After the Liberty Head nickel was discontinued at the end of 1912, the Buffalo nickel (also known as the Indian Head) was released in February 1913. Designed by sculptor James Earl Fraser, it featured the head of a Native American chief with the word “Liberty” on the obverse and a buffalo (American bison) on the reverse.

The profile on the coin’s obverse is actually a composite of Cheyenne chief Two Moons, Kiowa leader John Big Tree, and Lakota chief Iron Tail, who rode against Custer during the general’s famous last stand. It was only the second time a coin would feature a Native American on either of its sides—the first depiction occurred in 1908 on gold Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles, which are also known as Indian Heads. The next coin to honor a Native American would not appear until 2000 with the Sacagawea dollar.

While the profile of the chief remained relatively consistent throughout the coin’s run until 1938, the coin’s reverse underwent numerous changes. For example, when the coin was first minted in 1913, the buffalo, whose likeness was based on a Central Park Zoo animal named Black Diamond, was depicted standing on a mound. It quickly became clear to mint officials, though, that the relief on this Raised Ground variety, as it is known, was too high, and that the words “FIVE CENTS” were destined to wear off quickly.

So, that same year, mint engraver Charles E. Barber took it upon himself to correct this oversight, placing the bison on a Straight Ground above a recess created for the name of the coin’s denomination. Much to the dismay of some contemporary coin experts, Barber also fussed with the animal’s hide and the chief’s face and feathers, removing details to give the images a more polished, if less realistic and gritty, appearance.

Another change to the buffalo occurred in 1937, when a production error at the Denver mint (a die was repaired incorrectly) caused a small-but-unknown number of nickels to be released into circulation with three-legged animals on their reverse. These 3-Legged coins, as they are called, are among the most collected by Buffalo nickel enthusiasts, though they are not as rare, or expensive, as coins from the same mint in the previous year, when the beasts on even fewer coins appear to have 3 1/2 legs.

Because of their size and thickness, Buffalo nickels were carved into Hobo Nickels, a form of American folk art in which artisans modified the pictures on the coins. For example, the Indian Chief’s head might be altered to depict a man wearing a hat, or the buffalo may be turned into a steam train. In most of these coins, a few remnants of the original coin are left intact—for example, the coin’s date and the word “LIBERTY” on the obverse.

In 1938, the U.S. Treasury launched a competition to replace the coin’s 19th-century imagery with icons of the 18th, namely, a portrait of Thomas Jefferson and his home at Monticello. Though they, too, have undergone numerous redesigns, Jefferson nickels remain in circulation to this day.

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Original Hobo Nickel Society

The Original Hobo Nickel Society

Founded in 1992, The Original Hobo Nickel Society is mostly devoted to folk art derived from Indian Head or Buffalo… [read review or visit site]

Legendary Coins and Currency

Legendary Coins and Currency

This online exhibition from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is a great way to get an overview… [read review or visit site]

