advent of the hobo nickel. Enterprising artists would scrape away the original obverse of this coin and modify the Native American, his headdress, or the background to create completely original works of art. Even more ambitious alteration efforts completely eliminated the original design except for a few key features such as the date.

One year before the production of these nickels ended an interesting design variety was produced in 1937, the 1937-D "3-legged" buffalo nickel. The buffalo's right foreleg is missing on this rare error. This was produced when the leg accidentally was ground off in the process of removing undesirable marks from the die. If an uncirculated condition example of this minting error is possessed, it is worth a significant amount of money. Some normal Indian Head nickels have had the front leg ground down as an attempt to mimic the more valuable die error, but these can be distinguished readily by other features present on the "3-legged" buffalo nickel.
Circulation status

Most Indian Head nickels were removed from circulation in the 1950s and 1960s in various degrees of wear, although it was not uncommon, with diligent searching, to find one as late as the early 1980s. Today, any talk of an Indian Head nickel showing up in circulation is notable, as only an estimated 1 in 25,000 nickels in circulation today is an Indian Head nickel. The dates are completely worn off of many of those still circulating.

United States Mint Marks

'D' mint mark
'S' mint mark

Indian Head nickels were minted at the Denver, San Francisco, and Philadelphia mints and either have a 'D', an 'S', or no mint mark (for Philadelphia) on the reverse of the coin below the words FIVE CENTS.

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