Minted from 1913 to 1938, the Buffalo nickel (also called the Indian Head Nickel) was designed to be a truly American coin, one that could not be mistaken for belonging to any other country. The reverse features a profile view of the American Buffalo. The model for the buffalo was a bull named Black Diamond, who resided at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. On the obverse of the coin is the right facing, profile view of a Native American warrior with braided hair and a ribbon. While no doubt an image that represents the history of America, who was the man used as the model for this coin?
The coins were first put into circulation on February 22, 1913 at a groundbreaking ceremony for the National American Indian Memorial that was slated to be built on Staten Island in New York. After dismal fund raising efforts led by well known retailer Rodman Wanamaker, the project was soon scraped and the memorial was never built.
Shortly after the coin’s release, both coin enthusiasts and the general public began speculating about the identity of the Native American man featured on this coin. Over the years, several names have circulated and a few have even taken credit for being the man on this iconic coin. Here are several theories:
Creator of the design, James Earle Fraser, a well known sculptor, wrote to the mint in 1913 stating that he had done several portraits of Native Americans in his time, including Chief Iron Tail, a Sioux, and Chief Two Moons, a Cheyenne. He called Iron Tail “the best Indian head I can remember”, but stated that his purpose was to make a type, not a portrait. Iron tail spent many years traveling with the Wild West Show, claiming to be the the model for the coin. Over the years, Fraser also named several other Native Americans that he said served as inspiration.
Early on and up until 1931, Two Guns White Calf, of the Blackfoot tribe began claiming he was the model used for the coin. Although Fraser denied it, he did say that a great number of artists had used his “magnificent head” as a model for both sculptures and portraits.
Perhaps the most famous and well known claimant, was an actor named John Big Tree, a Seneca. Although there were many inconsistencies in his story, he stood by his claim, even appearing on TV and various other public events as the “nickel Indian” until his death in 1967.
Whether a composite, or a portrait of a real person, there is no doubt that this coin is a very iconic piece of American history. Over 1.2 billion were minted between it’s debut in 1913 and its demise in 1938 (check back to find out why we used the word demise, in part two of our series on Buffalo nickels). Although we may never know the real story of whose image was used, one thing is for sure: The buffalo nickel itself saw a lot of use in its day, purchasing items such as a loaf of bread or a cup of coffee. My how times have changed!