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.

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The Original Hobo Nickel Society

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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]

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