In 1911, the Taft administration commissioned Earle Fraser to produce designs to replace the Liberty Head nickel, which had been struck 1883 –1912. The Mint Director at first wanted a design featuring Lincoln, but when Fraser developed a design showing a Native American on one side and a bison on the other, it quickly gained support within the Mint. At the Denver Mint, a worker accidentally created a new variety of the coin. While attempting to remove marks from a reverse die, he removed one of the buffalo’s legs. Thousands of these pieces were struck before the error was discovered, creating the highly sought-after three-legged variety of the Buffalo Nickel.
The Indian portrait obverse was created using three Indian Chiefs as models; thus, although this image does not depict any one individual, it is unmistakably a Native American. One of the Chiefs, Iron Tail, was Custer’s opponent at Little Big Horn.
The buffalo depicted on the reverse was in the NY city zoo, and was named Black Diamond. When Black Diamond’s days were over, he was butchered and sold as Black Diamond Steaks for $2 a pound – a lot in those days. The gangster Diamond Jim Brady offered to buy the head on a “name your price” basis. Mr. Silz, the butcher, refused and later gave it to an employee. That employee’s daughter later displayed the head at the 1985 ANA.
The original version of the coin had the buffalo standing on raised ground with the denomination FIVE CENTS below. Within just a few months it became apparent that the denomination wore away very quickly. In addition, weak strikes were a constant concern. The obvious fix to the denomination wear was to place it in a protected area. This was easily accomplished by placing a raised line above FIVE CENTS to protect against wear. However, Barber could not leave well enough alone. Barber did not appreciate being bypassed in the design stage, and took the opportunity presented to make alterations to the design that were not needed, and indeed were detrimental to the aesthetics of the coin. The fields were flattened, the buffalo’s hide was smoothed, and the Indian lost a lot of its rugged look.
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