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Fraser's Wild West Coin
By Tom LaMare

I Love westerns—TV series and movies. So it probably comes as no surprise I consider the Buffalo nickel the most beautiful U.S. coin. If Hollywood had wanted to issue its own Wild West coin, it couldn’t have come up with anything better than the Buffalo nickel.

That isn’t exactly what sculptor James Earle Fraser had in mind when he designed the nickel. He decided on Indian head and buffalo designs because they were “purely American” symbols. They were supposed to represent liberty, even if many Indians were living on reservations and the buffalo or American bison was nearly extinct.

The first Buffalo nickels were released in 1913. Movie theater patrons handed over more than 6 billion nickels that year.

Several motion picture Indians claimed to be the model for the nickel. One of them was Chief John Big Tree, who appeared in many movies, including “Red Fork Range,” released in 1931. A press release said:

“Chief Big Tree, who posed for the Indian profile used by the U.S. Government on the Buffalo nickel, appears in a prominent role in Big 4’s ‘Red Fork Range.’

“He has an imposing presence, standing over six feet five, and speaks English in his own peculiar way.

“’Shoot-a-nickel’ was the order in vogue on the lot during the scenes in which this actor appeared, insofar as ‘shoot’ is the director’s order—in movie parlance—for the cameraman to start grinding his camera in order to film the scene under rehearsal.

“Wally Wales stars in the production, with Ruth Mix appearing opposite. Alvin J. Neitz directed.” A photo with the write-up showed Big Tree wearing a headdress. The caption read, “When Uncle Sam needed an Indian head for his Buffalo nickel, he used Chief Big Tree—a perfect example of a sure-nuff Indian. The Chief is a heap-good actor as well!”

Big Tree also had a role in “Drums Along the Mohawk” in 1939, but he was not the Indian on the nickel. The story about the actual models and the false claimants is so involved I won’t go into it any more here, except to say the portrait was a composite.

Like the motion picture industry, the government knew the value of public relations. On Feb. 22, 1913, President William Howard Taft and 33 Indian chiefs were presented samples from the first bag of Buffalo nickels to go into circulation. The New York Times said the chiefs, standing in drizzling rain, took the coins in hand and stared at them curiously.

It happened during ground-breaking ceremonies for the National Memorial to the American Indian at Fort Wadsworth, N.Y. The ambitious project was never completed, and no trace of it remains today. But the Buffalo nickel is still around and admired as possibly the greatest U.S. coin design, just as it has been for nearly a century.

Momentum

The Buffalo nickel was a long time coming, and not everyone wanted to see it happen. As early as 1899, a letter published in the New York Times urged the use of designs other than a Liberty Head and “V” on the nickel.

For most people, the question was all about art. In July 1912, the Christian Science Monitor said the Liberty Head nickel did not coincide with the Treasury Department’s conception of art. The newspaper reported the Treasury secretary had decided to replace the Goddess of Liberty with the “head of an Indian.” No mention was made of the buffalo on the other side.

The same month, the Daughters of the American Revolution issued a statement opposing the replacement of the Goddess of Liberty on the nickel, saying it would be a “blow to patriotism.”

Instead, Belva Lockwood, head of the organization, suggested busts of presidents be used on coins. But government officials were not swayed, and they went ahead with plans for the Buffalo nickel. Mint Director George Roberts approved plaster models of the Buffalo nickel designs in June 1912.

Immensely Beautiful

People expected a lot from the Buffalo nickel. Maybe too much. Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh tried to lower expectations a little while promising the new nickel would be worth the wait.

“A new five-cent piece will shortly be issued with designs that will again assist the art standards of our coinage,” MacVeagh wrote in his annual report. “Coins have always aimed to be works of art, both in ancient and modern times. We do not hope, under present conditions, to equal the coins of the great ancient periods. The artists then had a far greater opportunity, because the coins did not have to be stacked. Notwithstanding our practical limitations, however, modern coins can still be immensely interesting and beautiful, and the designs for the new nickel will give this coin a place with the best modern work.”

Art in Miniature

Unlike many other coins, the Buffalo nickel was more than a piece of change—it was a miniature sculpture with bold images and rough-hewn surfaces.

“New nickels of an entirely different design than the present piece will make their appearance in Cedar Rapids within a few weeks, the Feb. 10, 1913, issue of The (Cedar Rapids) Evening Gazette reported. They are called the Buffalo nickel and have a buffalo figure on one side and an Indian’s Head on the obverse.

