On March 4, 1913, coins from the first bag to go into circulation were presented to outgoing President Taft and 33 Indian chiefs at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the National Memorial to the North American Indian at Fort Wadsworth, New York.
James Earle Fraserr, a former assistant to Saint-Gaudens and a prolific artist best known for his monumental “End of the Trail” Indian sculpture, created a truly unique design for the new coin. Up until that time, except for Bela Lyon Pratt‘s quarter and half eagle of 1908, the “Indians” portrayed on U.S. coins were primarily Caucasian with an Indian headress, epitomized by Saint Gauden’s Greek Nike head on the 1907 Indian eagle.
Fraser’s design accurately portrays a male Native American, and the obverse portrait was a composite of three chiefs who had posed for him years earlier. Keeping with the distinctly American theme, he depicted an American bison on the reverse.
The inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and E PLURIBUS UNUM are artfully placed over the buffalo, with the denomination FIVE CENTS below. The legend LIBERTY and the date are similarly well executed on the coin’s obverse. Fraser’s design was medallic and beautiful, and for that reason was favored by Secretary MacVeagh.
Its allure seemed to completely elude Charles Barber, chief engraver of the United States Mint, who complained that the design elements were too large and didn’t allow for the proper placement of inscriptions. Barber didn’t get very far with this, as the design remained unchanged over his objections. Reservations also came from the vending machine industry, whose devices were designed primarily for accepting cents and nickels. Particularly persistent was the Hobbs Manufacturing Company, which marketed a machine for detecting counterfeit coins. Mr. Hobbs was certain that Fraser’s design would not work in his mechanism, and he asked that significant changes be made to the models. After much wrangling over this, Secretary MacVeagh instructed the Mint to proceed with the original design and let the vending machine companies adapt their mechanisms to the coin.
Type 1 nickels, minted only during the first few months of 1913, had the denomination FIVE CENTS on a raised mound. As early as April, rapid wear in this area became evident on the coins in circulation, so Barber finally got his chance to modify Fraser’s design. He cut away the mound, creating an exergue into which the denomination was set. This solved the reverse wear problem, but then he kept going. He smoothed out much of the detail and granularity in both the Indian’s portrait and the bison’s hide. The resulting Type 2 Buffalo Nickel, however, lacked much of the artistic impact of the original.