Society of U.S. Pattern Collectors

Society of U.S. Pattern Collectors

Home to the Society of U.S. Pattern collectors, this well-organized site provides in-depth information on pattern c… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1914 S Pcgs Ms64 Cac Colorful Toned Better Date Full Struck Buffalo Nickel1929 S Pcgs Ms64 Cac Colorful Toned Well Struck Buffalo NickelBuffalo Nickel Partial Set Lot 56 Coins 1924-s Error Lamination Before Strike?1937-d Buffalo 5 Cents - 3 Legged - Outstanding Uncirculated Rare This Nice!!Key Date 1913 S Type 2 Buffalo Nickel Full Detail Nice Original W/ 1/2 Full Horn1923 Pcgs Ms65 Gem Original Lightly Toned Full Struck Buffalo NickelPcgs Pr65 1914 Proof Buffalo Nickel Cac Old Green Holder Toned Ogh 5c1935 Pcgs Ms66 Gem Original Buffalo Nickel1930 Pcgs Ms66 Gem Original Buffalo Nickel1,000 Buffalo Nickels Complete Dates!1913 D Type 2 Buffalo Nickel Key Date Full Detail Nice Original W/ 1/2 Full HornAlmost Complete Buffalo Nickel Set (1913-1938) Only Missing 31913-38 P,d,s, Buffalo Nickle Set "circ-xf" *$3 Face* *free S/h After 1st Item*1937-d 3 Legs Buffalo Nickel Au Details Ngc. Read!!1917-s Buffalo Nickel, Tougher Date! ** Free Shipping!1913-s 5c Type 2 Buffalo Nickel Fine Problem Free Very Low Mintage No Reserve1915 Buffalo Nickel, Super Tough This Nice! ** Beautiful Better Date!Complete Buffalo Nickel Set (1913-1938) In A 'library Of Coins Album' 1915-s Buffalo Nickel Free ShippingBuffalo Nickels 1913 Var. 1, 1913 Var 2, 1913-d, 1916-d, 1917 1918 1918-s 1924-s1937 D Buffalo Nickel Xf 45 Pcgs 3 Legs1916 Double Die Buffalo Nickel Ddo - Graded Anacs Die 1 - Rare Net Fair 2 Fs-0161913-s Buffalo Nickel "type 1" - Nice Old Type Coin - Full Horn - Xf1914/3 Buffalo Nickel - Rare Variety - Bold Overdate - Choice Au - Full Horn1913 Buffalo Nickel, Type 1, Beautiful First Year Issue! ** Free Shipping!1928-p Buffalo Indian Head Nickel Ngc Ms-63 5c Mint State Coin1913-s Type 1 Buffalo Nickel, Full Date, 3/4 Horn, Fine1921 S Buffalo Nickel Nice Original Semi Key Date1919 Buffalo Nickel Free S/h!1913-s 5c Type 2 Buffalo NickelHuge Dealer Lot Of 200 Better & Key Date Buffalo Nickels 5c All Legible Dates1914-d Buffalo Nickel Free S/h!!!Buffalo Nickel Lot. 5 Rolls + 25 Coins1913-s Buffalo Nickel, Type 1, Doubled Profile, ** Free Shipping!1930 Buffalo Nickel Uncirculated * Free Shipping *1913-d T2 Buffalo Nickel Free S/h!!!1913-s Buffalo Nickel Type 1 Au / Details - Cleaned *no Reserve!1913 Type 2 Buffalo Nickel Pcgs Ms66 Lightly Toned ~colorful Toning~ Gem Mint1921-s Pcgs Vf30 Buffalo Nickel (e216)1926-s 5c Buffalo Nickel Vf30 Pcgs1913 S Type 1 Pcgs Ms63 Buffalo Nickel1913-s Type 2 The Key Date! Buffalo NickelUnited States 5 Cents "buffalo Nickel" 1938-d/d Pcgs Ms 66 Km#1341921-s Buffalo Nickel, Scarce Date! ** Free Shipping!1915-d Buffalo Indian Head Nickel Ngc Vf-30 5c Very Fine Denver Mint Coin1915 Buffalo Nickel, Five Cents, Full Horn Gem!! Estate Lot Type Coin CollectionLot Of (20) 1913 Type 1 And 1924 S Buffalo Nickels, Tougher Dates 5c, Nice Group1934 5c Buffalo Nickel Pcgs Certified Ms64Hobo Nickel-scrooge - Bah Humbug -1937 Buffalo Nickel-full Horn-carving-folk Art1916-d Buffalo Nickel ** Free Shipping!1914-p Buffalo Nickel Xf Full HornSet Of Buffalo Nickels 1934 To 1938 (12 Coins).. Au/bu49 Partial-full Date Buffalo Nickels In 1913-1938 Deluxe Whitman Album Id# Y4161918 D Buffalo Nickel Au1931 S Buffalo Nickel San Francisco Icg Au50 Details 5c Z901917-d Buffalo Nickel With Full Horn - Vf+1 Roll Of 40 Buffalo Nickel's Pds33 Piece Buffalo Nickel Collection In A Book Free S/h!!!1913 Buffalo 5 Cents Type-2 Exceptional Uncirculated1920-s Buffalo 5 Cents Nice Uncirculated