“The Buffalo nickel is a work of art in miniature, designed by the distinguished artist J.E. Fraser of New York. On the obverse side is the head of a Cheyenne chief without the war bonnet but with a feather arranged in his plaited hair.”

An editorial in the Chicago Tribune called the Buffalo nickel an artistic coin—one that could never be mistaken for anything else.

The March 14, 1913, issue of The Fort Wayne Sentinel said the general opinion of the press was the new nickel was an improvement over the old one and was “an example of the designer’s highest art.”

One Outstanding Truth

Even self-proclaimed experts who engaged in nitpicking had to admit the Buffalo nickel had many positive qualities.

“The advent of a new coin is always of absorbing interest to the community for which it is issued, the American Journal of Numismatics said in 1913. “This is the case not only because it is to be of general and popular use, and should appeal to the many who are to handle it, but also because of less commendable considerations.

“The interest of connoisseurs is of course aroused, for many reasons—chief among them an honest concern for the artistic treatment of the coin.

“There was nothing of the usual lacking in the reception of the new five-cent piece in the early months of the past year. The foolish criticisms, the customary canards, the old established greetings of a new coin, were all in evidence.

“It may not have been wise to place a type on each side of the small piece. A simpler reverse might have been better. The Indian head and the buffalo may be too softly modeled for coin types. Perhaps inscriptions have been sacrificed to the types, so that the former are too small and the latter too large for the size of the field.

“But with all the faults that may be alleged against the new piece, one outstanding truth remains, that Mr. Fraser’s designs are works of art, powerfully modelled, and strong.”

Radically Different

Most critics loved the Buffalo nickel, but there were a few dissenting voices. Photographs of the obverse and reverse appeared in the March 1913 issue of The Numismatist, with the following commentary:

“Through the courtesy of the Hon. George E. Roberts, Director of the United States Mint, we are enabled to show in this number a reproduction of the new five-cent piece, which is now being coined at the Mint. It was intended to issue this coin early in February, but it was not until Feb. 17 that regular coinage started, when one press began producing them at the rate of 120 per minute.

“The design is radically different from that of any five-cent piece that has ever been issued at the Mint, and is slightly concave on both sides, somewhat like the present ten and twenty-dollar pieces. Directly under the figure ‘3’ of the date 1913 on the obverse is the letter ‘F’ for the designer of the piece, James Earle Fraser of New York City. It is said that Mr. Fraser took as a model an Indian of the Cheyenne tribe who recently visited New York City. The bison was modeled after a specimen in the New York Zoological Garden.

“Mr. Fraser, the designer, is reported as saying that the capital ‘F’ below the date has met with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, the Director of the Mint, and also the National Art Commission.

“Already, it is said, the presence of this tiny letter has aroused a certain amount of criticism, similar to that which greeted the appearance of the letters ‘V.D.B.’ on the Lincoln cent, which resulted in their removal, doing an injustice to Mr. Brenner, its designer, and violating all precedents.

“It is to be regretted that the new coin does not show much more finished die work, which could easily have been accomplished. We are inclined to think that the rough finish of the design will encourage counterfeiters, whose handicraft need not now fear comparison which it has met in the past with the ordinarily delicate and finished Mint issues.

“The new piece certainly has radically changed the old-time tradition that Columbia is our best representation of ‘liberty.’ In view of the rather restricted character of both the Indian and the buffalo today, it is an open question whether either is a good symbol of ‘liberty.’ Saint-Gaudens, in an interview, once stated that his conception of a symbol of liberty was that of ‘a leaping boy.’

“We still prefer Miss Columbia as the proper representation of freedom and regret that she does not appear on the new five-cent piece. We have no doubt that the original enlarged model of this design was of handsome character, but that it would not allow for the great reduction to the size of a five-cent piece is quite apparent.

“From an artistic point of view, no doubt, the design is all that it should be. But there is another element to be considered in the making of a coin design, and that is the one of practicability. For instance, the date and the motto are in such obscure figures and letters that the slightest wear will obliterate them beyond understanding.

“Altogether the new design emphasizes the absolute necessity of the appointment of a proper committee to pass upon new coin designs. Such a committee should be composed of sculptors, numismatists and die-engravers. One of this committee should be the Chief Engraver of the Mint. It will not be until the appointment of such a committee that we may expect to see a coin that will embody all the proper requisites.”

Infamous

When the first Buffalo nickels were released, the New York Times referred to the reverse as having a “counterfeit presentment” of a bison. It was a commentary on the artistic quality of the design, but it also foreshadowed the arrival of phony Buffalo nickels.

