The History of the US Mint’s Buffalo Coins

Posted: 2/11/2013

It’s no secret that 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the beloved Buffalo Nickel. But do you know the history of the coin?

James Earle Fraser’s magnificent design was first issued as a circulating five-cent piece in 1913. So durable is this design that it has since been revived twice. The US Mint’s first tribute came in 2001 as a one-year-only commemorative silver dollar. Since 2006, however, this popular imagery has appeared annually on the Mint’s series of .9999 fine gold bullion coins. The only changes from the original design have been the additions of the statutory motto IN GOD WE TRUST and a statement of the bullion coin’s gold content.

In fact, it was Fraser’s childhood encounters with both Native Americans and bison in his native Minnesota that inspired his creation of the US Mint’s most distinctively American coin. His first designs were submitted in 1911, but another two years would pass before the coin was ready for mass production. Challenges from persons in the vending machine industry, for whom the Liberty Head Nickel was their most fruitful revenue producer, delayed the preparation of working dies while Fraser struggled to comply with their increasingly unreasonable demands. By early 1913 exasperated Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh had heard enough from critics and instructed Mint Director George Roberts: “You will please, therefore, proceed with the coinage of the new nickel.” Presses at the Philadelphia Mint began to crank out millions of pieces beginning February 17 of that year. Dies were shipped to the other mints at Denver and San Francisco, and their coining of the new nickel began shortly afterward.

The new coins were well received in most quarters, though there are always detractors of any changes in our coinage. Still, minting proceeded without interruption until it was pointed out that the words FIVE CENTS were among the very first features to show wear on recently issued pieces. The Treasury was particularly sensitive about the coin’s statement of value, as the first Liberty Head Nickels had lacked these words and were gold plated by con men to pass as five-dollar pieces. Though the public would already be well acquainted with the new Buffalo Nickels before FIVE CENTS wore away, and there little chance of history repeating itself, the order came down to correct this problem. A solution was found in carving away the grassy plain upon which the bison stood and placing these all-important words within a protected exergue. Thus, there were two editions of this handsome coin in 1913, and each was coined at all three mints.

Not commented upon at the time was the fact that the coin’s date was also subject to rapid wear. This problem was partially addressed a few years later with bolder numerals, but this step was simply not enough to prevent millions of Buffalo Nickels from becoming completely dateless within just 15-20 years circulation. Fortunately, this coin type was very popular with collectors from the mid 1930s onward, and many examples with fully or partially readable dates were preserved. Far fewer Mint State coins survive of the early dates, only the 1913 coins having been saved in quantity for their novelty value.




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