“The prediction of numismatic experts that the lead-like appearance of the new nickel, because of the rough surface, would make easy the counterfeiting of it, is already being fulfilled,” the May 1913 issue of The Numismatist reported.

“From Philadelphia comes the report that the slot machines [vending machines] in that city are being flooded with counterfeits. As the danger of getting bogus coins increases, popular objection to the new nickel will be still more pronounced, and may become so strong as to force, before the year ends, some alteration in the design that will make it conform more satisfactorily with what is of practical necessity in the case of a piece of money of so wide a circulation as the nickel.”

Antonio de Girolano, Gennaro Biondi and Paolo Pontonieri were charged with being the first to counterfeit the Buffalo nickel. Secret Service agent John Henry arrested them in a New York City tenement house and seized bogus nickels and counterfeiting equipment.

Revision

A problem with the Buffalo nickel design soon became apparent. “The incused field and raised edge are doubtless intended to prevent the coin from wearing away,” Spink’s Numismatic Circular, a British publication, said. “Experienced numismatists may be pardoned, however, in feeling somewhat skeptical of this ‘Yankee notion,’ particularly as the pieces which have found their way into circulation are by no means clear and sharp in their inscriptions or in the details of the type.

“Possibly this may be due to imperfect striking, which would only make matters worse. But the prominent relief in which the figure of the bison, as well as the ground he is supposed to be standing on, no less than the other extreme of the unnecessarily low relief of the chief’s bust, are not conducive to withstand a very great degree of friction.”

On May 12, 1913, Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo ordered a “slight change” in the Buffalo nickel design. The words “FIVE CENTS” were to be more clearly defined and in higher relief. According to a newspaper article, McAdoo had decided the words were too faintly impressed and would easily wear off in circulation.

Collectors refer to the original design as the Variety 1 Buffalo nickel, and the revised version as the Variety 2. On the Variety 1 nickel, the Buffalo stands on a mound. On the Variety 2 nickel, the Buffalo stands on a plain, above a recessed area bearing the inscription “FIVE CENTS.”

In 1914, Texas coin dealer B. Max Mehl made a prediction in Mehl’s Numismatic Monthly: “The future recorder of minor varieties will find a subject in the first year’s mintage of the Buffalo/Indian five-cent piece. A comparison of the first emission with those of later months shows improvements in sharpness of inscription, the words ‘Five Cents’ being particularly more distinct.”

Recall Rumor

The announcement of the design modification led to rumors of a Buffalo nickel recall. “The Buffalo Nickel Is To Be Recalled,” said the headline in the May 20, 1913, issue of The Evening News. The story added, “Announcement has been made by Secretary McAdoo in Washington that no more of the Buffalo nickels are to be put out by the Mint, and those outstanding will be gradually called in from circulation.”

But The Numismatist set the record straight:

“Possibly, as we have stated, there may be a change in the design of the new coin. There can be nothing, however, in the story going the rounds that the Government will ‘recall’ the coins already issued. The Government cannot repudiate them, nor can it get possession of hundreds of thousands of them already in circulation to destroy them. It can only change the design and issue new coins of that design to circulate with the others, as was done in 1883, when the five-cent piece with the word ‘cents’ was issued instead of the piece without ‘cents.’”

Inflation

A nickel used to buy a lot of things, but the list was beginning to shrink in the early years of the Buffalo nickel. In 1918 the Hartford Courant said the Buffalo nickel was becoming less popular and useful every day. The newspaper forecasted the Buffalo nickel would be replaced by a six-cent coin, but it never happened. The Buffalo nickel remained in production another 20 years.

End of the Trail

Work of art or not, the Buffalo nickel was difficult to strike, and the date did not hold up well in circulation. After 25 years—the minimum statutory life of a coin design without special action by Congress—the Buffalo nickel gave way to the Jefferson nickel. The last Buffalo nickel was struck on April 9, 1938, at the Denver Mint.

No one seemed to mind at the time. All eyes were focused on the Jefferson nickel, and little was said about the passing of the Buffalo nickel. Not a single complaint was heard from an Indian reservation or any Indian organization.

The Buffalo nickel had made a big splash in 1913. But striking problems and poor wearability tarnished its image and shortened its life. Buffalo nickels lingered in circulation into the 1950s and 1960s, when the popularity of TV and movie westerns helped make them a collector favorite. Hobbyists had finally figured it out—a coin album or folder made the best frame for Fraser’s masterpiece.

 



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